However, it is much more likely that these figures were actually highly luxurious items created as tribute from Guangzhou to the imperial court, probably as opulent furnishings within the halls of the Summer Palace. Lavishly painted panels, enamels and other objects installed at the Summer Palace to decorate halls in a western style also functioned as a tool for the visualisation of the West, as part of a microcosm of the known world, in which the Emperor could envisage himself and the Middle Kingdom at the centre, surrounded and embraced by foreigners in obeisance. The current pair of figures would have fitted perfectly into this opulent vision. As opposed to the actual reality of impertinent envoys such as the British diplomat Lord MacCartney leading an embassy to the capital supposedly as an equal and refusing to kowtow, in this artistic representation of the world, such figures represented two wealthy gentlemen, probably British or Dutch, ready to kneel down before the Emperor and present luxury items of tribute.
The modelling and enamelling of the figures is of superb quality, the outlines of the decoration painted in gold and vividly coloured enamels, including rich tones of blue, green and pink, which are filled in to produce a cloisonné enamel effect. This luxurious and impressive decorative technique was first introduced from Europe to artists working in Guangzhou, where wares of this type were routinely made as tribute items for the Qing court. For examples of pieces made in this technique see a you-form vessel, a double-gourd vase and a covered bowl illustrated in Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1987, pls 42, 43 and 48 respectively.
Among the various crafts in Guangdong, ivory carving was one of the most technically advanced. With the lifting of the ban on maritime trade with foreign countries in 1684, there was an increase in ivory imports providing sufficient raw materials for the development of ivory carving in the region. Guangzhou rapidly became the centre of this industry attracting craftsmen who combined their traditional carving skills with Western technology and imported materials, creating products with a distinct regional flavour. The ivory candlesticks held by the European figures are in themselves superb work of art, intricately carved and reticulated and of a complex form. They closely related to other ivory objects of the period which are recorded as having been presented from Guangzhou to the Imperial court, including a stained ivory box in the form of a finger citron, and an ivory gourd-shaped pomander, illustrated ibid., pls 63-70.
For other examples of luxurious items created as tribute possibly to furnish the halls of the Summer Palace, see a pair of mixed media figures from the collection of H.M. Queen Mary, consort of King George V, included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy, London, 1935-36, no. 2315 (fig. 1), and sold in our London rooms, 14th November 2001, lot 129. This pair consisted of two Western merchants created from wood and ivory depicted kneeling, each bearing one of the Eight Buddhist Emblems in cloisonné. The treatment of the figures is very close: they share the same distinctive kneeling posture, and the texture and precise articulation of the ivory heads, hands and wood mitre caps is remarkably close. Other features, including the modelling of the creases in the robes and tied scarf at the neck, are also technically similar. In a discussion of another pair of these figures from the collection of Mildred R. and Rafi Y. Mottahedeh, sold at Sotheby's New York, 29 October 2000, lot 460, originally part of a set of eight bearing the Eight Buddhist Emblems, David Howard and John Ayers noted in China for the West, vol. 2, London and New York 1978, pp. 663-665, nos 688 and 688a, 688b and 688c that they were probably made for the Chinese Court for the furnishing of 'pavilions such as those of the Summer Palace'.
For other examples of enamel figures depicted holding tribute, see a pair of cloisonné enamel figures originally from the collection of T.B. Kitson, sold in our London rooms, 30th May 1961, lot 426, and more recently at Christie’s Paris, 13th June 2007, lot 27, from the collection of Juan Jose Amezaga; a pair of cloisonné enamel ‘hehe’ twin boys, sold in our New York rooms, 18th September 2007, lot 156 and a cloisonné enamel figure of a kneeling foreigner depicted holding a vessel forming a lamp stand, attributed to the early Qing dynasty, from the Qing court collection, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 92.
See also a Qianlong reign-marked enamelled porcelain figure of a European in similar posture, depicted kneeling carrying a porcelain candlestick, sold in these rooms, 17th May 1989, lot 331, from the collection of Hermann von Mandl of Vienna. Interestingly, a list of porcelains supplied to the Court in 1729 by Tang Ying, the future superintendent of the Jingdezhen kilns, includes as item 29 'Copies of European figures and models after life executed with carved and embossed work'.
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