FROM THE IMPORTANT COLLECTION OF A LADY
This pair of cups – absolute masterpieces of the fencai (famille-rose) colour scheme – appears to be unique. It embodies to perfection the subtlety in the rendering of colour nuances that became possible with the new range of enamels introduced from Europe in the last years of the Kangxi reign (1662-1722). An opaque white, rose-pink and lemon-yellow enamel were first used on Chinese porcelain in the imperial palace workshops of the Forbidden City, but very quickly reached the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, where they were immediately composed to the new and distinct fencai palette. The full possibilities they offered to achieve sophisticated shading in pastel tones were exploited early in the Yongzheng period (1723-1735), under the tenure of the painter, poet and artisan Tang Ying (1682-1756) as supervisor of the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen.
It is during this early moment in the imperial production of fencai wares, that the finest famille rose porcelains, such as the present cups, were created. In this period, the enamels were applied with the utmost care, with individual attention to detail on every piece; by the Qianlong reign (1736-1795), the palette had already been formalised to a custom-made colour range, ready to be employed for larger series production.
Not only the material was new in the Yongzheng period, however; the porcelain painters also aspired to new goals in representation: new emphasis was put on shading to achieve the impression of three-dimensionality even with the classic enamels, perhaps inspired by acquaintance with Western painting techniques, as seen here on the iron-red cherries inside the cups.
Pieces such as this pair of cups, with their subtle tonal variations, where individual leaves required several different enamel shades to pass imperceptibly into each other to create a natural effect, clearly could not be produced in series. And while fruiting peach branches became a classic motif of both the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods and appear on bowls, dishes, vases, and other shapes, pomegranates – clearly the most complicated fruit to render – are otherwise extremely rarely seen. The burst-open fruits revealing a dense array of juice seeds and the thin enveloping skins separating them into pockets are masterfully rendered. The painters’ employment of new materials and painting styles made possible a degree of naturalism that could not be achieved before, but eventually lead to an idealised rendition surpassing nature.
The Yongzheng Emperor is known to have been enamoured with auspicious symbols, which surrounded him everywhere. The present design, with sprays of fruiting pomegranate, peach and loquat, represents a variation of the auspicious sanduo (‘three abundances’) motif, the loquat here replacing the more common finger citron, as harbingers of endless long life, an abundance of offspring and plentiful blessings. The pomegranate bursting with seeds symbolises the wish for plentiful offspring; the peach, as the fruit taking 3,000 years to blossom as well as to ripen in the garden of Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, bestows immortality, or at least an abundance of long life; and the loquat, called pipa in Chinese and thus evoking the musical instrument of that name, is a general emblem of luck and, because of its golden skin, a basic image of plenty.
The three cherries haphazardly scattered on the inside of each cup are reminiscent of the loose arrangement of fruits on the inside of cups that are covered on the outside with ruby-red enamel, which are among the earliest pieces done at Jingdezhen in the fencai colour scheme and come with both Kangxi and Yongzheng reign marks; see the pair of Kangxi cups from the T.Y. Chao collection, and now in the collection of K.M. Lui, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 18th November 1986, lot 131; and a pair of Yongzheng counterparts illustrated in Julian Thompson, The Alan Chuang Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Hong Kong, 2009, pl. 94.
The reign marks on the present cups, both inscribed in six kaishu (regular script) characters and enclosed within a double square, take up a style of marking introduced in the Chenghua reign (1465-1487), and in the Yongzheng period generally endorse the most exquisite pieces.
No other cup of this design appears to be recorded, but a pair of Yongzheng cups decorated with a similar motif, but the branches holding several smaller fruits, from the A.E. Hippisley collection, was sold in our New York rooms (Anderson Galleries), 30th January 1925, lot 194; another pair of cups of that design, or perhaps the Hippisley pair, is in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Cologne, and was included in the Museum’s exhibition Glanz der Kaiser von China, Cologne, 2012, catalogue p. 200, no. 8 (fig. 1). Only one other pair of bowls with a related design appears to have been published, of larger size and with the Yongzheng reign mark enclosed within the more common double circle, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 808.
This pair of cups belonged to one of the most renowned collectors and dealers of Chinese art in the twentieth century, Edward T. Chow (1910-1980), but was sold at Sotheby’s some years prior to the three landmark sales of his collection at Sotheby’s London and Hong Kong in 1980/81. Chow began to work in the field of Chinese art and to assemble his collection at an early age, first in Shanghai, later in Hong Kong, and eventually in Switzerland. His expert knowledge of Chinese art, his high aesthetic standards and his relentless demand for quality made him one of the favourite addresses for the major collectors of the time, such as Sir Percival David, King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, Eiichi Ataka, J.M. Hu, or Barbara Hutton, many of whom he managed to advise and as such to play an important role in the formation of collections, as for example, the Meiyintang collection. The Edward T. Chow collection remains one of the most coveted provenances for a piece of Chinese art.
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