The panoramic scene carved on both sides of the panel is described in a poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795), evoking the distant geographical reach the Qing empire had achieved, by alluding to the History of Former Han, the Han shu, chapter 22, and its mention there of the Han Emperor Wudi’s (r. 141-87 BC) conquest of Ferghana in 101 BC. The inscription was calligraphed in an elegant ‘clerical script’ (lishu) hand by Dong Gao (1740-1818), Grand Secretary during the Qianlong reign and a renowned landscape painter himself.
Although many panel screens are supported by zitan stands, examples solely made of this precious wood appear to be very rare. Zitan is an extremely dense wood and the fine texture of the grain is particularly suitable for intricate carving. Its smooth texture has been compared to silky jade and its rich red to deep purplish-brown colour, develops with time a natural black shine referred to in Chinese as baoxiangliang (‘noble lustre’).
The wood was especially highly valued by the Qing court, but extensive use during the Ming and early Qing combined with the tree’s slow growth, had made zitan a rare, expensive imported timber by the time of the mid-Qing period. Strictly controlled, the prized material was primarily reserved for use within the Palace walls and even there, according to the Qing dynasty Archives of the Imperial Workshops at Yangxin Hall, its use was closely supervised by the Qianlong Emperor himself, see Tian Jiaqing, ‘Zitan and Zitan Furniture’, Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1989-1999, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 193-199.
The present screen displays a compositional virtuosity and refined high relief carving, particularly notable in the depiction of the different varieties of multi-layered leaves, pointing to a level of technical skill that is characteristic of the Imperial Wood Workshop and which can be compared to similarly deep landscape carving of panels featuring on an imperial throne in the Capital Museum in Beijing, illustrated in Tian Jiaqing, Classic Chinese Furniture of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 54.
Low panel screens, such as the present example, were popular pieces of furniture used not only as decoration, but foremost, as protection for example on daybeds, against drafts. Such kangping (‘bed screens’) were precious items and are mentioned in the well-known 18th-century novel The Dream of the Red Chamber among the valuable gifts presented to grandmother Jia on her eightieth birthday, see Sarah Handler, ‘Outstanding Pieces in Private Rooms: Chinese Classical Furniture in New American Collections’, Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations, op.cit. pp. 166-174.
Compare a zitan and boxwood table screen similarly carved in high relief and inscribed with an imperial poem, illustrated in Robert H. Ellsworth, Chinese Furniture: One Hundred and Three Examples from the Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection, Hong Kong, 2005, no. 78; and another zitan example of later, 19th century, date sold at Christie’s London, 18th May 2012, lot 1194.
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