The outstanding quality and inventiveness of Jingdezhen’s blue-and-white porcelains created in the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) reigns is – and always was – undisputed. The imperial potters of the Chenghua period (1465-1487) were faced with a tall order to create porcelains that could stand the comparison. That they managed to come up with pieces that are today held in perhaps even greater esteem is due to their inventing a completely new style that followed a different aesthetic and improving the physical quality of the porcelain even further.
The porcelain stone and glaze used for Chenghua imperial porcelains are arguably the finest ever achieved at Jingdezhen. The sensual pleasure of the touch of a Chenghua porcelain vessel is unmatched by porcelains of any other period. The term ‘palace bowl’ designates unquestionably the most distinctive Chenghua blue-and-white porcelains, bowls made for less than a decade around the 1480s, obviously imperial and probably used at court for food. They are remarkable for their understatement, their unsurpassed material quality and workmanship, unrivalled tactility, perfectly attuned proportions, and seemingly simple yet highly sophisticated designs that are executed in an irresistibly captivating, sharply focused and yet free and easy painting manner. They come in a dozen or so different patterns, the majority painted only on the outside, leaving the inside blank, some with different designs inside and outside, and a few, like the present bowl, with matching designs on both sides.
The present design is one of the rarest ‘palace bowl’ patterns and one of the most elegant. Only two other ‘palace bowls’ with the same motif appear to exist, both today kept and on view in the British Museum, London. On these three bowls, the flowers are distinctively rendered, with two of the four blooms on each side very realistically depicted with protruding stamens consisting of filaments topped by pollen-bearing anthers, and the foliage including long, curling, blade-line leaves. Related flowers appear also on another ‘palace bowl’ design (see fig. 3), which is more common. There, the stamens are not protruding, but rendered as white knobs in the centre of the bloom, the petals have distinctive white ridges down the centre, and the stems are lacking the long, slender leaves. Both patterns are very similarly composed, with four blooms springing from an undulating stem that forms a rounded square or lozenge around a flower-head in the centre and around the foot on the outside.
The differences between the two patterns are of course deliberate and probably intended to distinguish different types of flowers. Lilies and day lilies both have very similar blooms, but are otherwise quite different and belong to completely different species. They are easily distinguished by their growth, as lilies bear shorter leaves all along their stem, while day lilies have long, blade-like leaves sprouting from the ground around the flowering stem. While the two are difficult to distinguish with certainty in this stylised painted form, the elongated leaves on the present design might suggest that it depicts a day lily, and the related design a lily. According to Terese Tse Bartholomew (Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, San Francisco, 2006, p. 67), the day lily (xuancao) is in China also called ‘plant that dispels grief’ (wangyoucao) or ‘boy-favouring herb’ (yi’nancao) and is revered as an auspicious flower symbolising many male offspring and – in spite of the fact that its blooms last only one day – longevity.
Chenghua palace bowls are quite unlike any earlier or later imperial designs, because the layout of the decoration usually deviates in some way from an orderly, predictable arrangement – a daring and unique concept for imperial works of art, where any individual touch was generally shunned and machine-like precision and perfection were required. In the present pattern, one of the elongated leaves on the inside grows an unexpected spur, which interrupts the regular rhythm, and on the outside, three of these leaves spring from below the stem, while the fourth rises above it. It makes this – like other ‘palace bowl’ designs – vibrate, as if pervaded with some subtle motion.
Julian Thompson, who for years compiled and researched a catalogue raisonné of Chenghua imperial porcelains (which unfortunately never appeared in print due to his untimely death), remarks about the irregularities of this bowl (The Alan Chuang Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Hong Kong, 2009, p. 66): “In the design of the present bowl there are a number of irregularities of detail in the composition of the scroll, … which might at first sight be attributed to the whim of the individual painter. On close examination, however, all three of the surviving bowls are found to have exactly the same irregularities … Thus the irregularities are an intentional feature of the design …”
The two companion pieces that exist both came from the collection of Wu Lai-hsi and were sold in our London rooms, 26th May 1937, lots 45 and 46. The former, which is particularly close to the present piece, was frequently exhibited and illustrated, early on, for example, in A.D. Brankston, Early Ming Wares of Chingtechen, Beijing, 1938, pls 25a and 26a, was then sold in our London rooms three more times, from the collection of George Eumorfopoulos, 29th May 1940, lot 237; from the collection of Lionel Edwards, 8th February 1945, lot 87A; and from the collection of the late Major Lindsay Hay, 25th June 1946, lot 43, when it was bought by Sparks and entered the Seligman collection, before being bestowed to the British Museum in 1973; it is included in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 6:7 (fig. 1).
The second Wu Lai-hsi bowl, which was not illustrated in the sale catalogue and which is painted in a darker tone of cobalt, was bought by Bluett’s and entered the collection of Sir Percival David, today also in the British Museum; it is illustrated in Rosemary Scott and Stacey Pierson, Flawless Porcelains: Imperial Ceramics from the Reign of the Chenghua Emperor, London, 1995, pl. 3, and in Regina Krahl and Jessica Harrison-Hall, Chinese Ceramics. Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, London, 2009, no. 36, p. 73 bottom right (fig. 2).
No bowls of this design appear to be preserved in the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei, and no fragmentary examples appear to have been excavated from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns in Zhushan, Jingdezhen.
Of the related ‘lily’ design at least ten examples are known to be preserved, one of them in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Chenghua ciqi tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch’eng-hua Porcelain Ware, 1465-1487, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, cat. no. 35; another from the collection of Lord Cunliffe, who owned a pair, was sold in these rooms, 20th May 1980, lot 39 and is illustrated in Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, no. 102, and in Sotheby’s. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, no. 246 (fig. 3).
Julian Thompson, who published the present bowl in his catalogue of the Alan Chuang collection, wrote, op.cit., p. 66, “Since the first Chenghua blue and white bowls, in a variety of designs, were imported into Europe in the 1930s and designated ‘palace bowls’, their equally exceptional quality in the repertoire of imperial blue and white has drawn the attention it deserves. The slight waxiness of the glaze, with a subtle off-white tinge found at no other period, and the soft colour of the Chinese cobalt, so different from the brighter colour of the imported pigment, combine to make the palace bowls the most sensuous of all blue and white. … The finest, like the present example, are decorated with the same flower scroll both inside and outside the bowl in audaciously spacious designs completely lacking the horror vacui of their Yongle and Xuande predecessors …”.
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