The Xuande mark appears, inscribed in the same way in champlevé technique within a cloisonné design, on two cylindrical covered boxes and a circular disc shaped like the top of such a box, the latter from the collection of Stephen Winkworth and Sir Percival and Lady David and all three now in the collection of Dr. Pierre Uldry. Each of these pieces is decorated with a large petal-panel rosette and foliate scrollwork, with the reign mark cutting across the design on top, like on the present piece; see Helmut Brinker & Albert Lutz, Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection, London, 1989, cat. nos 1, 2 and 4, the latter also illustrated on the cover of the original German version of this catalogue, published 1985.
The remaining two pieces bearing a Xuande mark in champlevé are unquestionably the most important pieces of Chinese cloisonné known to be preserved, the pair of massive jars now split between the Uldry collection and the British Museum, London; for the former, on loan to the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, see ibid., cat. no. 5; the latter is illustrated and discussed in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese and Japanese Cloisonné Enamels, London, 1962, pls. 12 and 13 and pp. 54-55, and was included in the exhibition Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, illustrated on the catalogue cover and as fig. 64 (fig. 1).
On both jars a six-character Xuande reign mark is inscribed on the neck, in a style very similar to the mark on the present box, in addition to the characters Yuyongjian zao, ‘Made by the Directorate for Imperial Accouterments’. This office, which undoubtedly was responsible also for the production of our box, was, according to Charles O. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, Stanford, 1985, p. 595, no. 8213, “one of 12 major Directorates … in which palace eunuchs were organized; headed by a eunuch Director … responsible for preparing fine wood and ivory objects for the Emperor’s use”, but – as these jars attest – also works in other media.
This way of emphasizing the reign mark and the mention of the government office responsible for a work’s production are highly unusual for Chinese works of art and suggest an elevated status for the pieces thus inscribed. Similar measures only come to mind from pure gold items manufactured in the Yongle (1403-1424) and the brief Hongxi period (1425) that preceded the Xuande reign, recovered from the mausoleum of one of the Hongxi Emperor’s sons; several gold objects excavated there were inscribed with the name of the Jewelry Service (Yinzuoju), an office manufacturing gold and silver wares for palace use, similarly headed by palace eunuchs, see Liang Zhu, ed., Liang Zhuang wang mu/Mausoleum of Prince Liang Zhuangwang, Beijing, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 32-35.
The champlevé technique, where design or inscription are cast or carved into the metal body of the vessel rather than being composed of soldered-on wires, as in the cloisonné technique, was extremely rarely employed in the Xuande reign; yet the Palace Museum, Beijing, holds one unique box of Xuande mark and period entirely decorated with lotus scrolls in champlevé; see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 31; and champlevé was also used to decorate the handles of cloisonné incense burners, such as one from the Avery Brundage collection in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, see Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, Bard Graduate Center, New York, 2011, cat. no. 23, and p. 6, fig. 1.6; p. 153, fig. 8.3; and two in the Uldry collection, see Brinker & Lutz, op.cit., cat. nos 13 and 15.
The reign mark on Xuande cloisonné wares was more typically engraved into the metal body, on the underside of the vessel or its cover. On the present box a second mark, finely incised, appears on the base. Xuande marks written in this style appear also on the base of a box and cover decorated with melons, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, see The Complete Collection of Treasures, op.cit., 2002, pl. 32; and twice on the beautiful ‘crab-apple’ box from the David David-Weill collection in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, once inside the cover and once on the base, see the Bard Graduate Center exhibition catalogue, op.cit., 2011, cat. no. 26, and p. 20, fig. 2.4.
Cloisonné vessels of Xuande mark and period are the first securely datable Chinese pieces executed in this technique. Although the existence of Yuan (1279-1368) or other pre-Xuande cloisonné has long been postulated, attempts of attribution are so far based almost purely on stylistic evidence without much attention to material and technical considerations and are still in debate (see the discussion by Béatrice Quette in the Bard Graduate Center exhibition catalogue, op.cit., pp. 31-34).
Although most Xuande cloisonné vessels appear to be unmarked, enough marked pieces exist to identify this period’s style and quality. Both in its shapes and designs Xuande cloisonné wares also fit in well with other works of art of the period, particularly contemporary porcelain and lacquer ware. Although Xuande cloisonné wares are predominantly decorated with lotus motifs, composite flower scrolls like on this box appear similarly on a stem cup attributed to the Xuande period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures, op.cit., 2002, pl. 30, and on a gu-shaped vase attributed to the Xuande reign, also in the Palace Museum, which in addition shows a foliate scroll and linear classic scroll related to those on our piece, see Zhongguo meishu quanji. Gongyi meishu bian [Complete series on Chinese art. Arts and crafts section], vol. 10: Jin yin boli falang qi [Gold, silver, glass and enamel wares], Beijing, 1987, pl. 299.
Flower scrolls, whether made up of composite blooms or featuring one single plant, were favorite motifs of Yongle and Xuande blue-and-white porcelains, whereby for the cloisonné technique blooms and leaves had to be simplified to what are basically silhouettes; compare a contemporary porcelain bowl with composite flower scroll in Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 135. The central flower-head with its spiralling petals probably represents a lotus flower seen head-on, as is suggested by its foliate scrollwork, which is not found in combination with other blooms. It appears similarly, for example, in the center of a Xuande porcelain bowl, ibid., cat. no. 63, or the center of a dish, where it is surrounded by a lotus scroll with three different styles of blooms in profile, ibid., cat. no. 186.
The present box is also extremely rare in its shape, other Xuande examples being cylindrical, or similarly domed but bracket-lobed in section. All these forms seem to derive from lacquer rather than porcelain prototypes, where similar flower decoration was equally prevalent in the Yongle and Xuande reigns; compare two large lacquer boxes of this form from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pls 42 and 57.
Even unmarked Xuande cloisonné boxes are extremely rare; one example, from the Duchange collection, of domed, bracket-lobed shape, decorated with lotus scrolls and foliate motifs, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 520; boxes of straight cylindrical form with lotus or peony designs were sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th November 2012, lot 2130, from the collection of Walter and Phyllis Shorenstein; and at Christie’s New York, 19th September 2006, lot 94; one box of similar domed form as the present piece, but probably made later in the 15th century, was sold at Christie’s London, 16th December 1996, lot 126.
At first glance, it may surprise that this box and its cover show different flower and scroll borders around the sides, yet such discrepancies seem to have been far from unusual. Several such examples from the Qing court collection are found in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see The Complete Collection of Treasures, op.cit., 2002: pl. 32, a box of Xuande mark and period, where the difference between top and bottom is discussed in the text; pl. 33, a box attributed to the Xuande period with grape vines on top and a floral scroll below; pl. 52, a box of Wanli mark and period (1573-1620) with differently designed and colored floral scrolls on the two parts; pl. 53, another Wanli box with differently colored top and bottom; pl. 65, a late Ming box with cranes and clouds on top and a lotus scroll at the bottom; and pl. 66, another with the ‘Three Friends’ on top and a lotus scroll on the bottom. In all these cases, however, an overall impression of harmony is assured since the general style of the different patterns, their workmanship as well as the material of the two parts match very closely, as is the case on the present piece. The chance to find and match two so exceedingly well-fitting, contemporary pieces at a later date, seems remote.
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