Symbolic of purity and rarity, lapis lazuli appears to have been named qingjinshi (blue gold stone) during the Qing dynasty. The aura of mystery that surrounded this stone may have been due to the virtually inaccessible location of its principle mines in the remote Badakshan region of northeast Afghanistan behind the Hindu Kush. According to Ming Wilson in ‘The Colour of Stones’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 62, 1997-1998, p. 34, there are no known records identifying this stone before the Qing period although beads attributed to the Western Han period have been excavated. Its natural smoothness allowed it to be polished to a high degree which highlighted the brilliance of its blue colour and contrasting natural inclusions. Carvings fashioned from lapis lazuli are comparatively uncommon and were reserved for the imperial court.
There is little doubt that lapis lazuli was highly prized during the Qianlong period, as evidenced by numerous objects and carvings dyed to imitate the natural stone, such as an 18th-century carved stone table screen dyed to mimic lapis lazuli, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, published in Michael Knight et al., Later Chinese Jades, Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 2007, no. 102. In fact, the craftsmen even went to the lengths of inserting small bits of metal to simulate the pyrite inclusions in the natural mineral.
Due to its granular yet relatively softer nature, lapis lazuli can hardly be worked with exquisite fine details and equally delineated outlines as nephrite jades. The deep undercutting and high-relief carving on the present brushpot, decorated with an idyllic landscape, epitomises this.
For other examples of lapis lazuli carving created in the Qianlong era, see a three-piece garniture, illustrated in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese jades], vol. 6, Beijing, 1991, pl. 95; and an archaistic censer in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages. Qing Dynasty, vol. 12, Hong Kong, 1997, pl. 100. Compare also the similar texture of the stone, with the same striations of colour and similarly brilliant gold flecks, on an Imperial lapis lazuli vase inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor on the subject of Zou Yigui’s Sanyi tu, sold at Christie’s London, 21st October 1974, lot 84 and again in our London rooms, 9th November 2011, lot 129.
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