At first glance this exquisitely painted dish with its design of five imperial dragons would seem like an absolute classic of the Ming imperial kilns; yet it is not only extremely rare, it is also most unusual in its choice of flowers accompanying the dragons. Five-clawed dragons are typically shown to be waterborne, surrounded by flowering lotus, floating in the imaginary waters of a pond, like in the centre of this dish. It is most surprising, however, to see the other four dragons, depicted around the sides of this dish, to be shown without wings, yet airborne, hovering among flowering peonies. Peonies with their lush fluffy blooms were among the most highly admired flowers in Ming China, probably also at court, because they are ubiquitous in the decoration of porcelain, lacquer, textiles and other media of the period. This combination of imperial dragons with flowering peonies, however, is very seldom seen. This takes much of the formality away from a design that otherwise appears very official, and introduces an unexpected amiable note, as it evokes the imperial creatures disporting themselves in the congenial environment of flower-filled gardens – a most appropriate habitat, it would seem, for animals revered as guardians of the water supply.
This design appears to be unique to the Xuande period, while the more conventional, corresponding pattern, with all five dragons depicted among lotus, continued from the Yongle (1403-1424) over the Xuande (1426-1435) and Chenghua (1465-1487) reign to the Zhengde (1506-1521) period and beyond, becoming particularly popular in the latter reign not only for dishes but also for many other vessel forms.
Two ‘five dragon’ dishes of the present design, with lotuses and peonies and of Xuande mark and period, are recorded in the complete list of porcelains in the National Palace Museum, Gugong ciqi lu [Record of porcelains from the Old Palace], Taipei, 1961-6, vol. 2, part 1, p.177, one of which was included in the exhibition Ming Xuande ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1980, cat. no. 57, and again in Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 188 (fig. 1).
A broken dish of this design has also been recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, and is illustrated in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan cangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-119.
A dish with the more conventional design of five dragons among scrolling lotus, but with the dragon plunging, with its tail raised high above its head, was sold in these rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 3156 (fig. 2), where companion pieces from other periods are illustrated: an unmarked early Ming dish in the Shanghai Museum, after Lu Minghua, op.cit., pl. 3-38; another example of Xuande mark and period in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the 1998 catalogue, op.cit., cat. no. 189; a dish of Chenghua mark and period in the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, published in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, 1980–82, vol. 6, col. pl. 32; and a dish of Zhengde mark and period from the collection of Mrs Alfred Clark, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1679, and sold in these rooms, 9th October 2012, lot 19.
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