Ceramics & Works of Art

Our catalogue this year encompasses a wide range of materials, in addition to the usual broad selection of jade. We have always striven to include the minerals and hard stones from the Song Period to the end of the Eighteenth Century, and looking back over some of the past exhibitions, we have clearly sought to include unusual works of art which may have been overlooked by others. The fact that these objects are now being rediscovered is of little surprise to those who have studied and sold them over the years.

Lapis lazuli has been mined in Badakhshan Province in North East Afghanistan for more than six thousand years, and the two scholar’s objects (nos. 44 and 45) we show are wonderful examples of this stone. From a private English collection comes a classic example of a Chinese mountain, with its combination of retreats, waterfalls, trees and rock work, giving it a silent and powerful solidity. The wish of the Chinese to understand and co-ordinate their activities with those of the Universe is paramount, and the imagery of this rocky outcrop encompasses not only the scholar’s attempt to understand the larger world outside, but his observation of all natural phenomena, that being the seasons, the planets and the immediate nature outside.

Alongside is a brushpot, the carver using a slightly lighter tone of lapis, to enhance the shallow but carefully rendered depictions. The provenance of the latter is French, and together with turquoise glazed porcelain, it was a colour heavily collected in Europe at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century. Lapis was important to the Qing courts, as can be seen in its use as rosary beads and inlay to ceremonial objects, as well as pigment in paintings and porcelain.

The source for rock crystal is within China and Tibet, and the Chinese word ‘shuijing’ meaning ‘essence of water’ follows the suggestion of Pliny The Elder, the Roman author and naturalist, that rock crystal was to be found at high altitudes, thus frozen water. Its name is to be found in both Wei and Tang Dynasty records, each referring to its introduction from Persia at the time. Our piece here (no. 43) is an unusual bronze form guang with its original titan wood stand, once more reinforcing the Qianlong Emperor’s love of antiquity. This form of wine vessel, of course, can be found in Shang and Zhou period bronzes, but its appearance in rock crystal during the eighteenth century is rare and surprising.

There are many auspicious objects, but one of the main gifts most coveted by the Emperor Qianlong was the ruyi sceptre, with its ‘as you like’ meaning and its promise of good fortune to the owner. Our example (no. 53) is an unusual combination of zitan, a dark purplish-black wood with a dense tight grain, and cinnabar lacquer used here for the insets. The throne rooms in The Forbidden City include several magnificent articles of furniture, thrones and screens, with this combination of wood and lacquer. The mixture of the highly emblematic sceptre and the design of the peach, pomegranate and lingzhi, give it a heady flavour sustained by their concepts of the universe and its propitious and rich motif material. The style of the carving is reminiscent of the more elaborate sceptres made from hard stones and materials such as coral and wood whereby the natural knots, contours and gnarls of a branch are brought out by the worker, again using nature as his blueprint The use of lacquer in the insets is a neat twist on returning the sap too the wood.

The rhinoceros horn brushpot (no. 57) is an unusual shape in this material, almost reminiscent of a metal ware shape, and certainly to be found in ivory and jade. It s small for a brush pot, so its use may have been for incense tools or smaller writing accoutrements. The decoration is reflective of archaic styles, but its real beauty lies in the colour and use of the horn. The warm dark brown contrasts with the black rims, the carver cleverly using the natural texture of the horn before him. Rhinoceros horn was allied with Daoist principles and was thought to have the power of neutralising poisons, in addition to its aphrodisiac qualities.

This bring us neatly to our painting of a drunken scholar (no. 64) pushed home by a tired looking boy attendant On the ground behind the lies an upturned rhinoceros horn libation cup, uncharted, and for the moment missing its stand. Late Ming in date, this painting supports the notion of religious and secular practices intermingled among the intelligentsia. And even the academically inclined can’t resist a glass of wine or two. In the catalogue jargon of today, this is clearly not intended as a collector’s item, but for use.

Over the years we have sold several good, large pieces of Ming and Qing cinnabar lacquer, and the design on this circular box (no. 54) of boys engaged in various playful activities was often used to express wishes for success in the civil service examinations, or to convey hope that a certain family would produce more sons. The depth of the carving and the full richness of the colour testify to an object kept in its original state.

Finally we come to a selection of jade carvings that is both broad in its subject matter and, of course, stimulating in its question of dating. There are two very good beasts (nos. 6 and 7) one with reddish ends to head and tail, and the other a powerful miniature sculpture with a flat base worn by movement over the years. The former we have dated to the Song Period. The first recorded jade carvings of creatures standing in the round independently are from the Eastern Zhou. These solitary objects progressed from being used as a link to the world of Immortals and associated folk beliefs, to actually being worn close to the body to intensify the feeling of long life and even Immortality. By the time of the Song period this association had loosened and the function had changed. The cult of the scholar poet and the intense nature of the academic world had filtered down to the ateliers and workshops so that increasingly jade was used as weights, rests and washers. The naturalistic pose of some Song animals reflect a symbiotic relationship between carver and painter, the latte illustrating naturalistic subjects.

Finally, there are three Imperial pieces, each of whose function is different. An elegantly incised pebble (no. 29) with a poem and Qianlong yeti mark, has been handled and admired to the point where the script dissolves into the stone and the russet edges merge into the white denseness of the jade. It is a microcosm of the natural world outside, with its simply drawn landscape beautifully eulogised by the poem on the reverse. The second is a jade seal (no. 37) strongly surmounted by a double dragon handle in the Yongle style, angular yet softened by age. Its intensity was recognised by the court and the recarved seal in homage to its past perfectly captures the retrospective reverse glance of the antiquarian Qianlong. The last work of art with an Imperial connection is a cloisonné plaque (no. 51) specifically ordered by the eleventh son of Qianlong on the happy occasion of the birth of his grandson.

Christopher Knapton, Nader Rasti