This dish closely follows in both form and subject matter prototypes made in the Jiajing reign, although the original version was cleverly adapted to suit the aesthetic taste of the Qianlong period. Dragons are rendered with more powerful and fierce expressions, their scaly bodies are carved with meticulous details, and contrasting lacquer colours are used more subtly. Furthermore, the composition appears less chaotic. A Jiajing dish carved with this motif, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Carved Lacquer in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1985, pl. 175.
Carved lacquer of the Jiajing reign was an important source of inspiration amongst lacquer craftsmen of the Qianlong period, despite the almost ubiquitous presence of Daoist elements in its designs. While Jiajing was a fervent believer in Daoism, Qianlong seems to have been ambivalent about the religion and although he provided state sponsorship for some Daoist deities, he banished from the court Daoist alchemists who had served his father, the Yongzheng Emperor. Every element of the design on this dish is steeped in Daoist symbolism. The sphere that encloses the shou character resembles a flaming pearl and a taiji circle, cloud formations are modelled in the form of the immortality fungus, and dragons are not only symbolic of the emperor but also of the contrasting cosmic forces of yin and yang.
According to Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang’an [Archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], a cinnabar square dish of Jiajing mark and period was sent to Suzhou to be re-lacquered and replicated in the 42nd year of the Qianlong period (corresponding to 1777). Four copies, incised with six-character reign marks of the Qianlong period, were sent to Ningshougong and Qianqinggong in the 44th year of the period (corresponding to 1779).
A closely related tray from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, is illustrated in Carved Lacquer in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1985, pl. 331; the pair to this dish was sold in our London rooms, 8th July 1975, lot 21, and again in these rooms, 20th November 1985, lot 251, possibly the same dish sold also in our London rooms, 1st-2nd November 1984, lot 232, which is now in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo (accession no. TH 474); and a third dish was sold at Christie’s London, 10th June 1996, lot 8.
The design carved on this tray is also found on circular boxes with Qianlong marks and of the period, such as a box in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colors. Treasured Lacquerware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, pl. 136; and another from the Edward Krolik collection, illustrated in B. St. J.M. Morgan, ‘Carved Lacquer in the Krolik Collection’, Oriental Art, vol. XIII no. 4, Winter 1967, fig. 7, and sold twice in our London rooms, 24th February 1970, lot 85, and 29th October 1982, lot 247.
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