The porcelains produced by the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen for the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) are characterised by the phenomenal opulence of their decoration as well as the rich spectrum of their enamels, and the present vase with its radiant colours and delicate sgraffiato work archetypically embodies this style. Porcelains decorated in this way are in China identified as yangcai, ‘foreign colours’, but the European craftsmen that had come to the court during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722) and were engaged also by the Qianlong Emperor, brought more than the colours, which fundamentally changed the palette of porcelain decoration: they also introduced designs and decorative elements that were en vogue in Europe at the time.
The Rococo style with its exuberant use of interlaced C- and S-shaped curves, often executed in pastel colours and gold, which had originated in Paris in the early eighteenth century, had quickly spread throughout France, Germany, Italy and beyond, and was prevalent in the arts and crafts, in interiors and on facades. It was a light and mellifluous style, that was breathing fresh air into the heavier baroque art and architecture in Europe and now introduced a more cheerful element also into the more serious and sedate aesthetics that had prevailed in the Kangxi and Yongzheng (1723-1735) reigns.
Some of the ruby-ground yangcai pieces in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are so Western in their decoration that they would seem to have been designed by Europeans. On the present vase, the style, although clearly inspired by Western ornament, has already taken on a Chinese flair, as highly stylised, symmetrically arranged European arabesques, rendered in pastel tones with distinct shading, are combined with purely Chinese elements such as lotus, key-fret, ruyi and petal panel motifs.
Sgraffiato, or sgraffito, work, the carving through a surface layer to reveal a contrasting layer below, is a very versatile technique that has been used for ceramics both east and west, and in China was already employed in the Song dynasty (960-1279), for example, at the Yaozhou and Cizhou kilns. Its use on porcelain, where a design is carved into and through a layer of enamel, down to the glazed porcelain underneath, thus revealing the design in white, appeared around the same time both in the imperial enamelling workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. Liao Pao Show attributes its introduction to a increased effort from 1741 onwards by Tang Ying (1682-1756), the long-time supervisor of the imperial kilns, to please the Qianlong Emperor, after the latter had criticised the porcelain production of the previous years, see Huali cai ci: Qianlong yangcai/Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, pp. 10-41.
While in Beijing the carved designs mostly consisted of formal diaper patterns and were used only on the outside of bowls and dishes, the craftsmen of Jingdezhen opted for more delicate designs and elevated the style to become primary decoration. The filigree scrollwork engraved with a needlepoint, characteristic of Qianlong yangcai porcelains, which conveys the impression of rich silk brocade, is in Chinese called jinshangtianhua, literally ‘adding flowers to brocade’, an expression not unlike the English ‘gilding the lily’. It resulted in some of the most sumptuous porcelains of the Qianlong period.
Several such yangcai vases with ruby-coloured ground are preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei: two such vases, both similarly inscribed with underglaze-blue Qianlong seal marks reserved on a bright turquoise ground, and a wall vase with a four-character mark, are included in the exhibition Huali cai ci, op.cit., cat. nos 18, 19 and 22, all dated by Liao Pao Show to 1741, others with blue enamel marks on the turquoise base, attributed to 1743, cat. nos 31, 42 and 43; and for contemporary falangcai porcelains with sgraffiato decoration see cat. nos 81-87 and 91-96. A pair to one of the vases in Taipei is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], Beijing 2005, vol. 2, pl. 204; and another vase similar to a pair in Taipei is in the Capital Museum, Beijing, see Shoudu Bowuguan cang ci xuan [Selection of porcelains from the Capital Museum], Beijing, 1991, pl. 155.
Outside the Museums in Taipei and Beijing, yangcai vases with ruby-red sgraffiato designs are exceedingly rare. One meiping vase decorated with floral scrolls on a ruby sgraffiato ground, from the collections of Alfred Morrison and Lord Margadale of Islay, part of the Fonthill Heirlooms and later the collection of Roger Lam, which featured in numerous exhibitions and publications, was sold in our London rooms, 8th/9th July 1974, lot 416, and three times in these rooms, 1980, 1988, and the last time 31st October 2004, lot 131; a pair to this vase is also in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 361, pl. 42; and a pair of ruby-ground sgraffiato vases, reputedly from the imperial collection, is in the Yale University Art Gallery, one of the two vases illustrated in George J. Lee, Selected Far Eastern Art in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven & London, 1970, pl. 53.
The present vase has a companion piece, identical in shape and design, but enamelled against a bright blue sgraffiato ground, with a red rim band, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the collection of Barbara D. Denielson (acq. no. 1980.497) (fig. 1). The ruby-red and blue enamels were occasionally also used together, for the two halves of double vases, for example, on a piece in the Palace Museum, Beijing, also decorated with stylised flower scrolls on a sgraffiato ground, illustrated ibid., p. 378, pl. 59.
The shape, known as danping, ‘gall bladder vase’, is equally characteristic of the yangcai porcelain production in the early 1740s; examples with different designs in the National Palace Museum are illustrated in Huali cai ci, op.cit., cat. nos 45-47.
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