This little jewel of a jar encapsulates the understated beauty created at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the early Ming dynasty. With its softly painted dragon motif, it is not only endearing to look at, but with its well-rounded form also a pleasure to hold. It is of extreme rarity and may represent a unique example preserved from the Yongle period (1403-1424), of a design that continued to be produced at the imperial kilns during the Xuande (1426-1435) and Chenghua (1465-1487) reigns. The design remained extremely rare, however, in each of these periods and appears to have been discontinued thereafter.
The striking winged dragons riding on waves made their appearance in the Yongle period and were depicted in many different ways. The current form of the ‘fish dragon’, an animal in the process of transformation from fish to dragon – and thus symbolizing the transformation of an aspiring student to a graduate of the imperial examinations, i.e. success – is rather unusual, as it still retains fins, but has already grown impressive wings. Similar fanciful beasts, but differently rendered, can be seen on massive Xuande fish bowls, such as one in the Sir Percival David Collection, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, 1980-82, vol. 6, no. 95, or another sold in these rooms, 5th November 1997, lot 1403. Other winged dragons generally have no fins and either three-clawed front legs and a fanciful curled tail, as on a Yongle jar sold in these rooms, 16th May 1989, lot 112, and illustrated in Sotheby’s. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, no. 211; or four-clawed front legs, like on a Xuande stemcup from the Pilkington collection, sold in these rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 24.
The present jar has traditionally been attributed to the Yongle reign, for example, by Julian Thompson in the 1978 T.Y. Chao exhibition catalogue and in the 1987 Tianminlou catalogue, but Geng Baochang has in 1993 published it as a Xuande example. A jar of this design, inscribed with the Xuande mark and thus undoubtedly of the Xuande period does exist; it was sold at Christie’s London, 14th-16th December 1983, lot 407, and twice in these rooms, 10th April 2006, lot 1663, and 11th April 2008, lot 2931 (fig. 1). This Xuande version shows, however, variations both in form and in design, differing in its silhouette, with the sides being less rounded, and differing in its painting style, with more white space left around the design and the waves being more stylized. While pieces from the same period tend to be quite similar in style, such subtle adjustations of a pattern are well known to have taken place between the Yongle and Xuande reigns, and these changes may well suggest an earlier date, in the Yongle reign, for the present piece. Although a Xuande date cannot be excluded, the lack of a reign mark would also make a Yongle dating more likely.
Two jars of this design are also known of Chenghua mark and period, with an even more pronounced shoulder, a more regular design layout and a more even cobalt blue, one formerly in the Sedgwick collection and now the collection of the Asia Society, New York, is illustrated in Denise Patry Leidy, Treasures of Asian Art: The Asia Society’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, New York, 1994, pl. 189 (fig. 2); the other was included in the Kau Chi Society exhibition Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Hong Kong, 1981, cat. no. 70.
What is particularly interesting about this group is that all these jars, no matter of what period, show the unusual ‘stepped’ rather than a flat base – a feature that half a century ago, when little excavated material of the Ming dynasty had been published, led to the now rejected proposal to date the whole group after the Xuande reign (Margaret Medley, ‘Re-Grouping 15th Century Blue and White’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 34, 1962-63, pp. 83-96). This attribution has not been borne out by archaeological discoveries since. While it remains puzzling that this unusual feature should suddenly appear, be retained over several reigns and then totally disappear again, it may well have been introduced for technical reasons, perhaps to reduce the thickness of part of the base. Such an intention is believed to have resulted in some Longquan celadon wares having a hole cut into the thick base that was closed again with a thin plaque.
No jar of this design, of any period, appears to be preserved in the Palace Museum collections today kept in Beijing and Taipei, and not only the design but also the form of this jar is altogether extremely rare among the repertoire of the imperial kilns in the early Ming dynasty.
Prior to the Tianminlou collection, this jar already belonged to another highly important Hong Kong collector of Chinese art: T.Y. Chao (1912-1999), shipping magnate and leading real estate developer of Hong Kong. Chao collected Chinese art for many decades, and besides porcelains also sought out classical paintings and calligraphies as well as jades. An exhibition of one hundred Ming and Qing porcelains from his collection was held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978, two sales of the collection at Sotheby’s in 1986 and 1987, where S.C. Ko acquired this jar.
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