This modest, cracked, light-grey stoneware represents one of the most sought after wares in the history of Chinese ceramics – the guan ware of the Southern Song to the Yuan periods (12th-13th centuries). It is enveloped in an especially rich and smooth glaze silk-like to the touch and pleasing to the eye. Under magnification, the glaze contains millions of tiny bubbles which are referred to by scholars as the ‘Accumulated Foam and Stringed Beads (jumei cuanzhu)’. This is a reference to the scattered nature of the bubbles that make the surface of the glaze lustrous with a jade-like quality. The distinct web of crackled ‘veins’ running through the surface of the ware appear natural, displaying the technical challenges and trials potters faced in the application of glaze and successful firing. These patterned lines represent the stylish ornamental feature known in Chinese as the ‘Gold Thread and Iron Wire (jinsi tiexian)’. The dark body, visible at the foot and in the five spur marks in the interior of the jardinière, is a reminder of the iron-rich material of the body of the vessel which was considered special and much imitated by potters at the Jingdezhen kilns of Jiangxi province in the Qing period (1644-1911) when they coated white porcelain with blackish-brown slip before glazing. Scholars in the Palace Museum, Beijing, have named jardinières of this elegant shape after the beautiful four petaled flower of the Malus Spectabilis, commonly known as the Chinese crab apple (haitang). The pinkish-white blossom of the crab apple tree is distinguished by the beautiful shape of its individual flowers and long pedicels. Its name is a pun for a ‘hall (tang)’ which represents the home itself and in Chinese art has come to convey the message for the blessing of an honoured family home. While the floral form for a jardinière may be a reference to its use in gardens or terraces, the vessel’s charming small size may also suggest that it was made to hold a miniature landscape garden, known as penjing (or bonsai in Japanese) which became a highly valued form of art in the Song dynasty. For more details on the art of penjing and its history see the essay for lot 104 in this catalogue.
While no two guan wares are ever the same, the present jardinière is related to two vessels, one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Li Huibing, ed., Songdai Guan yao ciqi/Official Kiln Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Beijing, 2013, pl. 53 (fig. 1), where it is described as ‘Chinese Flowering Crabapple Form Xiuneisi Ware Jardinière (Xiuneisi yao haitang shi huapen)’, and another in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition Precious Morning Star: 12-14th Century Celadons in the Qing Court Collection, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2016, cat. no. IV-11 (fig. 2), where it is dated to the 13-14th centuries and mentioned as a type of ware that was shaped in a mould and fired on a ring setter. Furthermore, in their charming four-petal lobed forms the two guan jardinières and the present example are similar to a vessel excavated from a tomb dated to 1205 at Liugongmiao, Zhangshu city, Jiangxi province, suggesting a possible manufacture date for all three in this exquisite group of wares (fig. 3). Interestingly, the National Palace Museum has a further example of a larger celadon glazed jardinière of this form, with a copper-bound rim and four cloud-shaped feet illustrated ibid., cat. no. IV-12. It is attributed to the Yuan period (1271-1368) by scholars at the Museum who have compared it with contemporaneous Jun jardinières known from the Museum’s collection (to be discussed below).
The general rarity of guan wares is highlighted by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) in a poem composed in 1777 and inscribed on the base of a guan-type vase, formerly in the Qing court collection and now housed in the British Museum in London. The poem is worth quoting in full as it not only sheds light on the history of the production of guan wares from the Southern Song dynasty onwards, but also mentions the personnel involved in its manufacture and the Emperor’s deep appreciation for them which he labelled as ‘rare as the stars at dawn’. The poem reads and translates as follows:
‘Guan ware first gained renown when the Song court moved to the South. The ‘Ware of the Rear Garden’ was modelled on the earlier ware of Zheng He. (Shao) Chengzhang directed its manufacture solely for Imperial use, and neither ministers nor common people dared to pass or gaze upon them. More than six hundred years have passed since that time, yet one or two guan ware vessels, as rare as stars at dawn, may still be found. Who knows if the laws of former years survive today? Alas, how sad that this should be their plight – A reflection of the fate of the House of Yin in the Zhou dynasty.
Composed by the Qianlong Emperor in the Spring of the cyclical year dingyou (AD 1777)'1
The Emperor in his poem identifies vessels known as the ‘Ware of the Rear Garden (houyuan)’ belonging to a small group of wares known as the ‘Xiuneisi guan’. The Xiuneisi, known as the Palace Maintenance Office, located at today’s Laohudong kiln site, was the official manufactory of imperial guan wares and was installed in the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province - the new capital of the Southern Song dynasty. Following the victory of the Jurchens of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) over the northern territories of China in the beginning of the 12th century, the surviving Northern Song imperial family abandoned their base in the former capital of Kaifeng in 1127 and retreated southwards, setting up a new dynasty at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal of the Yangtze river. Thus was the beginning of the production of a ‘new’ guan ware modelled on the official imperial ware known from the Northern Song period (960-1127). One of the earliest references to Xiuneisi may be found in the work of the Southern Song scholar Ye Zhi, who in the Tan zhai bihen [Composed measures from the Tan Studio] wrote as follows:
‘In the [new] capital a kiln for the firing and making of wares was established and the ware was named guan. [The production of guan was thus] revived crossing the Yangtze River [in the south]. There was a Shao Chengzhang who proposed the undertaking of the “Ware of the Rear Garden”. His sobriquet was Shaoju. He continued the neglected production [method] of the ancient capital and established the kiln [site] at Xiuneisi. [Xiuneisi] produced celadon utensils called “inner wares” that used clear clay as standard. [These wares were] extremely fine with a glossy coloured [glaze] that was lustrous and translucent. They were treasured [by everyone] in the realm. Subsequently, a different new kiln was established at Jiaotanxia [which produced wares that were] greatly different from [that produced at the] old kiln.’2
This passage, which may have been the original source material for Qianlong’s poem on the official imperial manufactory at Xiuneisi, is revealing in many ways. It not only locates the new kiln site but also names Shao Chengzhang, eunuch chief to the court of Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127-1162), in charge of the production of what came to be known as the ‘inner wares’, confirming the imperial patronage and sponsorship of the production of guan wares. The passage also describes the exceptional quality of the newly revived guan, how it was modelled on the official ware of the Northern Song period, and how it came to be prized in the empire. The author further mentions the kiln site at Jiaotanxia in the capital which, we are told, produced a similar but lesser quality ware. Recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed the existence of two different kiln sites, one at Wuguishan, south of the former imperial city, the other at Laohudong (mentioned in the passage above) which was located within the boundaries of the imperial city walls. Because of their locations and the different qualities of the sherds recovered, the Wuguishan kiln has been interpreted as the lesser, Jiaotanxia kiln, with the Laohudong kiln being the exalted Xiuneisi manufactory.3
The shape of the present jardinière is better known from another important imperial ware made at the Juntai kilns in present-day Yuzhou prefecture in Henan province. Known as the ‘Numbered Jun’ wares, they are celebrated for their shared similarities in glaze and colouration to the classic Jun vessels (Junyao), however, they are distinguished for their sophisticated forms and for the marks of a single Chinese numeral on each vessel’s base, which gave the peculiar name of the ware. See a number 7 and a number 4 Jun jardinière of similar lobed form to the present vessel, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Junyao yaji. Gugong Bowuyuan zhencang ji chutu Junyao ciqi huicui/Selection of Jun Ware. The Palace Museum’s Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2013, pls 63 and 64. Sir Percival David in his introduction to the 1952 Oriental Ceramics Society exhibition on Ru and guan wares, lists the present guan jardinière as having ‘its opposite number in certain similarly shaped vessels and their stands of Chün ware, such as the well known example in the Freer Gallery’.4
Apart from its imperial provenance, this jardinière was formerly in the distinguished collections of Mrs Alfred Clark (1890-1976) and Mr Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016). The former, married to Alfred Clark (1873-1950), the British-American pioneer of music recording and cinema and manager of companies such as HMV and EMI, was an enthusiastic collector of Chinese ceramics and with her husband formed one of the most important Western collections in the early 20th century. Husband and wife were both members of the Oriental Ceramic Society, with Alfred Clark on the Council of the society between 1934-1948, and lent many of their pieces to exhibitions including the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1935-1936, and the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition in 1952. Lady David (wife of Sir Percival David) is recorded saying how most of the Clark collection of Chinese ceramics was displayed in the living rooms, with a ‘little room upstairs’ where their Song dynasty pieces were displayed. She described the collection as ‘small, formed by two people with extremely good taste’.5 The Japanese collector, connoisseur and antiques dealer Sakamoto Gorō, is a true legend in the world of Chinese art. His career, which spanned almost seventy years, made him an authority in the field that was far beyond simply having a good eye for art. Mr Sakamoto is remembered as an international treasure with the ability for divining the spirit or atmosphere given off by a work of art and detecting the true nature of the object.6
1 Transcription and translation of the poem is included in the British Museum website https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/ collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3180074&partId=1&people=162439&sortBy=imageName&page=1 [Accessed: March 2, 2019].
2 Quoted in Chuogeng lu tongjian [General guidance on retirement to the countryside], Beijing, 1950.
3 See Zhongguo Shehui, Kexueyuan Kaogusuo, eds, Nan Song guanyao [Guan ware from the Southern Song dynasty], Beijing, 1996; Du Zhengxian, ed., Hangzhou Laohudong yaozhi ciqi jingxuan [Selected masterpieces from Laohudong kiln site, Hangzhou], Beijing, 2002; and Zhang Zhenchang, ed., Nan Song guanyao wenji [A collection of essays on Southern Song dynasty guan kiln], Beijing, 2004.
4 Sir David’s 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. 4.
5 Stacey Pierson, Collectors, Collections and Museums: The Field of Chinese Ceramics in Britain, 1560-1960, Oxford and New York, 2007, pp. 171-2.
6 Jeffey Hantover, ‘Sakamoto Gorō and the Art of Mekiki,’ in Chinese Art Through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō, Sotheby’s New York, March 2015, p. 12.
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