A RARE AND IMPORTANT IMPERIAL WHITE JADE AND CLOISONNE ENAMEL RAM-HEAD TEAPOT AND COVER QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD
- Enamel, Bronze, Jade
- overall h. 18.5 cm, 7 1/4 in.
Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th April 1996, lot 2.
By the Qing dynasty, classical Chinese jade art had developed to a high degree of sophistication, whether in regards to mining, material selection, or carving. It reached an unprecedented peak during the reign of the jade-obsessed Qianlong Emperor. This period produced an abundance of jade masterpieces, especially those intended for use in the imperial court, that remain unsurpassed even today. The majority of these works are vessels, such as incense burners, vases, boxes, ewers, bowls, washers and parfumiers, which served practical purposes but more importantly decorated interior spaces. Among these vessels, jade ewers were among the demanding in craft and in quality of the raw jade, and Qing examples are thus rare. The Palace Museum collection in Beijing contains no more than fifty Qing dynasty jade ewers with handles and spouts. The vast majority of these date from the Qianlong period.
Qianlong period jade ewers come in a rich variety of types, including arrow vases and handled ewers which imitate archaic bronze prototypes, and vases with tall handles which resemble ceramic vessel types. Vessels with a spout and handle, resembling a teapot, are characterised by the greatest formal variation and the finest decoration. The subject of this essay, a white jade ewer with an enamelled gilt-bronze handle and a spout in the shape of a ram’s head (lot 3613), is a uniquely outstanding example of this type.
The current ewer is made from high-quality Khotan white jade with a warm and fine texture. The circular, melon-shaped body is articulated into twelve evenly spaced petal lobes, as are the cover and foot. The finial of the cover is articulated as a multilayered pagoda consisting of multiple melon forms. Most impressively, the interiors of the body and the lid are both articulated in recessed lobes, echoing the lobes on the outside, and the lid and pot are seamlessly matched.
The carving of the spout is very fine, with the ram head’s horns, ears, eyes, beard and teeth, and even the recesses beside its nose vividly and finely articulated. The incised lines and patterns are orderly, and the polishing of the details subtly and appropriately executed. The handle is adorned with gilt-bronze and cloisonné-enamelled ruyi-shaped joints and three fish.
Overall, this jade ewer is finely crafted from excellent materials and expertly polished. It is doubtlessly a fine example of Qianlong period imperial jades.
This piece belonged to Millicent Rogers (1902-1953), whose grandfather, Henry H. Rogers, co-founded Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller and was a patron of Mark Twain. Millicent Rogers herself was a legendary socialite known for her intelligence and beauty. She was fluent in six languages and translated Latin and Greek poetry. She also designed her own clothing and jewellery. She was reputedly close with Madame Soong Mei-ling. With her privileged upbringing and artistic talents, Rogers was a connoisseur and collector with a highly refined personal taste. Her collection was very different from those of men of the same period.
During the first half of the twentieth century, major American collectors of Chinese art tended towards archaic jades with scholarly significance. Rogers, by contrast, followed only her own interests and sense of beauty. She is said to have been especially fond of the colour white, and Qing dynasty white jades and ceramics predominated in her collection. One of her beloved white jades, the current lot, was sold in 1996 in the spring auction of Christie’s Hong Kong and has been in the possession of the same collector since then. In that auction also appeared two Chinese imperial jades that belonged to Rogers: a lidded incense burner with four butterfly handles and ruyi patterns, and a lidded goose-shaped box, both made from high-quality Khotan white jade. The incense burner’s grandeur and solemnity, the ewer’s unique elegance, and the goose-shaped box’s vividness all demonstrated Rogers’ preference for beautiful and refined craftsmanship, which naturally drew her to the sophisticated imperial jades of the Qianlong court.
The creator of this ewer designed it with the intention of incorporating the gilt-bronze handle, and therefore left protruding lugs along the mouth for the pins that fasten the handle. This ingenious design likely won the favour of the Qing emperors, who ordered at least two other teapots of a similar form made, including one in the Palace Museum in Beijing and another in the collection of the Oscar-winning film producer Sir John Woolf.
The white jade melon-shaped teapot with a ram-head spout at the Palace Museum in Beijing (fig. 1), from the Qing court collection, is now a Grade One cultural property. According to the census of objects made by the Palace Museum upon its founding, this teapot was located in Yanxitang (Hall of Swallow's Happiness), west of the rear palace of Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation). The census records the teapot as “enamelled jade pot with a Jiaqing reign title.” The Palace Museum and the Rogers teapots are slightly different in size and proportions - the base of the former is incised with a four-character seal mark reading Jiaqing yuyong ('For the imperial use of the Jiaqing Emperor') - but both works share the same basic form with an enamelled handle.
The Woolf jade teapot is of a similar type, also with a handle and incised with Jiaqing’s reign mark (figs 2 and 3). Sir Woolf was an enthusiastic collector of Chinese jades from 1956 to 1999, and he specialised in nephrite and jadeite.
The Woolf jade teapot was acquired by an antiques dealer in London in the 1930s. Subsequently, it passed through collections in Austria and New York. In 1963, it was acquired at Sotheby’s New York by the antique dealer John Sparks, from whom Sir Woolf acquired it. The teapot was published in Chinese Carved Jades, edited by S. Howard Hansford, and by Sotheby’s in 2013 in The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jades alongside other masterpieces in the collection, which consists mostly of Qianlong period works. After 1999, the Woolf collection has been managed by the Woolf Charitable Trust, and the majority of it has been in a dedicated exhibition space in Belgravia, London, available to the public by appointment.
Qing imperial jades often come in the same forms and decorative patterns. This has much to do with the emperors’ preferences. Imperial archives recorded frequent orders by emperors to the imperial workshops to create multiples of a design or to recreate a pre-existing design for display at different locations. It is thus no surprise that these three jade teapots are similar in form and design.
In detail the three teapots can still be distinguished. Aside from the slight discrepancies in size and dimension, the current lot appears to have been created earlier. Its spout is slightly higher than the mouth, and the pins used to secure the gilt-bronze handle with the jade ewer are exposed with the absence of pinheads. By contrast, the other two comparable teapots have spouts positioned slightly above the mouth and handles that are secured to the ewer by pins with pinheads. The current lot was carved entirely—including the lid and the finial—from a single block of raw jade. The Palace Museum example was likewise carved from a single block of raw jade, except the finial of the cover was attached by glue, perhaps because the raw jade was not tall enough to allow the entire cover to be carved in one piece. On the other hand, the Woolf teapot shows clear signs of dyeing, which was a method typically used by the Qianlong period imperial workshops to hide blemishes and other imperfections. In summary, the three teapots are similar in form, but each is a unique masterpiece, with its own sophisticated design and fine craftsmanship.
Where did the form of the jade vessel with a handle originate? Let us trace its history. When it comes to jade vessels, the great Tang dynasty poet’s Wang Changling immediately comes to mind. Jade ewers were a theme in Tang-dynasty poetry, but only Wang Changling’s line, “An icy heart in a jade pot,” remains widely known. The image has come to stand for moral purity and loftiness.
In ancient China, hu referred mainly to two types of vessels. The first type was the wide-bodied pot with a tapered mouth, which was the first type to appear in China. Kun Wu, the legendary inventor of ceramics who lived during the time of the Yellow Emperor, created the hu. This is why Shuozi jiezi defines hu as “the round vessel of Kun Wu.” Hu is an ideographic character that suggests a circular or a square form, but without a spout or handle. The bronze hu of the Shang and Zhou dynasties were mostly wine and ritual vessels. These hu appeared before the time of written history and persisted until the Ming and Qing periods. The Shang and Zhou-period bronze hu became the classical form of the vessel and the source of subsequent hu vessel designs.
During the Wei-Jin period, the wide-bodied hu with a tapered mouth acquired a spout and a handle; this is known as the zhihu (handled ewer) and gradually became more popular from the Sui-Tang through the Ming-Qing periods. This form became especially common in ceramics after the Wei-Jin period.
No extant jade hu predate the Sui-Tang period, whether with or without spouts. This may be because the hu form requires a large amount of raw jade; in particular the wide-bodied form with a tapered mouth is much more difficult to create in jade than an incense burner, bowl, washer, cup, or dish. Moreover, unlike bronze or clay, jade as a material cannot be reworked incessantly or experimented with. It is no surprise, therefore, that the jade ewers were scarce compared to other vessels even during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Palace Museum collection contains only 240 examples (including 110 with spouts and handles), roughly divided equally between Ming and Qing periods.
The earliest extant jade ewer dates from the Tang dynasty and was excavated in Luoyang, Henan in 1956. It is of the first type, with a round body and a flat mouth, and without a handle, which was rare during the Tang and Song periods and became more common during the Yuan and especially during the Ming and Qing. Ewers of this type from the Qianlong period were mostly made in imitation of archaic bronzes (fig. 4).
The second type is the jade ewer with a spout and a handle, which emerged as an imitation of a ceramic prototype before the appearance of the spoutless jade ewer. The earliest extant jade ewer with a spout and handle dates from the Song dynasty. The jade ewers mentioned in Tang poetry are actually of the first type.
During the Ming and Qing periods, jade ewers with handles suddenly increased drastically in number. During the Ming, tall and large jade ewers, often with handles located above the body, predominated, but small and short jade ewers with round and wide bodies and with lowered handles also began to appear. The latter’s form is close to that of a teapot, and was likely influenced by ceramic teapots. Moreover, these small and short jade ewers vary greatly. They come in shapes ranging from that of a lotus blossom and flower petals to square, round and hexagonal. Some of them are inscribed in embossed poetic lines or carved with niches featuring landscapes, figures, and floral subjects. However, Ming jade ewers are generally inferior in both material quality and craftsmanship to Qing ones. This is in part because Khotan jade mines during the Ming, much more active than before, still yielded raw jade of lesser quality and much smaller amounts of high-quality jade than during the Qing.
During the Qing dynasty, jade ewers with handles developed into a very rich array of forms, and the quality of their materials improved markedly compared to any previous period. They come in white, green and emerald, but the former two colours predominated over others. Jades made for the court mostly used high-quality white jade (fig. 5).
According to the records of the workshops of the Qing imperial court, jade ewers were already produced in the first year of the Yongzheng reign, but this work was mostly limited to restoring ewers remaining from previous reigns. Between the second and eleventh years of the Yongzheng reign, few jade ewers were made or restored, and the entire Yongzheng period production of jade ewers numbered only 27. The majority of these were of the first type. Jade ewers with handles are documented only in the records of the first year of the Yongzheng reign.
“On the tenth day of the second month, Prince Yi submitted a jade apricot-leaf-shape ewer (with a zitan base)… a jade teapot, a jade garlic-mouth ewer, a jade ewer with a loop handle… the prince ordered that these be restored to new. So it was obeyed. On the sixteenth day of the ninth month, a jade ewer and a jade ewer with a handle were restored. Prince Yi submitted these to the court.”
The workshop records of the Qianlong period indicated that the production of jade ewers increased dramatically compared to the Yongzheng period. These records also mention jade ewers with handles, but because they are vague on the identifying details, it is difficult to relate each record to an extant object.
Extant jade ewers with handles from the mid Qing period can be divided into two types. The first is the type with an enamelled gilt-bronze handle, the subject of this article (lot 3613). The other type is made entirely from jade, including both body and handle. Of the latter type only one example has survived, and it is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. The form of its body is identical to the current lot, with a ram-head spout and melon-shaped body, except that on each section of the body are additional layers of flower petals carved in low relief. Most importantly, three intertwined jade strips are fastened to semicircular, lotus petal-shaped pieces on the body to form the handle. Overall the Taipei ewer required even more raw jade. It was housed in the Palace of Eternal Longevity (Yongshou gong).
A jade ewer required a large amount of high-quality raw jade. During the Kangxi and early Qianlong reigns, the jade-producing Khotan and Yarkent regions were occupied by the Dzungars, which limited the availability of raw jade. The court resorted to modify jades remaining from former dynasties or use raw jade sent as tribute or smuggled into the interior, resulting in limited production. In the tenth year of his reign, the Yongzheng Emperor ordered his ministers to “find some good raw jades” because the court lacked them. In the twenty-fourth year of the Qianlong reign, the Qing army defeated the Dzungar Khanate definitively and cemented its rule of what is now called Xinjiang, administering it through a regional government.
Beginning in the twenty-fifth year of the Qianlong reign, the four sub-Khanates of Xinjiang began to send raw jades to Beijing, which later developed into a formal system of biannual tribute of 4000 jin of raw jade, once in spring and once in autumn. In fact, at its height the system contributed some 300,000 jin of raw jades. In the fifty-sixth year of the Qianlong reign, one tribute consisted of 5585 blocks of raw jade.
The availability of raw material created a strong foundation for the golden age of jade under the Qianlong Emperor. Court records indicate a surge in jade production after the twenty-fourth year of his reign.
In the thirty-third year of the Qianlong reign (1756), a minister stationed in Yarkent Khanate sent as a tribute a pair of green jade flower-shaped basins. This was the Qianlong Emperor’s first encounter with Mughal jade. The diligent and curious Emperor soon investigated its origin, and decided that it came from Hindustan, the region southwest of Badakhshan and bordering northern India. He wrote an essay and a poem commemorating it. Afterwards, he referred to all jades originating from foreign regions “Hindustani jades.” We now know that these “Hindustani jades” originated from an area larger than Hindustani, encompassing present-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, but Qianlong’s shorthand label has remained conventional.
Among these Hindustani jades, those produced by the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) were of the highest craftsmanship. Their vivid depictions of the natural world, especially of various flora, attracted the Qianlong Emperor’s profound praise and affection. Qianlong wrote over seventy essays and poems about Hindustani jades.
The Emperor’s fondness also encouraged imitation by Chinese jade craftsmen. The teapot currently on offer was originally thought to be an example of Hindustani jades. Indeed, the form of the ram-head spout and melon-shaped sections, and the interior sectioning of the body, are reminiscent of Mughal ram-head hilts and melon-shaped goblets. However, the teapot’s enamelled handle and polished base and the incised lines of the ram head are quintessentially Chinese. Already during the Ming dynasty, Chinese craftsmen created melon-shaped vases with both exterior and interior sections. This technique continued to be used during the Qing. Moreover, Ming period jade ewers often featured spouts issuing from animal masks. Qing period ewers featured spouts issuing from animal masks, beasts and dragon mouth. The imperial workshops of the Qianlong court had the best enamelling technique of the period. Thus there was no technical barrier to the local creation of jade teapots such as the current lot. These jade ewers are masterpieces which seamlessly combined domestic Chinese taste with the formal influences of Hindustani jades.
In summary, in material and form, the four extant jade teapots with handles, including the one at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, were created at roughly the same time and were all influenced by Hindustani jades. They likely were created after the thirty-third year of the Qianlong reign. Although the Palace Museum and Woolf pots bear Jiaqing reign marks, they may not have been created during the Jiaqing reign. It is likely that they were created during the Qianlong reign and used by the Jiaqing Emperor, who also had his reign mark inscribed on other Qianlong period wares still extant in the Palace Museum collection. The four jade teapots in question should therefore be dated to the period after the thirty-third year of the Qianlong reign and before the Jiaqing Emperor took defacto control of the government (1799).
Li Jingjing, ‘Millicent Rogers—She Was Actually a Hippie,’ Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan [Sanlian Life Weekly], vol. 727, 25th March 2013.
Gugong wupin diancha baogao [Palace Musuem Inventory], 3rd ed., vol. 4, Yanxitang, p. 80, lü character 2028:22, reprint, 1st day of the 6th month of the 18th year of the Republic of China.
S. Howard Hansford, Chinese Carved Jades, New York, 1968, p. 93.
The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jades, Sotheby’s, London, 2013.
Carol Michaelson, A Brief History of European Collecting of Chinese Jades, Bonhams, London, 17th May 2012.
Special Exhibition of Hindustani Jades from the Palace Museum Collection, Taipei, 1983, pl. 74.
China First Archives and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [Complete compilation of the archival materials of the Qing dynasty imperial workshops], Beijing, 2005.
The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum—Jades, Hong Kong, 1996.