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the upper compressed globular body masterfully carved through the brilliant red lacquer to the ochre ground beneath with two five-clawed dragons, their sinuous scaly bodies emitting flames and writhing amidst a dense ground of leafy lotus scrolls bearing large and small blooms, the interior of the wide, flaring foliate tray similarly decorated with three dragons, the underside of the tray carved with two further registers of lotus scrolls, the tall splayed foot similarly encircled with a meandering lotus scroll, the interior lacquered black with the six-character reign mark delicately incised in a line with a needle just inside the foot
An Imperial 'Dragon' Bowl Stand
No other Yongle imperial lacquer bowl stand carved with dragons appears to be preserved, and only one other dragon-decorated piece of the Xuande reign appears to be recorded, but none in the Palace Museums either in Beijing or in Taipei.
In its shape, its generous application of lacquer layers, and the carving style of its lotus scrolls with pointed blooms and curled leaves with double outlines, this bowl stand belongs to the finest pieces of carved lacquer ware, characteristic of the best production for the Yongle imperial court. It represents a 'male' counterpart to two important phoenix bowl stands: one from the collection of Sir Percival and Lady David and later the Lee Family, which since its first public appearance in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, cat. no. 1402, has been included in numerous further exhibitions, for example, in 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 47 (fig. 0), and was sold in our London rooms, 14th December 1976, lot 215, and at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2119. The layout of the design on this stand differs, however, from this dragon stand, in showing a larger number of lotus blooms but of smaller size than the present piece. The other Yongle phoenix stand, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was included in the Museum's exhibition East Asian Lacquer. The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, New York, 1991, cat. no. 28, where James C.Y. Watt states "This stand for a cup or bowl decorated with phoenix and 'foreign lotus' design is one of several almost identical pieces. By virtue of style and carving technique these pieces belong to a well-defined group of carved lacquer that must have been made for the imperial palace during the early reigns of the Ming Dynasty... Technically, the works in this group come as near perfection as has ever been possible."
Another closely related Yongle lacquer stand with phoenixes is preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, similar in shape and carving style, but the birds set among clouds; see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 27 (fig. 1).
A dragon-decorated lacquer bowl stand of Xuande mark and period, with straight rim and with dragons surrounded by clouds, also from the Percival David and Lee Family collections and repeatedly exhibited and published, is illustrated, for example in Wang Shixiang, Ancient Chinese Lacquerware, Beijing, 1987, pl. 82, and in Zhongguo qiqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese lacquer ware], Fuzhou, 1993-8, vol. 5, pl. 39 (fig. 2), and was sold in our London rooms 14th December 1976, lot 218, and again at Christie's Hong Kong, 1st December 2009, lot 1822.
All other early Ming lacquer bowl stands appear to be carved with flowers (or guri scrollwork). A Yongle-marked flower-decorated piece of similar form, also with a mallow-shaped tray, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated ibid., pl. 26; others were included in the exhibitions Tōyō no shikkōgei/Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, 1977, cat. no. 508; and Masterpieces of Chinese Lacquer from the Mike Healy Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, 2002-3, cat. no. 27; and illustrated in Yukuan Lee, Oriental Lacquer Art, Tokyo, 1972, pl. 107. One from the Garner collection, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, apparently unmarked, is illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pl. 33; and a similar Xuande-marked stand, included in the exhibition 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, op.cit., pl. 46, was sold in our London rooms, 13th December 1983, lot 56.
Lacquer bowl stands were in use since at least the Song dynasty and probably already earlier, for supporting hot tea bowls. Although the Qianlong Emperor in his inscription on the phoenix-decorated stand from the David and Lee collections regretted the loss of the original bowl, apparently assuming it to have been a matching lacquer piece, such lacquer stands most probably never had matching bowls but would have been combined with any kind of bowl of suitable size, made of porcelain or stoneware.
Bowl stands with plain or flower-shaped trays were in the Song dynasty already made in lacquer, gold, silver and bronze, but this undulating mallow-petal form was rare prior to the Ming dynasty. Two stands of this mallow shape, attributed to the Southern Song dynasty, are illustrated in the exhibition catalogue Sō Gen no bi/The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China. Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics, and Metalwares, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 2004, cat. no. 107: a carved flower-decorated black lacquer stand now missing its bowl support, from the Tokugawa Art Museum; and cat. no. 52: a black guri lacquer stand.
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