This ewer of Xuande mark and period (1426-1435) appears to be unique, although its form and design are familiar from examples of the Yongle reign (1403-1424). The reigns of Yongle and Xuande in the early Ming period (1368-1644) marked the first great era of China’s imperial porcelain production, when the Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi province were strictly controlled by and worked exclusively for the court. Although the imperial porcelain production of the Xuande reign is characterized by continuity, as many of the shapes and designs introduced in the Yongle period were retained, the potters never simply duplicated earlier models, but created updated versions by deliberately modifying profiles and fine-tuning details.
The present ewer shape, with its unusual curved, square-sectioned spout that does not seem to emanate from a potter’s repertoire of forms, is a perfect case in point. Ultimately indebted to Middle Eastern metal prototypes, it was taken up by Jingdezhen’s craftsmen in the Yongle period in two different versions, one more eccentric, faintly lobed and with a star-shaped collar around the neck, closer to the metal original, the other circular and with a circular collar and thus more in tune with a potter’s manufacturing methods, as seen in the present piece. In the short period between the early Yongle and the Xuande reign, this latter shape, which is much rarer than the former, was itself modified twice.
The early Yongle stratum of the Jingdezhen imperial kiln sites already brought to light the discarded remains of a monochrome white ewer of this form, with the square spout fully opened, a model of which no example appears to have survived intact, see Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, cat. no. 6 (fig. 1).
A blue-and-white version of this shape may have been developed somewhat later in the Yongle reign. Painted with hibiscus, musk mallow, peony, chrysanthemum, rose and other flowers, all with matching blooms and leaves densely interlaced around the body, pinks around the neck, and key-fret, classic-scroll and petal-panel borders, it combines the archetypal designs of early Ming blue-and-white. The spout is now partly closed and pierced only with a double-gourd shaped opening; see the ewer illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 3:15.
This Yongle version is the direct prototype of our Xuande piece, which shows the same lush flower scrolls and supporting designs. Yet it has one distinct, if tiny difference: its spout also has a double-gourd shaped opening, but while the Yongle gourd has a pointed tip, following the shape of the fruit, on the present ewer, it is shaped more like a double-gourd vessel with a flared neck.
No other ewer of this form of Xuande mark and period appears to have survived, but a virtually identical piece was reconstructed from sherds recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns at Zhushan in Jingdezhen. That ewer has been much published, for example, in the Hong Kong Museum of Art catalogue, 1989, op.cit., cat. no. 79; in Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 22; in Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guanyao ciqi/Yuan’s and Ming’s Imperial Porcelain Unearthed from Jingdezhen, Yan-Huang Art Museum, Beijing, 1999, cat. no. 118; and in Jingdezhen chutu Mingdai yuyao ciqi [Porcelains from the Ming imperial kilns excavated at Jingdezhen], Beijing, 2009, pl. 076 (figs 2-4).
In the Yongle period a whole range of Islamic metal shapes were reproduced in white and blue-and-white porcelain, and many of them continued to be made in the Xuande period, with slight adjustments to their proportion and details. This ewer shape appears to derive from slightly earlier Persian models, see Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pp. 103-4, where several bronze vessels from the Keir collection, dating from around the 12th century are illustrated in comparison to an unmarked blue-and-white example, pl. 3-22 (fig. 5); another silver- and copper-inlaid brass prototype from Herat, present Western Afghanistan, of the 13th century is illustrated in James W. Allan, Islamic Metalwork: the Nuhad Es-Said Collection, London, 1982 (rev.ed. 1999), pl. 5. As mentioned above, this metal shape was in the Yongle period copied in two different ways in porcelain: while the present shape, which represents the rarer form, shows less similarity to the metal original, the more common version, with a star-shaped collar around the neck and vertical panels around the body follows the metal original more closely.
Unmarked blue-and-white ewers of both forms were sent abroad, probably as imperial gifts to foreign rulers, but equally entered the Chinese court collection. For ewers from the Safavid royal collection in the Ardebil Shrine in Iran see John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956 (rev.ed., London, 1981), pls 54 and 55; and T. Misugi, Chinese Porcelain Collections in the Near East: Topkapi and Ardebil, Hong Kong, 1981, vol. III, p. 160, no. A.82; for an example from the Ottoman royal collection in Turkey see Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 622.
Yongle blue-and-white ewers of both versions in the National Palace Museum were included in the Museum’s exhibition Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2017, catalogue pp. 114-115; further examples from the Qing court collection are also preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pls 37, 38 and 92.
While all other extant porcelain examples are unmarked, Geng attributes those ewers that are closer to the metal prototype to the Yongle reign, and the version, which is similar in shape to the present piece, to the Xuande period. In the Hong Kong Museum of Art catalogue, op.cit., 1989, Liu Xinyuan compares the shapes of Yongle and Xuande ewers of this model in a line drawing, p. 30 top right, and remarks, p. 69, on the fact that by the Xuande period the handle runs down more vertically and has lost its former curve. One of the ewers in Taipei and one in Beijing are illustrated with a cover, but the covers might be later additions.
Only three blue-and-white ewers of the present design, all unmarked, have ever been sold at auction: one, sold at Sotheby’s London, 3rd December 1963, lot 106 (fig. 6). Another, acquired in Bengal, India, by Sir John Murray MacGregor of MacGregor (1745-1822), Auditor General of Bengal under the Hon. East India Company, with an engraved Persian inscription that indicates that it once belonged to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) and a date corresponding to the twentieth year of his reign, AD 1625, was sold at Christies London 15th July 1981, lot 73 and in our Hong Kong rooms, 17th May 1988, lot 18; the third was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 2nd May 1995, lot 17, is now in the Au Bak Ling collection and was included in the exhibition Hundred Masterpieces of Imperial Chinese Ceramics from the Au Bak Ling Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998, no. 19.
Many blue-and-white designs of the Yongle period were copied in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), particularly to the order of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735), among them also ewers of this form, but only the related version with star-shaped collar, see Rose Kerr et al., Chinese Antiquities from the Wou Kiuan Collection: Wou Lien-Pai Museum, Chelmsford, 2011, cat. no. 136; and two pieces sold in our London rooms, one more closely copying the Ming prototype, 15th April 1980, lot 289, the other interpreting the design more freely, 15th December 1981, lot 248.
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