The subject commemorates the retirement and friendship of five respected octogenarians in Suiyang, present day Henan province, and is known as the 'Five Elders of Suiyang', after a painting from the Northern Song dynasty. Painted in the early 1050s, it features five aged honourable scholar-officials, including Du Yan, who had attained the rank of prime minister, the highest rank among the five, Zhu Guan, a native of Suiyang, and the Director of the Ministry of War, Bi Shichang, Wang Huan and Feng Ping. The painting was later divided into five parts, now in the collections of three museums in the United States. The colophons, comprising of numerous admiring inscriptions and poems by notable scholars of the Northern Song period, praise the joys of retirement when, free from the formalities and restraints of the court, these old men could indulge in the enjoyment of life.
A related poem by Zhu Guan, one of the Five Elders, reads 'now with crane-white hair, all (five elders) feel ready to prepare the Taoist's cap. Suddenly arriving among forests and streams, they are able to let themselves go; having thrown away their hair clasps and sashes, they esteem leisure wandering', see Peter C. Sturman, 'In the Realm of Naturalness: Problems of Self-Imaging by the Northern Song Literati', in Maxwell K. Hearn and Judith G. Smith, Arts of the Sung and Yuan, New York, 1996, p. 168.
For jade brushpots decorated with the same theme, see a slightly larger example of Qianlong mark and period from the De An Tang collection, depicting the Five Elders gathering at a terrace overlooking waves, exhibited in A Romance with Jade from the De An Tang Collection, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 13. A further spinach-green jade brushpot from the collection of Robert Napier was sold in our London rooms, 7th November 2018, lot 19. In the introductory essay to the lot, Dr Xu Lin writes, 'In his old age, the Qianlong Emperor yearned for longevity, and this was reflected in the many longevity-themed works of jade carvings produced during his reign' (p. 50). Compare also a white jade boulder of the same subject matter in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch'ing Court, Taipei, 1997, cat. no. 47.
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