The present brushpot is an extremely luxurious item for the scholar’s desk and would have made a most desirable birthday gift in view of its popular theme of immortals surrounded by many auspicious elements such as deer and lingzhi. To create such an extravagant work of art, a high-quality boulder of substantial proportions would be essential. Such a boulder would not have been easily available before the Qianlong Emperor’s 1759 conquest of the Western Territories (xiyu), which gave him access to jade-rich Khotan. The number of surviving jade pieces of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) from the period before 1759 is, in fact, conspicuously small compared to the immense quantity of jade artefacts produced thereafter.
Khotan (Hetian in Chinese), in modern Xinjiang province, was one of the most important trading oases along the Silk Road. Its geological setting was extremely favorable for the formation of high-quality nephrite. Renowned for its translucency and extreme toughness, Khotan jade was highly prized by the Qianlong Emperor who on several occasions expressed his admiration for this treasured stone in his poems inscribed on spinach-green jade items.
Tribute jade from Khotan was sent yearly to the imperial court, yet the Qianlong Emperor appeared to have asked occasionally for more than the stipulated quota. The best quality was kept for use at the Ruyi Guan (The Imperial Department of Production) while the rest was distributed among the various other production centers supervised by the imperial court, mostly situated in the Jiangnan area south of the lower reaches of the Yangzi river.
Although Khotan’s rich quarries were under strict imperial control and unauthorized mining was severely punished, as was repeatedly mentioned in the official records of the Qing dynasty, clandestine jade invariably found its way into the many local private workshops. Indeed, some jade masterpieces appear to have been manufactured in these workshops. Privately financed by the wealthy salt administrators in the Jiangnan area, these costly artworks would have been offered as tribute to the court, see Yulian Wu, Luxurious Networks: Salt Merchants, Status, and Statecraft in Eighteenth Century China, Stanford, 2017.
As trade flourished, court commissions became increasingly demanding, pushing the craftsmen’s technical and creative capacities to new heights, whereby they reached virtuoso skill in complex composition, as displayed on the current brushpot.
The splendid pictorial scene displayed on this vessel was probably sourced from a painting or book illustration. It was yet the craftsman’s challenge to transfer the picture onto the hard jade’s façade. To achieve this, the artisan ingeniously treated the carving like a continuous handscroll painting, distributing the various stages of the story over the vessel’s cylindrical surface.
Wielding the carver’s tool almost like a paintbrush, the artist has created depth and perspective through bold multi-layered relief sculpting, subtle outlines and shadow play by shallow etching. Threes and foliage are rendered naturalistically in openwork, forging illusory effects that draw the beholder into the scene.
The pictorial quality of this outstanding group of spinach-green jade brushpots is exemplified by a related vessel in the Sir Joseph Hotung Collection carved with various scenes from the Gengzhi tu [Pictures of tilling and weaving], and published in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, The British Museum, London, 1995, cat. no. 29:18.
The Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei both possess spinach-green jade brushpots displaying related ‘figure-in-landscape’ scenes. The Palace Museum in Beijing has three pieces illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan zang wenwu zhenpin quanji. Yuqi/The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, pls 168-170, depicting ‘A Literati Meeting in Xi Yuan’, ‘Six Hermits in Zhuxi’ (fig. 2) and ‘Seven Hermits in the Bamboo Grove’ respectively; and a fourth without feet, in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete Collection of Chinese Jades], vol. 6: Qing, Shijiazhuang, 1991, pl. 278, illustrating a related scene.
The National Palace Museum in Taipei has a brushpot without feet, included in the exhibition catalogue Huaxia yishu zhong de ziran jian/Viewing Nature in Chinese Art. A Special Exhibition of Select Artifacts from the Museum Collection to Celebrate the 2016 Tang Prize, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2016, no. 28, carved with figures picking lotus blossoms. This vessel is also illustrated in Gongting zhi ya. Qingdai fanggu ji huayi yuqi tezhan tulu/The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997, cat. no. 58, together with two related examples without feet, no. 55 of smaller size, and no. 56 of somewhat larger size.
A spinach-green jade brushpot with a related figure scene, from the collections of E. L. Paget, Sir J. Buchanan-Jardine, Sir Bernard Eckstein and Sir Jonathan Woolf was included in the exhibition The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jade, Sotheby’s, London, 2013, cat. no. 45; and an example formerly in The Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul, Minnesota, is illustrated in Robert Kleiner, Chinese Jades from the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, Hong Kong, 1996, no. 13.
Compare also a spinach-green ‘Five Old Men of Suiyang’ brush pot, from the collection of A. Knight, sold at Christie’s London, 21st March 1966, lot 152, and again in our Paris rooms, 22nd June 2017, lot 9; and a ‘Wulao tu’ brush pot from the collection of Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890), sold in our London rooms, 7th November 2018, lot 19.
The present brush pot was formerly in one of the most important collections of Chinese art ever formed.
Alfred Morrison was an eclectic collector of European art, autographs and manuscripts. In the late 1850s, Morrison started to collect Chinese art and purchased many pieces from Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900) and from the dealer Henry Durlacher (act. ca. 1843). Morrison’s country house at Fonthill near Tisbury in Wiltshire, was known to contain thousands of works of art. The present brushpot was among the artworks that were cleared from Fonthill House by order of Alfred Morrison’s grandson, John Morrison (1906-1996), First Baron Margadale of Isley, who sold the brushpot at Christie’s London, 9th July 1980.
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