Details & Cataloguing

Arcadian Beauty – Exceptional Works from the Song Dynasty

Hong Kong

exquisitely potted with steep rounded sides rising from a short foot to a gently incurved rim, unctuously applied overall save for the foot with a sky-blue glaze draining to a mottled mushroom tone at the rim and pooling short of the foot, the lustrously reflective interior liberally adorned with vibrant splashes of copper forming a reddish-purple transmuting to three lavender haloes encircling attractive leaf-green patches, the exterior further extensively decorated with three richly variegated purple splashes accentuated with green dapples, the unglazed foot revealing the dense pale grey body burnt a brownish-orange in the firing
9 cm, 3 1/2  in.
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Collection of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980).
Sotheby's London, 16th December 1980, lot 265.
Collection of Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016).
Sotheby's London, 7th June 2000, lot 93.

Catalogue Note

The Edward T. Chow 'Bubble' Bowl

This spectacular small bowl, with its captivating colours and a breathtakingly glossy sheen veiled over the interior, is an exceptional paradigm of the most coveted qualities of a ‘Jun’ ‘bubble’ bowl and arguably the greatest example in private hands. The characteristic vibrant hues of ‘Jun’ ware have always been held in high esteem since the Song dynasty and a blue-and-purple colour combination, whilst not common, is very rarely complemented with highlights of leaf-green as seen on the current bowl. Such unusual and ravishing a juxtaposition is arguably unprecedented and one that has never been equalled again.

This vessel is often referred to in the West as a ‘bubble’ bowl – and aptly so – by virtue of the shiny reflection in its interior, which evokes the optical illusion of a globular soap-bubble rising from the rim of the vessel. Set against the remarkably flamboyant and glossy glaze on the interior of this current bowl, this optical illusion of a thin opalescent soapy surface is all the more striking. There is no question that the current bowl, with its millennial lustre and brilliance preserved, ranks among the most desirable and iconic extant examples of its type.

‘Jun’ ware, with its type site represented by the Juntai kilns in the former region of Junzhou, modern-day Yuxian, Henan province, was produced by many different manufactories in Henan, including the Ru kilns at Qingliangsi in Baofeng, probably from the end of the Northern Song period (960-1127) until at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In comparison to the other important Song wares, the bodies of ‘Jun’ wares are more thickly potted, which is a contributing factor to the more simplistic forms – as well as the viscous glazes. As water from the glaze is absorbed by the porous biscuit in the firing, the glaze appears thicker, lending itself to a more substantial covering.

Far from being a mere application of different glazes, the captivating purple-and-blue colour combination seen on ‘Jun’ wares is in fact a multi-layered optical illusion steeped in unpredictability. The bright sky-blue ground derives not from a pigment but from an optical illusion that mirrors the blue of the sky; microscopic glass droplets are formed from the firing of the glaze and subsequently scatter and cast off blue light. The dramatic purplish-red splashes, on the other hand, are achieved through an application of copper-based pigment splashes and washes, often with a brush, which then merge with the dried milky sky-blue ground before being fired in a reduction kiln. Very rarely does the concentrated copper pigment re-oxidise and transmute to shades of green as it does on both the interior and exterior of the present bowl, where attractive leaf-green dapples and patches are whimsically encircled by lavender haloes.

Since the shades of the sky-blue ground and purplish-red splashes vary from piece to piece, no two ‘Jun’ vessels are alike and the unpredictability of the final outcome - as though created by nature - plays a vital role in its desirability, particularly amidst the Song ruling elite. The Northern Song dynasty witnessed great political, social and economic changes that led to a ferment of ideas across the board, dramatically carving out a different intellectual climate and aesthetic sensibility defined by simplicity, modesty and naturalism, marking a far cry from that of most erstwhile ruling classes in China and beyond. Devoid of extravagant materials, lavish designs and abidance by stringent guidelines, the seemingly simple small stoneware bowl, probably used for drinking wine, is rich in individuality, asymmetry and abstraction, enticing one for an intimate inspection of its timelessness and spontaneity – in which the lush colours of nature are deeply imbued.

Although many fine ‘bubble’ bowls with fewer purple splashes are known, few show a glaze of such breathtaking vibrancy as the present piece. As comparisons, two of the best extant examples come to mind, both also with deep overall purple colouration inside and a more distinctly painted purple ‘pattern’ outside. The first one, also formerly in the collection of Edward T. Chow, was sold in our London rooms, 16th December 1980, lot 264, again in these rooms from the T.Y. Chao collection, 19th May 1987, lot 209, and at Christie’s New York from the Jingguantang collection, 16th September 1998, lot 359 (fig. 1); the second one, reputedly from the collection of Alfred Schoenlicht, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition China Without Dragons: Rare Pieces from Oriental Ceramic Society Members, London, 2016, no. 72, was sold in our London rooms, 8th November 2006, lot 55, and again recently in these rooms, 3rd April 2018, lot 3605 (fig. 2).

A related bowl in the Palace Museum, Beijing, with fewer purple splashes and apparently a paler blue glaze is illustrated in Jun ci ya ji. Gugong Bowuyuan zhencang ji chutu Junyao ciqi huicui/Selection of Jun Ware. The Palace Museum’s Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2013, pl. 36; and a slightly smaller bowl also in the Palace Museum and decorated with less purple on the blue glaze, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelain of the Song Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1996, vol. 1, pl. 222. Other ‘bubble’ bowls with sparser purple splashes are, for example, in the Baur Collection, illustrated in John Ayers, The Baur Collection Geneva: Chinese Ceramics, Geneva, 1968-1974, vol. I, nos A 31 and A 32; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from the Eumorfopoulos collection, published in Rose Kerr, Song Dynasty Ceramics, London, 2004, pl. 26 front; and in the Sir Percival David collection in the British Museum, illustrated in Stacey Pierson, Song Ceramics: Objects of Admiration, London, 2003, pl. 20.

The current bowl was formerly in the collections of two of the most renowned collectors and dealers of Chinese art in the 20th century, Edward T. Chow (1910-1980, fig. 3 right) and Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016 fig. 3 left), shown together in this 1970s photo. Few individuals have shaped the market for Chinese works of art as prominently as Edward T. Chow, a dealer-collector who had worked in Shanghai and Hong Kong before settling in Switzerland. With a connoisseurship on Chinese art, discernible eye and relentless demand for quality, he was one of the favourite addresses for the major collectors of the time, such as Sir Percival David, King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, Eiichi Ataka, J.M. Hu, or Barbara Hutton, many of whom he managed to advise and as such to play an important role in the formation of collections, as for example, the Meiyintang collection.

Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016) was a celebrated dealer whose career in the Asian art world spanned almost 70 years. A series of sales from his personal collection – ranging from lacquer and porcelain to stone sculpture and Buddhist bronzes - have been offered in our rooms over the years and the successes warrant the fact that his collection remains one of the most coveted provenances for a piece of Chinese art. The Clark Ding Basin, which holds the third highest price for Song ceramics sold at auction (after the two Ru guanyao washers sold in these rooms in 2012 and 2017 respectively) also came from the collection of Sakamoto Gorō.

“The Northern Song is famed as an age […] of magnificent painting and calligraphy, of matchless ceramics […] The scholar-official elite […] patronized the craftsmen who made, to their tastes, the ceramics and all the beautiful objects they collected, treasured, and used in their daily lives.”1

If Frederick W. Mote’s insight provides a peephole into the new high culture of the Northern Song, the current ‘bubble’ bowl, with its unparalleled spectacular sheen and illustrious provenance, must serve as a tangible window into a renaissant aesthetic that was marked by modesty and naturalism - hitherto avant-garde - but has evidently stood the test of time.

1 Frederick W. Mote, Imperial China 900-1800, Cambridge, 1999, reprint, Cambridge, 2015, p. 151.

Arcadian Beauty – Exceptional Works from the Song Dynasty

Hong Kong