The Yongle Emperor was an outward looking monarch, and his reign was marked by numerous official expeditions abroad. Large dishes painted in underglaze blue were made at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, where production was carefully monitored. Porcelains here were produced for the court, its specifications defined and quality monitored by the court, and its distribution organised by the court and assured through official channel. While quality control was stringent in this period, so as to make porcelains impeccable, designs were jealously guarded, so no copies could be made by lesser kilns that might be confused with the original and in this way harm the repute and prestige of the product.
Dishes painted with this motif, always featuring three clusters of grapes issuing from a single stem, vary in few but distinct ways: the sides are either rounded or lobed and the rims are straight or barbed. Among surviving examples, the present piece is particularly outstanding for its fine potting, smooth, tactile glaze and lush fruit pattern that beautifully displays the characteristic ‘heaping and piling’ of the cobalt blue – a much-copied trademark of imperial blue and white porcelains from the early Ming dynasty.
Dishes of this design made for the court include one from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in Geng Baochang ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang. Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue and white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. II, pl. 135, together with a dish of this design with a barbed rim, pl. 133; one in the Shanghai Museum, published in Lu Minghua, Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 1-16; and a third, reputedly given by the Empress Dowager Cixi to Sir Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs at the Chinese Treaty Ports, on his retirement in 1908.
After an interruption in the Hongwu reign, the Yongle Emperor re-established relations with the Timurid ruler Shahrukh Mirza (r. 1405-1447), which led to frequent mutual exchanges of luxury goods between the two empires, including blue and white porcelains. Dishes of this design formerly in the Ardebil Shrine and now in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran, are illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington D.C., 1956, pls 37-39, and in Misugi Takatoshi, Chinese Porcelain Collections in the Near East. Topkapi and Ardebil, Hong Kong, 1981, vol. III, pls A 40-42. Dishes of this design are also found in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, London, 1986, vol. II, pls 605 and 606; a dish inscribed with the name of the Mughal Shah Jahan ibn Jahangir Shah (AD 1593-1666) and a date equivalent to AD 1643-1644, from the Avery Brundage collection, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated in The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Selected Works, San Francisco, 1994, p. 106, and sold in our London rooms, 24th March 1964, lot 96.
Further dishes of this pattern include a dish from the Swedish Royal Collections, now in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, vol. 8, Tokyo, 1982, pl. 213; two from the collection of Sir Percival David, the first, now in the British Museum, London, published in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, vol. 6, pl. 74, and the second, sold in our London rooms, 8th July 1974, lot 190; and another dish, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, vol. 4, 2010, pl. 1638, and sold in these rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 21, from the Meiyintang collection.
The grape motif is comparatively rare on Chinese works of art as the fruit was mainly grown in Central Asia. It was first introduced in the Tang dynasty when the Silk Road enabled a close contact with this region, and re-appeared in the Yuan dynasty, when China again had many economic and cultural ties with the West, before becoming increasingly popular during the Yongle reign.
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