The elegant yet understated beauty of the present bowl epitomises traditional Chinese appreciation for flowers and the complex and multifaceted symbolism they stood for. Blooming throughout the four seasons, flowers were not only treasured for their beauty, fragrance and atmosphere, but also for being messengers of nature and change. They were seen as emblematic of the rhythm and order in nature and as such have long assumed a prominent position in Chinese art.
The famous couplet, ‘Don’t wait till there are no flowers, vainly to break branches’ from the poem The Robe of Golden Thread (Jinlü yi) by the Tang dynasty poet Du Qiuniang or Lady Du Qiu (d. circa 825 CE) comes to mind, reminding us of how the ancient literati associated flowers with nature and the natural course of passing of time. The poem reads as follows,
‘I urge you, milord, not to cherish your robe of golden thread;
Rather, milord, I urge you to cherish the time of your youth,
When the flower is open and pluckable, you simply must pluck it;
Don’t wait till there are no flowers, vainly to break branches.’1
Lady Du reminds us of the beautiful imagery of delicate blooms which need picking before they wither, a metaphor for making the most of life while young and enjoying nature’s delights. Amongst flowers, the prunus blossom stands out for its prominent use in Chinese art. Traditionally, it has been seen as both a symbol of winter as well as harbinger of spring. The blooms are most vibrant when cold, standing out in the winter snow, when everything around them is bare and before any other plant or flower appear. They are cherished as examples of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. Their elegance serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble display. Lady Du’s wish in her poem that one should not cherish the robe of golden thread, a reference to one’s material needs, but appreciate that which is born out of nature, is precisely how the Chinese were able to transform a simple subject, like the prunus, into a beautiful and auspicious metaphor. In art, the prunus is often depicted as a member of the ‘Three Friends of Winter (suihan sanyou)’, along with the pine and the bamboo, as well as being one of the ‘Four Gentlemen (sijunzi)’ with the orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, symbolising nobility. However, its pairing with the lingzhi fungus, as seen on the present bowl, is unusual and will be examined in more detail below.
This bowl superbly represents the Yongzheng Emperor’s aesthetic sensibility, distinctive taste and fondness for traditional Chinese motifs, as well as his demanding standards for refinement and sophistication. Bearing this in mind, let us take a closer look at the painterly decoration on the bowl. The prunus blossoms, in shades of snowy-white and pink, appear on leafless branches, suggesting the season of winter and thus symbolising rebirth and longevity.2 The two gnarled boughs with knots and burls in the composition give a sense of age while the buds and blooms that issue out of the bare branches are refreshingly vivid and lively. The sharp contrast is deliberate and highlights the passing of winter and the imminent arrival of spring.
As mentioned earlier, the inclusion of the lingzhi fungus in the composition is interesting and warrants our attention. Of dark purple-brown colouration, wrinkled, and often stubby, the lingzhi may not be the most beautiful plant to look at but is certainly one of the most highly regarded motifs in Chinese art. Believed to hold magical powers, the lingzhi bestowed humans with physical and spiritual strength. It was also associated with special locations and sites of deep spiritual and religious significance. For example, eating fungus grown on the sacred mountains provided one with an intimate connection with nature. The lingzhi’s association with the teachings of the Daoist canons, as well as its presence in the context of the deity Shennong, the bearded sage shown holding a basket filled with lingzhi, shows its diverse appeal to different levels in society.
On the present bowl the lingzhi reiterates the wish for the pursuit of youth, as hinted upon in Lady Du’s poem, and the Daoist concept of immortality. The Yongzheng Emperor was a keen practitioner of the Daoist teachings, as well as being versed in ancient poetry and would have been familiar with Lady Du’s poem. Furthermore, considering that she was the only female poet whose work was included in the anthology Tang shi sanbai shou [Three Hundred Tang Poems] compiled in the Qing period, it is most likely that the Emperor would have held it in high regard.
The pairing of the prunus and lingzhi appears to be an early Yongzheng period variation of the better known imagery of the prunus, lingzhi and bamboo, as well as a further composite which also includes peach blossoms and flowering camellia. See a slightly smaller bowl (diameter 9.2 cm), painted with branches of soft pink prunus blossoms and lingzhi on the exterior and three blossoms on the interior, which may have served as an inspiration for the present piece. The bowl is from the imperial collection and is included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 70 (fig. 1). Prunus and lingzhi with the addition of green bamboo branches may be seen on a slightly larger pair of Yongzheng-marked bowls, in the Baur Collection, Geneva, illustrated in John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Colllection, Geneva, 1999, nos A 590 and A 591 (fig. 2), together with a pair of matching cups, ibid., A 592 and A 593 (fig. 3). In his cataloguing of the Baur bowls, Ayers mentions the present bowl as a closely comparable example. Another slightly larger bowl (fig. 4) finely painted with flowering prunus branches emanating from the base together with delicate tufts of bamboo leaves and a spray of lingzhi fungus, formerly in the collection of William Kenneth Slatcher C.V.O. (1926-1997), High Commissioner of the United Kingdom, was sold in our Paris rooms, 23rd June 2016, lot 93. A dish, also from the Baur collection, painted with variations of gnarled branches of flowering prunus, peach and camellia, accompanied by tufts of bamboo but lacking the lingzhi is included in ibid., A589, and also on the front cover.
Also notable in the decoration of the bowl is the technique with which the flowers are rendered. The style of the blossoming branches is reminiscent of the work of Yun Shouping (1633–1690), one of the ‘Six Masters’ active in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Also referred to as the ‘Orthodox Masters’, the group included the landscape artist, Wu Li (1632-1718), and the ‘Four Wangs’, Wang Shimin (1592-1680), Wang Jian (1598-1677), Wang Hui (1632-1717) and Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715) and Yun Shouping. The ‘Six Masters’ continued the tradition of the scholar-painter, following the precepts laid down by the late Ming artist and critique, Dong Qichang (1555-1636). Their paintings highlight the importance of the brushwork technique and display the beauty of the subject matter through the subtle and cautious application of ink. However, it was Yun who, for the first time in China’s painting tradition, adopted the technique and approach of sketching from life, making his compositions more realistic and accurately life-like than many of his contemporaries and predecessors. For example, his floral paintings included in the Album of Imitating Antiquity display the use of mineral pigments for lead white to complement the rouge-pink in a similar fashion as seen on the blooms of the prunus on the present bowl. The two prunus boughs, painted with the translucent pigments of contrasting colourations, pink and snow-white, express the tender grace of new shoots particularly enjoyed in the Spring.
The present bowl is also remarkable for its provenance history, having been in the collection of the prominent European Chinese art collector, Frederick Knight. Frederick was nephew to Henry Knight (d. 1971) who made his fortune in the insurance business in the Netherlands and became a major collector of Chinese art in the 20th century. According to Roger Bluett, Henry Knight built up the best collection of 18th century porcelains in Europe following his father’s advice to purchase “Chinese taste” porcelains. He displayed his collection privately at his apartment in Scheveningen, outside the Hague, and it was only after the exhibition of Asian art at the Rijksmuseum in 1954, when the curator, Jan Fontein, included many of his Chinese art pieces, that his collection became public knowledge.3
Frederick Knight is described by Julian Thompson as perhaps one of the last of the group of European collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese art which has included Sir Percival David, Sir Harry Garner, King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden and Henry Knight. Frederick spent much of his youth in his uncle’s home where he learnt about Chinese art. He must have been very close to his uncle as he was to inherit one-third of Henry Knight's Chinese art collection upon his death.
Frederick started building up his own collection in the late 1960s, purchasing ceramics from the Tang dynasty to the Qing periods. In his forward to the Frederick Knight sale held at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in May 1982, Julian Thompson mentions how the collection was notable for its range and for the care with which each object had been chosen, including the present bowl. Each piece adds something new to our understanding and knowledge of a particular type of ware and are well worthy of study.4 Frederick was known as a somewhat colourful character, albeit with a fine eye for quality and collected with great flair and determination. The present Yongzheng bowl is a testament to his discerning taste and knowledge of the imperial art of 18th century China.
1 Translation by Victor H. Mair in Victor H. Mair ed., The Shorter Colombia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, New York, 2000, p. 114. Mair notes that the ‘robe of golden thread’ is a reference to one’s official career and dignity.
2 See Fong Chow, ‘Symbolism in Chinese Porcelain,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer 1962, p. 24.
3 Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance. Collectors, Dealers and Scholars: Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America, London, 2011, p. 276.
4 Julian Thompson, ‘Foreword,’ in The Frederick Knight Collection Catalogue of Important Chinese Ceramics and Lacquer, Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 1982.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale