A SUPERBLY ENAMELLED BLUE-GROUND 'YANGCAI' SGRAFFIATO 'FLORAL' BOWL AND COVER SEAL MARKS AND PERIOD OF QIANLONG
- 9.8 cm, 3 7/8 in.
A sense of the exotic is captured through the feathery scrolls of the floral blooms that extend around the vibrant blue ground in yangcai enamels. These yangcai decorated pieces are characterised by their successful synthesis of traditional Chinese elements with newly acquired Western techniques. Thus they required the highest level of skill and execution and it is not surprising that they are exceedingly rare. As the term yangcai (‘Western colours’) suggests, the palette is inspired by European paintings, which relied heavily on the use of white pigment. The craftsman of the present piece has employed predominantly foreign hues of pastel greens and pinks and placed them against a vivid blue ground previously unseen on Qing porcelain. Yangcai ware was greatly appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor and it was housed primarily in his largest private quarters, the Qianqinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity), located in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, and in the European-style palaces of the Yuanmingyuan. Liao Pao Show, in ‘On Yang-ts’ai Porcelains of the Ch’ien-lung Reign’, Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, p. 36, notes that the production of yangcai porcelain was perfected under Tang after the sixth year of Qianlong, following the Emperor’s complaint that the porcelains made in the first six years of his reign were of significantly lower quality than those from the previous Yongzheng period. As a result, sixty-nine pieces of yangcai porcelain are recorded as having been presented to the Qianlong Emperor in the eighth month of the seventh year of his reign (corresponding to 1741).
This bowl is further embellished with incised curling fronds in the sgraffiato technique. Commonly known as jinshangtianhua (‘adding decorative pattern onto brocades’), the development of this laborious needle-point etching technique is also attributed to Tang Ying. Such rich decoration, coupled with the harmonious spacing of the floral scroll, is reminiscent of French rococo textiles, specimens of which would have entered the court through Jesuit missionaries and merchants in Guangdong and catered perfectly to the Qianlong Emperor’s predilection for the opulent. A vase similarly decorated to the present bowl, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is included in the Museum’s exhibition, ibid., cat. no. 41.
The form of this piece, with its cover that sits inside the rim of the bowl, appears to have been favoured in the early eighteenth century. It allowed the tea leaves to be caught against the edge of the cover when the tea was sipped with the cover carefully held in place using the ring knop. The Qianlong Emperor was a fervent tea enthusiast, composing more than 200 poems expressing his appreciation of tea culture as well as the process of making tea leaves and preparing tea. During the Qing, many of the tea traditions that were established by the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398) of the Ming dynasty were continued, such as the use of tea leaves rather than tea cakes or ground tea. While many of the utensils did not change as a result, a greater assortment of shapes and designs evolved with the flourishing porcelain production and stylistic trends of the time. A slightly larger bowl and cover of this form, depicting a pavilion in a landscape on one side and inscribed with an imperial poem entitled ‘While the tea is brewing, and it is raining outside, I dream of going on a boat trip’, on the other, the panels bordered by similarly decorated floral borders on a ruby-red sgraffiato ground, was sold in these rooms, 6th December 1994, lot 211, and included in the exhibition Imperial Perfection. The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors. A Selection from the Wang Xing Lou Collection, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 2004, cat. no. 56; and its pair was sold at Christie’s Paris, 14th December 2016, lot 72.
The Qianlong Emperor’s satisfaction with the form of this tea bowl is evident as it is found decorated in a variety of styles and media. For example, see a simulation lacquer bowl and cover, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Empty Vessels, Replenished Minds: The Culture, Practice, and Art of Tea, Taipei, 2002, cat. no. 139, together with a gold bowl with cloisonné enamel flower scrolls, cat. no. 159. Compare also a Qianlong mark and period sgraffiato decorated white-ground bowl enamelled with dragons and phoenix in iron red, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 332; another, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, sold at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2016, lot 967; a pink-ground version decorated in puce enamel, sold twice in our New York rooms, 23rd/24th April 1975, lot 342, and again, 16th September 2008, lot 125, from the collection of Frieda and Milton Rosenthal; and a mille-fleurs enamelled version, from the C. Philip Cardeiro collection, sold at Christie’s London, 13th May 2014, lot 92.