Michel Beurdeley, Chinese Furniture, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1979, pls. 148 and 155.
A 'Parrot and Peach' Incense Stand
Lacquer executed in qiangjin and tianqi ('gold-etched' and 'filled-in') technique has its origins in the Song dynasty (960-1279), but in its fully developed form, as seen on this magnificent stand, goes back to the Xuande period (1426-35), when it became an imperial craft. It remained extremely rare, however, until the late Ming period, and was more frequently produced for the court only in the Jiajing (1522-66) and Wanli (1573-1620) reigns. Any earlier pieces of lacquer decorated in this technique, and particularly any pieces of furniture, are outstandingly rare.
The superbly rendered design of a parrot perched on a peach branch on this incense stand is remarkable in its free and naturalistic treatment, and the painterly composition immediately recalls designs of the early Ming period. The present bird-and-flower motif is in fact well known from the Xuande reign: a massive blue-and-white dish of Xuande mark and period with a similar design of a pair of parrots on a peach branch in the centre, with one of the birds depicted in a very similar pose as on the present stand, is illustrated in Fujioka Ryoichi and Hasebe Gakuji, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 21 (fig. 0), and sherds of this design have also been excavated from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns, see Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no.77.
A pair of parrots on peach branches, surrounded by formal lotus scrolls, appear also on the cover of a 15th-century cloisonné box from the Seligman collection in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese and Japanese Cloisonne Enamels, London, 1962, col. pl. C. A related design of two birds on a crabapple branch can be seen on a carved lacquer box of Xuande mark and period from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 57. In contrast to the painterly treatment of the motif on these early examples, compare a dish of Jiajing mark and period from the Qing court collection, ibid., pl. 158, decorated in the same technique with a peach branch, but executed in a much more formal manner.
The five charming nature sketches around the sides of the table top, where flower stems and flowering and fruiting branches are naturalistically combined with minor plants, butterflies and other insects, similarly evoke the delight in idealized garden motifs so prominently displayed in blue-and-white porcelain of the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande periods, although in creating these, the lacquer craftsmen followed very much their own inspiration. Close parallels are less easy to find among contemporary crafts, although a butterfly and another insect are also seen on the Xuande carved lacquer box in the Palace Museum, mentioned above.
In its subtle, painterly employment of different colours and shades of lacquer, particularly for the peaches, this piece goes well beyond the typical tianqi style generally seen on late Ming examples, where engraved outlines simply seem to be filled with monochrome washes. Although the famous early Ming chest of drawers from the Low-Beer collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, with its delicate dragon-and-phoenix design is stylistically different, it is comparable in the actual lacquer colours used as well as the lively variegated manner in which they are employed. Monika Kopplin, ed., Im Zeichen des Drachen. Von der Schönheit chinesischer Lacke. Hommage an Fritz Löw-Beer, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, 2006, cat. no. 102, describes the way this effect is achieved by the so-called moxian ('polishing and revealing') method, whereby the motifs and the background are seperately built up from differently coloured layers of lacquer, the whole is then fully covered with the background colour, and the polychrome design finally revealed when the surface has been polished down. The catalogue states further that only few lacquer objects of the early Ming dynasty executed in tianqi as well as qiangjin technique are preserved, because this combination was used particularly for utilitarian items such as small pieces of furniture which only rarely have survived.
The present incense stand is also remarkable for its rare red-on-brown painted diaper pattern that covers the background – a feature similarly known from Xuande examples. An oblong qiangjin-and-tianqi box of Xuande mark and period from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is decorated on the top with a peony spray and lingzhi motifs, both on red-on-brown painted diaper grounds; see ibid., pl. 62 (fig. 1).
Stands of this tall, five-legged prunus-blossom form are generally known as incense stands, which was clearly their first and foremost purpose, but they would obviously be highly serviceable in many different contexts and are often seen in use in Ming and Qing paintings and woodblock prints, not only for holding incense burners, but also candle sticks and flower vases, and seem to have functioned as convenient all-purpose side tables; see late Ming woodblock illustrations featuring similar stands in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (I), Hong Kong, 2002, p. 24, fig. 4; and Ming Furniture in the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2006, p. 59, figs 16 and 17, and p. 61, fig. 19. Two later incense stands decorated in a similar technique, reputedly bought from a temple near Beijing, were also sold in our New York rooms, 28th/29th September 1989, lots 398 and 399.
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