This hexagonal jardinière represents the much desired and rare type of ware created for the Southern Song imperial court. It is exquisitely potted and covered in a thick light-grey glaze with the dark, blackish-brown body visible at the foot. The straight but slightly sloping sides of the vessel add depth and substance to the object, accentuating its unusual hexagonal shape. The glaze itself is particularly smooth to the touch and is suffused with an attractive network of crackles. It is a fine example of the fabled Southern Song official ware and showcases the potter’s ingenuity, high level of technical ability and aesthetic sophistication.
The vessel displays the characteristics of guan wares produced at Xiuneisi, located at the Laohudong kiln site, in the outskirts of Hangzhou city in Zhejiang province. Xiuneisi, set within the grounds of the Southern Song imperial city, was the Palace Maintenance Office for the official manufactory of imperial guan wares. It was established in the new capital of Hangzhou after the collapse of the Northern Song dynasty when the imperial family and the court moved from Kaifeng to South China in 1127. For more information on the Xiuneisi and the imperial manufactory of guan wares see the essay for lot 105 in this catalogue.
The magnificence and scarcity of guan wares were elaborated on by the eminent collector and connoisseur of Chinese ceramics and whose un-paralleled collection is now housed in the British Museum in London, Sir Percival David (1892-1964). In his introduction to the Oriental Ceramics Society exhibition of Ru and guan wares held in London in 1952, Sir David describes the present charming jardinière and its companions in the exhibition as follows:
‘“It is impossible to foretell”, says an enthusiastic late Ming writer in his discourse on Ju, Kuan, and Ko wares, “to what point the loss of these ancient wares will continue. For that reason, I never see a specimen but my heart dilates and my eye flashes while my soul seems suddenly to gain wings, and I need no earthly food, reaching a state of exaltation such as one could scarcely expect a mere hobby to produce”. In the centuries that have followed the writing of those prophetic words, the destruction and disappearance of these precious wares have continued with gathering momentum. Yet despite their much diminished numbers, it is, I suppose, not to be expected, so far have we hapless moderns fallen from grace, that the visitor to the present exhibition, however keenly interested he may be, will have his feelings stirred in this same way, notwithstanding the satisfying display that has here been spread for his pleasure, his appetite and his edification.’1
In this passage, Sir David highlights the extreme rarity of imperial guan wares available for viewing and the very enthusiasm with which they were and are appreciated. Interestingly, his knowledge and trained eyes instigated a further insightful observation on this piece when he mentions the deliberate imitative efforts of Song dynasty potters in both glaze and form, especially the borrowings between the makers of the guan and Jun jardinières (we shall return to this later).
This jardinière is unusual for its hexagonal form, although vessels of this type were made in other shapes, such as the quadrangular guan jardinière of comparable dimensions, in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Guanyao ciqi/The Guan Kilns, Beijing, 2016, pl. 32 (fig. 1). Scholars who have catalogued and researched the Palace Museum jardinière suggest that wares of this type were made to satisfy the imperial demand for miniature landscape gardens, known in Chinese as penjing and often referred to in the Western world by its Japanese name bonsai. They further note that guan wares in this special group were primarily inspired by Jun jardinières which may be found in somewhat greater numbers.2 This gives a compelling insight into the use of vessels of this type and confirms the reasons for the dimensions which are smaller than is usual for jardinières. A mural painting given the title by scholars as Courtiers and Guests discovered in the tomb of the sixth son of Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683), Prince Zhang Huai (654-684), of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and dated to 706, shows a servant dressed in court attire, holding with both hands in the gesture of offering a penjing with miniature rockeries and trees.3
Miniature landscapes became a highly developed art form that was treasured by the imperial household as well as the scholar-literati from as early as the Tang period. By the Song dynasty it was elevated to new heights with poets such as Su Shi (1037-1101) and Lu You (1125-1209) composing poems that record their joy and delight in penjing landscapes. Lu You in his poem titled ‘Calamus (Changpu)’ wrote as follows:
The calamus of Mount Yen and the stones from Mount Kun,
have been collected and arranged to lessen loneliness.
One cun long roots grow densely in nine nodes,
a handful of lofty value.
Crystal clear springs bring out the colour of the bluish-green pot in a manner
charming enough to impress the most eminent rustic.
With the mountain foliage in view daily,
this object sweeps the memory of cares.
The layers of roots, leaves, and shoots become better
the longer one looks at them.
Making one regret that they were not gazed at earlier.
It enables me to imbibe the wind-brought-dew,
and nourish my spirit as I myself age effortlessly. 4
Lu You’s poem gives us an insight into the appreciation of miniature penjing landscapes as well as the importance of the wares made for them. He praises the beauty of the bluish-green glaze of the jardinière, and expresses his admiration for the landscape it holds. The natural landscape and the man-made ‘pot’ together form the perfect synthesis of nature and artefact venerated by the elite at the time. What is also apparent is that wares made for the use of penjing were either one-off pieces or were made in small numbers as their shapes depended on the nature of the landscape itself.
Amy Liang in her work on the art of penjing mentions that Song jardinières made for miniature landscapes were primarily Ru and Jun wares, many of which are now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.5 See two hexagonal ‘Numbered’ Jun jardinières included in A Panorama of Ceramics in the Collection of the National Palace Museum: Chün Ware, Taipei, 1999, pls 47 and 48, both inscribed with the number ‘seven (qi)’ and the reference ‘Made for the use of the Bright and Clear Studio in the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian Mingchuang yong)’. The ‘Bright and Clear Studio’ was located in the Eastern section of the Hall of Mental Cultivation where the New Year’s Day ceremony of the emperor writing his first poem of the year, known as the ‘Bright and Clear Studio First Composition Ceremony (Mingchuang kaibi dian), was held. This suggests that the two vessels were part of the furnishing of this special studio with an important literary function.
On the significance of this distinct group of flower vessels known as ‘Numbered Jun’ wares, that were mostly made in moulds and inscribed on the base with numerals from one to ten, related to the size of the vessel, see Li Baoping, ‘Numbered Jun Wares: Controversies and New Kiln Site Discoveries,’ Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 71, 2006-7, pp. 65-77. The author discusses the controversy behind the dating of this group, with the emergence of two different schools of thought, one suggesting a late Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) attribution, while the other proposed a later dating, which would be more in line with the possible attribution of the present piece. However, the official status of this group is indisputable. It has recently been confirmed as such by scholars from the Palace Museum in Beijing who have identified them as the ‘display type of official Jun ware' (chenshe lei Jun ci huo guan Jun).6 Thus, the imperial use of both guan and Jun jardinières belonging to this group of wares has been established by these studies.
In addition to its imperial provenance, more recently, the present guan jardinière belonged to two of the most important collectors of Chinese art in the twentieth century, Mrs Alfred Clark (1890-1976) and Mr Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016). Ivy Clark, and her husband, Alfred Clark, formed one of the most fabled collections of Chinese ceramics in the Western world. They were active supporters of the Oriental Ceramic Society and were directly involved in the preparation of the 1935-6 Chinese art exhibition in London to which they lent five dozen pieces. When Sir David’s wife, Lady David, in an interview conducted in 1992, was asked whose collection her husband admired most she replied, ‘I think the Clarks'… collection, I would say, was one of the finest’.7 The Japanese art collector, connoisseur and dealer, Sakamoto Gorō, was a larger than life figure in the Chinese art world and whose extensive contribution to the collecting and appraising of Chinese art was second to none. For a detailed account of his career and legacy see Sakamoto Gorō: The Legacy, Sotheby’s London, 2016.
1 Sir Percival David, ‘Introduction,’ in The Oriental Ceramic Society Exhibition of Ju and Kuan Wares: Imperial Wares of the Sung Dynasty, Related Wares and Derivatives of Later Date, London, 1952, p. 2.
2 See the notes in Guanyao ciqi, op.cit., pl. 32.
3 See the mural painting illustrated in Amy Liang, The Living Art of Bonsai: Principles and Techniques of Cultivation and Propagation, New York, 2005, p. 101. This is considered the oldest fresco depiction of penjing discovered to date.
4 For guidance on the translation of this poem see Liang, op.cit., pp. 102-3.
5 Ibid., p. 203.
6 See Junyao yaji: Gugong Bowuyuan zhencang ji chutu Junyao ciqi huicui/Selection of Jun Ware. The Palace Museum's Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Palace Museum, 2013, p. 168ff.
7 Anthony Lin Hua-Tien, ‘An Interview with Lady David’, Orientations, April 1992, pp. 56-63.
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