T his September, Sotheby’s will offer a group of imperial Kangxi period (1662-1722) porcelain assembled by a private collector who started acquiring Chinese art in the 1970s. Many of the works were formerly owned by esteemed and influential collectors of Chinese art such as E.T. Chow, H.M. Knight, T.Y. Chao and Francis and Brodie Lodge. Highlights include an exceptional underglaze-red and famille-verte ‘rose’ vase, a rare celadon-glazed ‘dragon’ amphora vase, and a discerning selection of peachbloom-glazed vessels for the scholar’s table.
What’s in a name? Chinese glaze terminology
Chinese potters were masters of glaze technology and their creations were widely admired by domestic and international audiences alike. Over time, connoisseurs developed specialized nomenclature to describe the qualities of specific glaze types, and many of these terms continue to be used today. Among the most celebrated glazes are the so-called ‘peachbloom’, ‘clair-de-lune’, ‘Langyao’, and ‘sacrificial blue’ glazes, all of which appear in this exquisite private collection of porcelains from the Kangxi period. Below is a brief introduction to the history of each of these terms and their meanings.
Formal Elegance: Kangxi Peachbloom-glazed vessels
With its wide range of tones and variegated effects, the peachbloom glaze ranks among the most important innovations developed by the imperial kiln factory in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Peachbloom is special among Qing dynasty glazes as it deliberately exploits the different decorative effects that the elusive copper pigment produced during firing. Copper pigment had been largely abandoned after the Xuande reign (r. 1426-35) because it was notoriously difficult to fire and often produced uneven and unsatisfactory results. The appointment of Zang Yingxuan as supervisor of the imperial kilns and his arrival at Jingdezhen on the 20th year of Kangxi’s reign, corresponding to 1681, initiated a new era of high-quality production. Imperial peachbloom wares were only made during the Kangxi period but in several finely potted elegant forms, demonstrating the technical artistry of Qing potters. Explore and discover the famous forms below.
Brush Washer (Tangluo xi)
Known by the descriptive term tangluo xi, this brushwasher represents one of the most well-known forms among peachbloom wares. However, this piece is particularly special for the additional wen (italics) character inscribed on the foot. Wen signifies culture and education, and is therefore highly appropriate for this type of vessel.
Beehive Waterpot (Taibai zun)
Waterpots of this characteristic form are known as taibai zun, after the Tang dynasty (618-907) poet Li Taibai (701-762). A notorious drinker, he is often depicted leaning against a wine jar of this form. While this form is commonly described as a waterpot, its intended use is difficult to identify. It is imagined that vessels of this type were filled with water to allow a painter to dip their brush and then shape it on the neck. However, Chinese painters typically dip their brush directly into the ink, previously prepared by grinding an ink cake with a few drops of water.
Amphora Vase (Liuye ping)
Vases of this form are known as liuye ping (willow-leaf bottles), in reference to one of Guanyin’s attributes, a branch of willow, or alluding to the resemblance of its form to a slender willow leaf. The form of this vase is particularly elegant and would have required a stand to be securely displayed as its narrow foot, recessed base and elongated form made it unstable. The potter cleverly designed the piece with a high foot which has been left unglazed to accommodate the stand.
Chrysanthemum Vase (Juban ping)
Known as juban ping, ‘chrysanthemum petal vase’, this piece is remarkable for its pleasing, well-balanced form and delicate rose-pink glaze. The remarkable quality and variety of new forms created during the Kangxi reign at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen could hardly be better illustrated than by the present vase. The fine potting and striking mottled glazes display the technological and artistic advances made at Jingdezhen in this period.
Seal Paste Box (Yinni Gaihe)
Small boxes for storing seal paste were often made in the preceding Ming dynasty from organic materials; standing as symbols of simplicity and a life lived in tune with nature, concepts at the center of Daoist and Neo-Confucian philosophy. The peachbloom glaze, especially cherished because of its deceptive simplicity and unpredictability, provided scholar-officials with an attractive porcelain alternative.
Illustrious Collectors of Kangxi Porcelain
Kangxi period porcelains have attracted the most discerning connoisseurs and collectors for over three centuries. As a result, some of the finest pieces can be traced to illustrious owners, and a fuller picture can be painted of their circulation in these elite circles. Numerous porcelains in the present private collection were previously enjoyed by renowned collectors of the past two centuries, whose deep expertise and admiration of Chinese porcelains advanced the study, appreciation, and preservation of these treasures. Below are brief biographies of some of the significant previous owners of porcelains in the present sale.