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.
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