155
155
A VERY RARE AND EXCEPTIONALLY CARVED POLYCHROME CINNABAR LACQUER TRAY
MING DYNASTY, CHENGHUA PERIOD
Estimate
2,000,0003,000,000
LOT SOLD. 8,440,000 HKD
JUMP TO LOT
155
A VERY RARE AND EXCEPTIONALLY CARVED POLYCHROME CINNABAR LACQUER TRAY
MING DYNASTY, CHENGHUA PERIOD
Estimate
2,000,0003,000,000
LOT SOLD. 8,440,000 HKD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Chinese Art through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō

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Hong Kong

A VERY RARE AND EXCEPTIONALLY CARVED POLYCHROME CINNABAR LACQUER TRAY
MING DYNASTY, CHENGHUA PERIOD
of rectangular section, the everted sides supported on a low narrow foot and slightly recessed base, intricately carved in varied levels of relief revealing the multiple layers of red, yellow, purple, orange, green and black lacquers, the interior with a four-clawed winged dragon vivaciously writhing among five sprays of multi-coloured lotus, the fierce creature detailed with wide open jaws, sinuous scaly body, powerful limbs and flaming wings centred with a zigzag resembling a bolt of lightning, surrounded around the sides by four attendant winged dragons, their sinous scaly body of yellow, black, red or green colour finely outlined in red lacquer, two of them turning sharply their head toward their back, all four repeated in reverse colours around the exterior, the base lacquered in red
32.1 cm., 12 5/8  in.
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Provenance

Collection of Count Ōtani Kōzui (1876-1948), 22nd Abbot of the Nishi Honganji Temple, Kyoto.

Catalogue Note

In its magnificent design and dramatic colouration, this spectacular lacquer tray is unique and comparisons, even in general style or technique, are very difficult to find. The sophisticated lacquerwork is built up from many layers, beginning with a yellow ground layer and continuing with red, yellow, purple, orange, green, red, black, yellow, green and red, not only on the inside, but with an identical complex build-up used even on the outside. The use of purple and orange is virtually unrecorded and it is highly surprising that these two rare colours were not exposed in the final design, which is restricted to a harmonious combination of red, green, black and mustard-yellow, each colour used to represent one of the dragons around the sides. On the central dragon the artist has achieved a remarkable three-dimensional effect by carving the legs on the far side down to a lower layer of red, thus making them seem more distant. All this suggests a level of craftsmanship and artistry available only in an imperial workshop. Yet, similar works do not seem to be preserved.

In its overall quality, soft carving style and use of the various colours, the tray is reminiscent of an equally unique food box and cover in the Palace Museum, Beijing, frequently illustrated and discussed, for example, in Wang Shixiang, Ancient Chinese Lacquerware, Beijing, 1987, pl. 55 (fig. 1), where the author describes it as ‘unrivalled among coloured carved lacquerwares’. The box is also illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 57, where it is stated that the box is unique and represents the earliest example of polychrome lacquerware. It is published again in Zhongguo qiqi quanji [Complete series on Chinese lacquer], Fuzhou, 1993-8, vol. 5, pl. 47, where it is stated that the amazingly varied colour effect is created by a special process of polishing down.

The Gugong box has thirteen layers of lacquer, but apparently of four colours only: red, yellow, green and black, like the colours used on the present tray. The design is similarly widely spaced on a yellow ground, although on top of the cover it is raised against a carved diaper background.

Many individual motifs appear in several colours, an effect that seems to have been created by polishing the lacquer surface to reveal the layer, or layers, below. The same method appears to have been used on this tray, especially for the lotus scrolls. The Beijing box has a Xuande (1426-35) reign mark eccentrically incorporated into the design in a cartouche on top of the cover.

Polychrome lacquer was used mainly from the Jiajing period (1522-66) onwards, but Jiajing lacquers are very different in style, with a mat surface and much sharper carving. The present tray with its powerful, dynamic representation of the dragon, masterly layout, and ravishingly bright and shiny material seems stylistically very distant from the well-known colourful lacquer pieces of the late Ming. Little is known about lacquerware from the near-century between the Xuande and Jiajing reigns, beside a dish carved with a landscape scene, dated to the second year of the Hongzhi period, AD 1489, from the collections of Sir Percival David and Sir Harry Garner, now in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, col. pl. C and pl. 60. That dish is composed of red, yellow and green lacquer only, and is again very different in style, carved with a very busy scene with a large amount of precise, sharply-cut detail.

The design of four-clawed dragons with serrated wings is most immediately reminiscent of the painting on a Chenghua (1465-87) doucai porcelain dish, although the dragons there have bushy tails, see Chenghua ciqi tezhan/Special Exhibition of Ch’eng-hua Porcelain Ware, 1465-1487, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, cat. no. 128 (fig. 2). Winged dragons with a regular tail also exist in that period, but with five claws, painted in the form of roundels on Chenghua doucai bowls, fragments of which were recovered from the imperial kiln site, see the exhibition A Legacy of Chenghua: Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. C 120. Although no documented companion piece of Chenghua imperial lacquerware is known at present, the present dish would best seem to fit that identification.

One somewhat larger tray of similar rectangular form from the Lee Family collection, included in the exhibition 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 53, attributed to the late 15th century, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2121, attributed to the Chenghua period. Although that tray is an ordinary cinnabar lacquer example, it is somewhat comparable in its unconventional dragon design, which equally suggests a Chenghua date.

Chinese Art through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō

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Hong Kong