There is little doubt that lapis lazuli was highly prized during the Qianlong period, as evidenced by numerous objects and carvings dyed to imitate the natural stone, such as an 18th-century carved stone table screen dyed to mimic lapis lazuli, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, published in Michael Knight et al., Later Chinese Jades, Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 2007, no. 102. In fact, the craftsmen even went to the lengths of inserting small bits of metal to simulate the pyrite inclusions in the natural mineral.
Due to its granular yet relatively softer nature, lapis lazuli can hardly be worked with exquisite fine details and equally delineated outlines as nephrite jades. The deep undercutting and high-relief carving on the present pair of screens are reminiscent of 18th century carving. Compare a Qianlong-period circular white jade screen, worked on its reverse with similarly rendered overhanging lanceolate shrubs and gnarled knobbly trees with layered rinds, illustrated in the Yamanaka catalogue of Collection of Chinese and Other Far Eastern Art assembled by Yamanaka & Company, Inc. now in the process of liquidation under the supervision of the Alien Property Custodian of the United States of America, Yamanaka & Company, Inc., New York, 1943, no. 1323 and sold in these rooms on 8th October 2013, lot 3042.
The imperial poems inscribed on this pair of screens are taken from Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and proses], Yuzhi shi si ji [Imperial poems, vol. 4], juan 14. They echo the subject matter portrayed on the screens respectively, depicting scenes of deer and cranes at leisure in landscapes and conveying wishful blessings of longevity.
These poems are characteristically inscribed in intaglio and filled with gilt, a technique common in the 18th century. The absence of a cyclical date accompanying the poems would suggest that the pair, instead of being works created directly from the Imperial Workshops, may be tribute items sent to the court by regional officials. See an inscribed mountain carved from lapis lazuli of similar stone quality and colour, rendered with comparable landscape scenes with cascade rocks, waterfall and trees, and similarly inscribed with an imperial poem without a cyclical date, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated on the Museum’s website http://www.dpm.org.cn/collection/jade/234874.html. Compare also an agate table screen, inscribed with an imperial poem of similar format but signed Qi Shan, from the Qing court collection and now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Small Refined Articles of the Study, Shanghai, 2009, pl. 236.
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