The design of this rare carved polychrome lacquer box shows influence of its Ming prototypes and epitomizes the taste of the Qing emperors. Polychrome lacquer was used mainly from the Jiajing period (1522-66) onwards, and the technique gradually reached its maturity during the Wanli period. Early examples from the Jiajing period including a large carved polychrome lacquer box and cover in the National Palace Museum collection, Taipei, decorated with a central dragon hoovering over the sea below a shou medallion, surrounded by Eight Treasures with medallion enclosed phoenixes, included in the museum exhibition Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colours: Treasured lacquerware in the National Palace Museum, The National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, no. 90. Compare a rectangular carved polychrome lacquer ‘dragon and longevity’ box of Wanli period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Carved Lacquer in the Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1985, No. 231. The design of the frontal dragon, as well as the water chestnut flower-shaped enclosure, is closely related to the current piece.
Although the front-facing dragon motif is seen on few Ming lacquer works, it became more popular in the early Qing dynasty. For instance, a carved yellow lacquer throne in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing, is decorated with a frontal dragon on its central panel, fiercely staring at the viewers with claws , similar to the current box. It is inscribed with an apocryphal mark of the Xuande period but attributed to the early Qing dynasty, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2006, no. 4, where the discussion notes “… the style of the dragons on this work shows typical characteristics of the Qing dynasty arts, and it is undoubtedly a piece made in the Qing dynasty”, p. 6. Compare a large qiangjin and tianqi cinnabar lacquer box of Kangxi period from the Sakamoto Goro collection, with a related frontal dragon design, sold in these rooms, 8th October 2013, Lot 169. Similar designs can be seen on a number of carved lacquer boxes from Qianlong period, whilst examples are most commonly in the circular form, see Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colours, op.cit., nos 133 and 135.
The Qianlong Emperor actively encouraged the production of imperial lacquerware. According to the palace records, the Emperor commissioned lacquer boxes to be made with his reign mark from the 3rd year of his reign (1738). The production of imperial carved lacquer treasure boxes reached its peak during 1771 and 1775, and the craftsmen extensively explored various new forms and decorations whilst taking clear references of Ming prototypes. The National Palace Museum, Taipei, houses a large number of Qianlong carved lacquer boxes of different sizes, forms and names, Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colours, op.cit., pp. 116-117, nos 105-123, 125-138, and 140-144.
The present box, displaying the classic style of imperial lacquerware of the Qianlong period, is clearly a work of the Imperial Workshop, Zaobanchu. One of the closely related carved polychrome lacquer boxes, also in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is of square form with indented corners, slightly larger in size, the main motif of twin dragons in a similar water chestnut flower-shaped enclosure, with eight treasures and floral borders, published in Masterpieces of Chinese Carved Lacquer Ware in the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1981, pl. 23.
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