The origin of carved lacquer is a matter of debate among scholars and connoisseurs of Chinese art.
While carved fragments of a lacquered hide armour from the Tang dynasty are known from the Tang dynasty (618-906), it is in the Southern Song period that lacquer thick enough for relief carving was first made. Wares of this type required the highly laborious and time-consuming build-up of lacquer layers, and were thus considered highly luxurious. These early carved lacquer wares share a number of distinctive features including the exceptional quality of their carving, a smooth and a lustrous finish and an almost reflective yellow or cinnabar ground. The designs were carefully conceived in and meticulously executed, as suggested by the generous spacing of the different decorative elements.
The majority of extant examples of carved lacquer ware from the Song dynasty were preserved in Japan or in private collections; three rectangular trays carved with related motifs of two birds in flight among flowers, were included in the exhibition Chinese Carved Lacquerworks of the Song Dynasty, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 2004, cat. nos 17-19, together with a cinnabar lacquer circular dish with cranes, cat. no. 24. A cinnabar lacquer tray of this form carved a pair of birds among various flowers, in the Los Angeles County Museum, is illustrated in George Kuwayama, Far Eastern Lacquers, Los Angeles, 1978; and a circular lacquer box, was sold in our London rooms, 16th May 2007, lot 18. See also a dish attributed between the late Southern Song and early Yuan period, carved with phoenix among flowers in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C., published in T. Lawson, Asian Art in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C., 1987, pl. 168; and another sold in our New York rooms, 18th September 2007, lot 22.
The elegant theme of pairs of birds surrounded by lush flowers and leaves appears to have its origins in the Tang dynasty, when it was depicted on various media including textile and silver. It made its first appearance on lacquer in the Southern Song period and continued to be popular through to the Qing dynasty.
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