The motif of elephants and boys combines overlapping auspicious beliefs and phrases. The elephant is associated with the mythical Emperor Shun, one of the twenty-four paragons of filial piety and a boy climbing or riding an elephant symbolizes the good fortune that comes from having many sons. The origin of the diminutive figures and the stately elephant of the present sculpture may have emerged from depictions of servants washing an elephant (saoxiang), a subject matter popular from the Yuan dynasty onward. The Chan Buddhist reference urges the discarding of outward appearance to reveal inner essence. This interpretation comes from the fact that the word for elephant is pronounced xiang – the same as the word for illusion, thus ‘sweeping’ away of obstacles bringing happiness and good fortune.
The present group, of bronze, enamel, gilt-metal, jade and hardstones, utilizes some of the most sophisticated decorative techniques of the time. While long accomplished in bronze casting and inlay, the manner of the gilt metal application and use of champlevé reflect the court’s assimilation and mastery of then recently introduced European methods. While this sculpture appears to be unique, there are related figural groups such as the cloisonné figure of a boy with a hobby horse and a dog from the collection of Mrs. R. H. Palmer and illustrated in R. Soame Jenyns and William Watson, Chinese Art II, New York, 1966, pl. 96.
In addition to its aesthetic merits, this delightful sculpture also benefits from its provenance. The Ionides collection, which encompassed many collecting areas, is considered among the most important of the 20th century for Chinese works of art, particularly that of the Qing dynasty. Both Basil (1884-1950) and Nellie Samuel (1883-1962) Ionides came by their mutual love of art collecting via family tradition. Nellie’s father, Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted (1853-1927), the founder of the company which became Royal Dutch Shell, collected significant paintings and furnishings for his home Mote House. Basil inherited his love of design and art from his grandfather Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-1890) who was a major patron of British art. The couple married in 1930 combining knowledge, experience and discerning collector’s eye to their acquisitions which found a home either in London or Buxted Park, Sussex.
Two further pieces in their collection reflect the Ionides’ admiration for this lavish type of 18th century sculptural group; see a pair of ivory and painted enamel figures of kneeling boys illustrated in R. Soame Jenyns, Chinese Art III, New York, 1965, col. pl. 96 and front cover; and a pair of gilt-bronze and champlevé figures of boys sold from the estate of Vivien Levy Henriques (1907-2003) which were inherited from her mother Nellie Ionides and sold at Christie’s London, 17th June 2003, lot 71.
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