The present pair of vessels belongs to the rarest type among all these imperial ritual wares. Exquisitely decorated with nine dragons against a yellow ground – a colour reserved for the imperial family – the present pair of deng symbolises the sovereign power of the emperor. The five-clawed dragons, vividly adorned in bright blue, turquoise, puce and gold, are depicted striding through auspicious multicoloured clouds. The uniqueness of this type of deng cannot be overstated. Qing dynasty imperial porcelain ritual vessels, regardless of reign, are all monochromes, except for this single group of nine-dragon deng, which was reserved for the Imperial Ancestral Temple. It is extremely rare to find a pair of such vessels.
The design of the present pair of deng is consistent with that recorded in the Qing dynasty statutes (Huangchao liqi tushi [Illustrated compendium of ceremonial paraphernalia for State rituals], vol. 2, p. 3; fig. 1), which set out the following regulations:
The deng vessel for the Main Hall of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, according to the imperial guide issued in the 13th year of the Qianlong period (1748), should be made of porcelain and yellow in colour. Its mouthrim should be decorated with a key-fret border. The main body and its foot are to be painted with dragons and waves. The cover has to be similarly adorned with dragons, all between layered clouds on the top and a further key-fret band around the rim. It should be of the same size as the deng for the main offering table at the Temple of Heaven.
A closely related drawing of a yellow-ground deng vessel with dragons is included in the Huangchao liqi tu [Illustrations of ceremonial paraphernalia for State rituals] compiled in 1766 (Wuyingdian version, fig. 2). According to the inscription, such vessels were also used in the Rear Hall of the Imperial Ancestral Temple.
Modelled after an archaic bronze dou vessel, a deng takes the form of a stem bowl, supported on a straight cylindrical stem above a domed foot, with a domed cover topped by a round knob. Each deng vessel is inscribed with two reign marks, one on the interior of the cover, the other, either within the cylindrical stem as seen on earlier examples (such as the present pair), or along the rim on the underside of the foot as on later vessels (see below for a Guangxu example in the Shanghai Museum). At first glance, the forms of deng, dou and bian are very similar, but differentiation is possible. Virtually all imperial ritual porcelain dou vessels are enveloped in monochromatic glazes. The central section of a dou is more rounded, raised on a sprayed stem and completed with a domed cover surmounted by a rope-imitation knob. A bian, on the other hand, is made of bamboo and lacquered silk.
Deng vessels were used to hold da geng, a thick unseasoned meat soup which encompassed the essence of different ingredients and was considered the ultimate offering. On an altar, a deng would be placed in the centre facing the memorial tablet, immediately behind the set of three jue in the front row (see Qinding da Qing huidian tu [Collected statutes of the Qing Empire], vol. 7, and For Blessing and Guidance, Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2019, pp. 79-80, figs 44-45).
Like the Forbidden City and the Altar of Earth and Harvests, the Imperial Ancestral Temple was built during the Ming dynasty. Located outside the Forbidden City, southeast of the Meridian Gate, it was an imperial shrine dedicated to the worship of past emperors, empresses and other royal ancestors. In the Main Hall, where the memorial tablets of deceased emperors and empresses were installed, sacrificial offerings were presented in containers of various materials. According to the statutes, famille-rose deng such as the present lot – the only type of porcelain wares designated for the Main Hall – were used together with jade jue, gilt-lacquered wood gui, fu and dou, bamboo bian and fei, as well as bronze xing and zun (Huangchao liqi tushi, vol. 2, pp. 1-18).
Daoguang-marked famille-rose deng vessels with dragons are extremely rare. There is a single deng of this design and size, sold at Christie’s London, 1st December 1997, lot 115. A small number of related vessels from other periods, however, are preserved in museums and private collections. A Qianlong mark and period example was sold in these rooms, 30th April 1997, lot 692, and illustrated in Sotheby’s Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 359. Another Qianlong example is included in the exhibition Ch'ing Porcelain from the Wah Kwong Collection, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1973, cat. no. 47. A Jiaqing deng and cover from the collection of Bertram Izard was sold in our New York rooms, 15th/16th September 2015, lot 312; another was sold in our London rooms, 2nd December 1997, lot 289; and a third from the collection of Dr Chang Hsin-hai, Minister Plenipotentiary of the Chinese Republic, was sold in our New York rooms 24th May 1974, lot 459. The Shanghai Museum has a slightly larger Guangxu covered deng with an underglaze-blue six-character mark along the footrim, included in Zhou Lili, Collection from the Shanghai Museum: Qing Dynasty Imperial Porcelain from the Yongzheng to Xuantong Period, Shanghai, 2014, pl. 3-123; and another was sold in these rooms, 25th May 1979, lot 717. See also two slightly larger covered deng lacking reign marks, in the Huaihaitang collection, sold twice in our London rooms, 11th June 1996, lot 105, and again 10th June 1997, lot 106, and recently exhibited in For Blessing and Guidance, op.cit., cat. no. 21. See also a single Guangxu white-ground famille-rose covered deng with orchid sprays, included in the exhibition Imperial Porcelain of Late Qing from the Kwan Collection, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1983, cat. no. 120.
This pair of deng was formerly in the collection of Lewis Harcourt, 1st Viscount Harcourt (1863-1922), a British Liberal Party politician who held the cabinet post of Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1910 to 1915. He was married to Mary Ethel Burns, whose father was Anglo-American banker Walter Hayes Burns. Her mother, Mary Lyman Morgan, was the younger sister of J.P. Morgan. The vessels were inherited by the Hon. Olivia Vernon Mulholland (1902-1984), who held the office of Woman of the Bedchamber to HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1951 and was appointed Commander, Royal Victorian Order (C.V.O.) in 1958 and Dame Commander, Royal Victorian Order (D.C.V.O.) in 1971.
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