Meticulously conceived and rendered, the well-proportioned lime-ground vase is flanked by a pair of archaistic handles and ornately decorated with impeccable lotus blooms and other floral motifs in the yangcai palette. The vase is supported on three applied figures of boys, each portrayed with a round, cherubic face below hair tied into twin-knots, but clad in different coloured clothing picked out with different motifs. All are raised on a gilt-decorated iron-red trompe l’oeil lacquer-imitation stand with a gilt-inscribed six-character seal mark on the base. There is no doubt that the current work, steeped in extraordinary craftsmanship and innovative artistic ambitions, ranks amongst the finest trompe l’oeil pieces of the Qianlong period.
Vases decorated with boys, such as the current example, were used by the Qianlong Emperor as gifts and tributes for officials and gentry. This is reflected in the Qing court records in the 4th and 7th months of the 20th year of the Qianlong reign (in accordance with 1755). These records reveal that the Emperor decreed that, under the supervision of Tang Ying, 50 vases decorated with three or five boys were to be produced so as to be sent to Jehol and gifted to people (The First Historical Archives of China, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang'an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005, vol. 21, pp. 470-471).
By virtue of the technical difficulties in their production, ceramic vessels with appliqué designs are very rare. Although the Qing court records suggest that over 50 such vases were commissioned, there are very few extant examples, of which most are applied with boys clambering on top and fired on footrings, unlike the current vase, which was fired on spurs. Compare a Qianlong yangcai floral vase, inscribed with a six-character underglaze-blue seal mark to the base, from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in China. The Three Emperors, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005-2006, cat. no. 301, and illustrated in The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, Taipei, 2013, cat. no. II-3.30. Modelled with a trefoil rim and foot, the vase is further applied with three boys similar in size to those supporting the current vase. One boy is rendered clambering atop the shoulder of the vessel, another tying a knot to a ribbon around the neck whilst the third holds one end over his shoulder.
Compare also other Qianlong yangcai vases decorated with differing numbers of boys, including a turquoise-ground lantern vase decorated on the exterior with seven boys, from the collection of M.D. Ezekiel, illustrated in R.L. Hobson, The Later Ceramic Wares of China, London, 1925, pl. IX, fig. 2, and later sold at Christie’s London, 18th March 1930, lot 73, Christie’s New York, 12th December 1977, lot 211 and again in these rooms, 28th/29th November 1978, lot 318. Compare also another vase, decorated with five boys, inscribed with an iron-red six-character seal mark, sold at Christie’s London, 10th May 2016, lot 78.
The three half-kneeling boys, upon which the vase rests, are marked with such strength and unity that they evoke the anthropomorphic feet of the Warring States period bronze vessels, as well as the guardian figures of the Tang dynasty. The structure and proportion of the vessel, with applied motifs in between the vessel and the stand, are also notably similar to those of contemporaneous ‘three ram’ zun vases, such as one decorated with a Jun-type glaze, illustrated in Grand View: Special Exhibition of Ju Ware from the Northern Sung Dynasty, Taipei, 2007, cat. no. 15.
It is rare to find an incurved rim as found on the current vase in the Qianlong period. See a pink-ground famille-rose ‘butterfly’ vase from the collection of the Ping Y. Tai Foundation, modelled with a comparable incurved rim, sold at Christie’s London, 18th October 1971 from the Fonthill heirlooms, lot 65, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2388.
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