The two figures seen here represent foreigners offering tribute, as may be seen from the manner in which they hold up the vases in their hands. They are distinguished by their strong Western facial complexions as may be seen from the figure with large bulging eyes and bushy beard and moustache. They are dressed in lavish attire that is reminiscent of that seen on three gilt-bronze and enamel decorated figures of Westerners, one in the collection of the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, illustrated in Dr Gunhild Gabbert Avitabile, Die Ware aus dem Teufelsland, Hannover, 1981, pl. 98; one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, possibly the companion figure to the one in Vienna, included in Europa und Die Kaiser von China, Frankfurt, 1985, p. 248; and the third published in David S. Howard, A Tale of Three Cities. Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong, London, 1997, p. 159, pl. 205. Howard describes the figure that wears a similarly shaped rounded hat, surcoat with ruff collars, breeches and boots as seen here, inspired by the Venetian costume seen on Pucinello, a figure central to the Italian comedy popular from the early 18th century (see ibid., p. 159).
While no other similar example to the present pair of figures appears to be recorded, in their style they are comparable to a much smaller (h. 9 cm) group of figures of a luohan seated on a lion, with a foreign attendant standing by his side, sold in our New York rooms, 28th February 1980, lot 42, and again at Dukes, Dorchester, England, 23rd September 2010, lot 1206, and now in the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection. This group carving bears a Qianlong reign mark and an inscription with a cyclical date corresponding to 1761 on its base.
The present figures compare favourably to a number of examples of foreigners depicted in a variety of media. See a magnificent pair of gilt-bronze cloisonné and champlevé enamel figures, shown kneeling on one leg with one arm raised, perhaps originally holding a vase, from the Kitson collection first sold in our London rooms, 30th May 1961, lot 426, and again at Christie's Paris, 13th June 2007, lot 27, from the collection of Juan Jose Amezaga. Compare also a pair of Western figures, from the collection of H. M. Queen Mary, consort to King George V, fashioned and painted in wood with carved ivory heads and hands, each modelled kneeling, with one shown holding a conch shell and the other a canopy fashioned in cloisonné enamel, sold in our London rooms, 14th November 2001, lot 129. A further pair of Western figures made in mixed-media and holding auspicious Buddhist emblems, the fish and the endless knot, from the collection of Mildred R. and Rafi Y. Mottahedeh, was sold in our New York rooms, 29th October 2000, lot 460.
One can only speculate as to who commissioned these figures and their purpose; nevertheless, they are examples of the finest quality of craftsmanship and a testament to the continuing fascination with Westerners and their depiction in Imperial China.
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