It was with a distinct shock of pleasure that I realized the extent of his success in assembling what is unquestionably one of the finest groups of these wares to be seen anywhere in private hands today…
This is how in 1987 John Ayers characterised the collecting activity of Ko Shih Chao (1911-1992) and his Tianminlou Collection, when he wrote an introduction to the collection catalogue. Thirty years later, the collection once assembled by S.C. Ko can still be considered one of the most remarkable private assemblages of porcelains made at Jingdezhen during the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the period from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century that marked the kilns’ unchallenged position as the world’s foremost porcelain producers.
The Tianminlou Collection – part of which is offered in this sale – offers a very rare, astutely chosen overview of the technical and stylistic developments of the kilns’ production during this time. That the collection name may first of all evoke blue-and-white porcelain is not surprising, given that this section is particularly strong and representative, containing powerful Yuan pieces, exquisite examples of the early Ming period, one of the extremely rare Chenghua (1465-1487) ‘palace bowls’, bold vessels of the late Ming and the refined echoes of early Ming wares made in the first half of the Qing dynasty; yet the collection is equally remarkable in polychrome and monochrome porcelains, especially the wucai wares of the late Ming and a great variety of superb examples produced during the Kangxi (1662-1722) Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) reigns, including one of the most highly prized types, a Kangxi falangcai bowl.
S.C. Ko was not only a discerning collector, but above all had himself an excellent understanding of the subject, without which the collection could not have achieved this high standard. He was chairman of the honourable Min Chiu Society of collectors and actively involved in the affairs of all the relevant Hong Kong museums, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Fung Ping Shan Museum of Hong Kong University, and was of course a generous lender to exhibitions. On the occasion of the special exhibition of his own collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1987, a superbly produced bi-lingual two-volume publication was produced, Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, which represents the collection catalogue. Besides John Ayers, Julian Thompson and Laurence C.S. Tam, S.C. Ko contributed an essay himself on ‘Polychrome Porcelain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties’, where he detailed the historical development of this group of wares in a neutral, unbiased manner rarely seen in a collector, without attempting to present his own pieces in a particularly favourable light.
With its rich illustrations, that included panoramic views for a majority of vessels, and the thorough research that went into it, the catalogue remains a standard reference work of Jingdezhen porcelain; and since S.C. Ko generously subsidised it, it could at the time be offered at an unusually low price, which assured its wide distribution. The educational aspect and the wish to share his collection with a large audience were clearly matters of importance to him. Thus he also made his pieces readily available to the scholarly community, to students as well as fellow collectors, to be physically handled, studied and discussed.
In line with the Chinese literati tradition, the hall name, Tianminlou, that was chosen for the collection, is deeply anchored in China’s classical literature. It can be traced to a short autobiographical piece by Tao Yuanming (365-427), one of China’s most revered poets, where he describes a ‘Mr Five Willow Trees’ as living the Daoist ideal of a poor but free life, keen to increase his knowledge, but uninterested in personal recognition, fame, or even just approval of society. In the last line of his story Tao asks ‘Is he perhaps one of Emperor Getian’s people?’ (‘Getian … min …’), Emperor Getian being a mythical ruler of a prehistoric past marked by simplicity and happiness. Ge is the modern transcription of the family name Ko and Tianminlou only makes sense in combination with this family name, lou denominates a lofty pavilion. ‘[S.C.] Ko Tianminlou’ (Getian min lou) may thus perhaps be understood as ‘The Pavilion of One of Getian’s People’.
This form of this narcissus bowl, also known as ‘drum nail’ basins, belongs to a distinct group of flower receptacles known as ‘numbered Jun’ wares, mostly made in moulds and generally inscribed on the base with numerals from one to ten that seem to correspond to the size of the vessels. This type radiates the essence of Jun ware which derived its beauty from their robust forms which were coated in a contrasting luminous thick glaze of varied moon-white colouration that becomes almost transparent around the edges of the vessel where the glaze thins significantly. On the present bowl the glossy glaze is reminiscent of a hazy blue sky, infused with the characteristic markings that have become known as ‘earthworm tracks'. Highly prized throughout Chinese dynastic history since their production, these striking vessels were produced in a variety of proportions and glaze colours and are found in some of the most important museums and private collections of Chinese art.
The dating of these wares has been long debated and continues to divide opinions between a Northern Song (960-1127), late Yuan (1279-1368) and early Ming (1368-1644) attribution. The Northern Song date, adhered to by many eminent Chinese scholars, was supported by a surface find near the kiln sites of a mould fragment for coins bearing the Xuanhe reign name (1119-1125), made of Jun ware clay. However, at scholarly conferences on the subject in Yuzhou in 2005 and in Shenzhen in 2006, the date of the coin mould itself came under scrutiny and was basically discredited, since it was shown not to be a mould for actual coins of that period and to bear a spurious reign mark of an even earlier period on the reverse. Scientific tests of sherds undertaken by the Shanghai Museum have pointed to a late Yuan or early Ming date. A newly discovered Jun ewer very similar in shape to a gold ewer from the tomb of King Zhuang of Liang, buried in 1441, has also been offered as evidence for a later dating.
Since a large body of such Junyao wares remains in the Chinese imperial collection both in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and the Palace Museum, Beijing, often inscribed after firing with the names of Palace halls, a Yuan date seems less likely, as virtually no Yuan ceramics formed part of the Qing court collection. The production of these flower vessels fits better into the early Ming dynasty, and they may well have been officially commissioned for the newly built imperial palace in Beijing in the Yongle period (1403-1424). Furthermore, these vessels do not appear in any pre-Ming text or painting, and their form is similar to early Ming celadon-glazed flower vessels, such as one included in the exhibition Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 39.
See similar bowls of this type, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Selection of Jun Ware. The Palace Museum's Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Beijing, 2013, pls 94-96, 113, 115 and 116, together with fragments excavated from the kiln site, pls 97-98 and one excavated in Yuzhou city (pl. 114 and p. 343, figs 12-1 and 12-2). The inscription on the base is also consistent with examples from the Qing court collection and now preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published in A Panorama of Ceramics in the Collection of the National Palace Museum: Chun Ware, Taipei, 1999, pls 32 and 34.
See another narcissus bowl inscribed with the numeral si (four) from the Dr W. Kilgenberg and Reach Family collections, included in the exhibition Chinese Art from the Reach Family Collection, Eskenazi Ltd, London, 1989, cat. no. 24, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th April 1997, lot 696, again in these rooms, 2nd May 2000, lot 590, and a third time in our London rooms, 11th November 2015, lot 81. See also a blue-glazed bowl from the collection of T.Y. Chao, sold in these rooms, 19th May 1987, lot 210.
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