A Note on Classical Chinese Carpets
The study of pre- 1800 Chinese carpets is a relatively recent discipline. Carpets from Persia, India and the Ottoman Empire were extensively traded from at least the late 15th century; their aesthetic and commercial value has been well understood by collectors since they first arrived in the West. In contrast, the classical carpets of China were little known until the early 20th century, during the final years of the Qing dynasty, (1636–1912), when they began to appear on the international market. The rug scholar, Arthur Urbane Dilley wrote “The advent of Chinese rugs in America was as dramatic as their quick capture of popular approbation. As if the art arrived from another planet, The American Art Association announced the first sale of it in 1908”1. They were enthusiastically taken up by collectors such as Dilley himself, Louis Tiffany, J K Mumford, Frederick Moore, T B Clarke and the patron of modern art and literature, and collector, Scofield Thayer, whose dais carpet is included in this sale (lot 89). As calculated by Michael Franses 2 some 1,650 ‘antique’ Chinese carpets had been offered across 15 auction sales in New York by 1920, when the sales effectively ceased, as the sources of these pieces dried up. Illustrated examples in the American Art Association catalogues show many pieces in pristine condition, but the depredations of time and use have had their effect. Franses3 suggests fewer than six hundred classical Chinese carpets survive today with the Palace Museum in Beijing having the largest collection, of something less than one hundred, mainly examples from the reign of The Wanli Emperor, fourteenth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, (1573-1619). In addition there are ‘some sixteen rugs’3 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a similar quantity in the Textile Museum in Washington, mainly from the collection of George Hewitt Myers, with the majority of the remainder held in private collections In Europe and the United States.
This sale offers a unique opportunity to acquire several exemplary examples of Chinese carpet weaving, both published and unpublished. The works offered are in the main attributed to the weaving centre of Ninghsia in Western China, which seems to have seen an expansion in the production and availability of its weavings after a military expedition to the area by the Kangxi Emperor, fourth Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, (1662-1722), in 1696-97, during which he asked to see carpets being woven and was presented with several examples.4 Carpets were clearly highly prized as prestigious possessions: virtually all the portraits of the Ming and Qing emperors include depictions of carpets, see König. H. & Franses. M, 2005,5 pp. 19-23, pp.33, 39 for examples. Photographs of interiors of the several halls in the Forbidden City, dating from circa 1900, show how carpets were still being displayed in the palace by that date, see König. H. & Franses. M., ibid, pp.24-25. The sale includes a rare early example of a silk and metal thread carpet inscribed for Imperial use in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, possibly for the throne platform, dated to c.1800, (lot 54). Carpets were used on raised platforms (dais), on beds, kang, as chair, bench, table and saddle covers, to define areas of importance, provide warmth and comfort, and through their motifs and decoration, create a harmonious aesthetic which integrated their symbolism with the other Chinese works of art with which the royal household, their courtiers and officials surrounded themselves. In particular, the Larsson lion-dog medallion with 'hundred antiques' dais carpet, (lot 71) dating from the first half 18th century, and the Thyssen- Bornemisza lion dog medallion and ‘hundred antiques’ dais cover (lot 96), from the second half of the 18th century, exemplify the tradition of using symbols and homophones to decorate works of art. Further information can be found in the catalogue entries for these pieces. This sale also includes examples of carpets and rugs displaying all the key motifs associated with the genre: dragons, designs derived from woven silks, peony and lotus flowers, and complex fretwork and geometric patterns, which together provide a rare opportunity to appreciate the range and subtle beauty of classical Chinese pile weavings.
1 Dilley, Arthur Urbane, Oriental Rugs and Carpets, A Comprehensive Study, Scribner’s, New York, 1931 cited in Franses, Michael, A Brief Introduction to classical Chinese carpets, in Classical Chinese Carpets I, London, 2000
2 Franses, Michael, A Brief Introduction to classical Chinese carpets, in Classical Chinese Carpets I, London, 2000, p.14
3 Franses, Michael , A Brief Introduction, Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections, The Kangxi period, 1661 – 1722, London, 2002
4 Franses, Michael , The emperors and their carpets, Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections, The Kangxi period, 1661 – 1722, London, 2002, p. 7&10, quoting Du Halde, Description geographique, historique , chronologique, politique et physique de l’empire de la Chine, Vol LV, fol 02, no.39, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, 1697, p. 372 (26 April)
5 König. H. & Franses. M., Glanz de Himmelssöhne, Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China 1400 – 1750, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Köln, exhibition catalogue, London, 2005
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