The form of this bowl and its delicate motif of lotus blooms appear to have enjoyed immediate success in the Yongle period and continued to be painted on imperial bowls through the succeeding reign. The remarkable technical and artistic advances made during the Xuande period are evident in the vividness and clarity of the design and consistent application of cobalt. The instability and fuzziness of the imported cobalt prevalent on the earlier Yongle wares demanded a revised formula of the pigment. With the inclusion of manganese native to China, the cobalt pigment used in the Xuande period enabled greater precision of the brushwork, which in turn conveyed a stronger sense of confidence on the part of the painter.
A devoted patron of the arts and himself a painter, the Xuande Emperor took a great interest in the production of porcelain at the Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. Literary and archaeological evidence reveal an increased demand for imperial porcelain for both secular and religious use, resulting in the number of official kilns to increase from 32 to 58. Indeed the staggering number of shards unearthed from the Xuande stratum at the imperial kiln site in Zhushan, Jingdezhen, and the large collection of extant Xuande wares in the Qing Court collection and now in Beijing and Taipei, suggest a dramatic increase in production. Porcelain wares were made as gifts that signified imperial favour, but also for consumption at court and among members of the aristocracy. The Emperor himself reputedly ate three meals a day, each of which would have required a large number of utensils (Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p.119).
Bowls painted with this motif of lotus on the exterior and a composite floral scroll on the interior include one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 2, pl. 148; another in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 134; and a third in the Jingdezhen Ceramic Museum, Jingdezhen, illustrated in Keitokuchin jiki [Jingdezhen porcelain], Kyoto, 1982, pl. 40 (top). See also two in the British Museum, London, the first from the Sir Percival David collection, illustrated in R.L. Hobson, A Catalogue of Chinese Pottery and Porcelain in the Collection of Sir Percival David Bt., FSA, London, 1934, pl. CXXXIV (d), and the other from the collection of Mrs B.Z. Seligman, published in Jessica Harrison-Hall, op.cit., pl. 4:25; one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, illustrated in Mary Tregear, Guide to Chinese Ceramics in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1966, p. 30; and another in the Indianapolis Museum included in the exhibition Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and its Impact on the Western World, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1985, cat. no. 19.
A slightly larger bowl of this pattern was excavated from the Yongle stratum at the site of the imperial kiln complex in Zhushan, Jingdezhen, and included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi/Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 123, together with a larger bowl recovered from the Hongwu stratum, painted in copper red with a scrolling lotus on the exterior, cat. no. 7.
Bowls of this design were treasured heirlooms, as attested by the depiction of ten bowls of this form and design in the handscroll of the imperial collection of the Yongzheng Emperor dated 1728. From the Moorhead and Sir Percival David collections, the scroll was sold in our London rooms, 19th May 1939, lot 62, and is now in the British Museum, London, published on the Museum’s website, accession no. PDF X01, 16th view.
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