Insley Blair (1870-1939), together with his wife Natalie Bennet Knowlton (1883-1951), was one of the most prominent collectors of Chinese porcelain in American in the early 20th century. Largely purchased to decorate the rooms of their neo-Jacobean style home, Blairhame, in Tuxedo Park, New York, the collection of Chinese ceramics was focused on early Qing dynasty monochromes and blue and white porcelain, with a particular emphasis on pieces of ‘cabinet and miniature dimensions’. The collection was commemorated in a catalogue Natalie Blair had privately printed for her husband in 1925, of which only four copies were published.
The simplicity of this form, the sides of which drop down from high shoulders, is a Yongzheng innovation and embodies the elegant style of the period. Finding inspiration from Ming ceramics and combining this with the developments in porcelain production and his aesthetic preferences led to high quality wares that were both innovative and classic. Furthermore, these vessels portray the drinking and eating habits of their time: in this case the storage and consumption of tea.
During the Ming dynasty, a revolution in the history of tea in China occurred when the Hongwu Emperor abolished the tribute of Qian-an caked tea from Fujien province in 1391. He prohibited the production of caked tea and changed from the use of powered tea to tea leaves. As a result, new tea utensils for steeping tea, such as teapots and tea caddies, replaced the traditional grinder, sieve, bamboo brush and ladles. Many of the Ming tea traditions were continued in the Qing dynasty and while the actual utensils did not change much, a greater assortment of shapes and designs evolved with the flourishing porcelain production of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns.
A closely related jar and cover, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Gugong bowuyuan cang. Qingdai yuyao ciqi [Qing porcelains from the imperial kilns preserved in the Palace Museum], vol. 1, pt. II, Beijing, 2005, pl. 39 (fig. 1). Compare a slightly taller jar and cover of this form, but decorated with Ming-style fruiting branches, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Empty Vessels, Replenished Minds: The Culture, Practice and Art of Tea, National Palace Museum, Taipei 2002, cat. no. 121, where it is catalogued as a tea caddy; and another in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 104. Celadon-glazed examples, but with domed covers and slightly taller necks, include one in the National Palace exhibition, op. cit., cat. no. 122; another from the Nanjing Museum, Nanjing, published in The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, p. 192; and a third, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 10th April 2006, lot 1618, and offered in this sale, lot 518. Celadon versions with short necks and no covers include one, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, in Gugong Bowuguan cang gu taoci ciliao xuanci [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], vol. 2, Beijing, 2005, pl. 166; and another, from the estate of Angela Ciccio Schirone, sold in these rooms, 18th/19th March 2014, lot 451.
Compare a Yongzheng mark and period tea caddy with a cover of related form, but much shorter in height, and decorated with an archaistic dragon in cobalt, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition The Far Reaching Fragrance of Tea. The Art and Culture of Tea in Asia, Taipei, 2015, cat. no. I-56, illustrated together with another jar painted with floral branches and two Yixing versions, figs 1 and 2.
A Xuande mark and period tea caddy, of globular form on a stepped foot and surmounted by a domed cover with bud-shaped knop, from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in ibid., cat. no. I-40, where it is noted that although tea caddies of this type are not described in contemporary Ming documents, ‘during the Qing dynasty they were often set with other tea service items’ (p. 111). The exhibition catalogue illustrates the painting Qianlong Enjoying Himself in a Snowy Day, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, where a tea caddy similar to the Xuande vessel can be seen being used by servants with other tea equipment to make ‘three purity’ tea.
The dragon on the present piece has been rendered in a Ming style, and its placement against a plain white ground, sometimes interspersed with clouds or scrolls, appears to have been a motif that gained popularity from its inception in the Xuande period (1426-35); for example see a meiping, with a Xuande reign mark and of the period, included in the exhibition Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, cat. no. 88. Later designs that were probably inspired by the Xuande original include two related Wanli mark and period meiping, in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, illustrated in Lu Minghua, Mingdai guanyo ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pls 3-97 and 3-98; another was sold in our London rooms, 13th May 2015, lot 118; and an ovoid jar with cover, with a Kangxi mark and of the period, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Gugong Bowuyuan qingdai yuyao ciqi, vol. 1, pt. I, Beijing, 2005, pl. 45.
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