Ceramics & Works of Art

If there is a subliminal theme to this year’s catalogue, it is the underlying sophistication of the variety of stone used in several of the jade carvings, from two specific eras of Chinese history.

The first is from the Song to early Ming period, where we have two very different works of art, one an imaginary beast (No.8), in the round, the other a plaque. If the latter seems to be a rather nebulous description, it is only that it appears to have very few precedents. Both are in the distinctive two tone colours of this era, black and varieties of grey. The more naturalistic articulations and emotional attributes of jade animals of the Song and later, certainly indicate that the powerful energies of earlier animals had lessened. Jade and its hold on immortality survived, but not as exclusively as before, and their use as paperweights show the move from its religious connotations to the more secular. The animal in question is a hybrid, with its one-horned head, cloven hooves and archaistic styled tail, and it was James Watt who pointed out the similarity between the upturned noses of this group and the snouts found on Cizhou pottery.

The second piece (No.7) invokes the bi discs of the Han period (206 BC-220 AD), and a particularly good example would be no.161 in Chinese Jades: Archaic and Modern (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), pages 131 and 132. The use of the qilong, often in pairs, was a common sight in the tomb jades of this period, but here, with our jade, the unctuous surface suggests constant handling over a long period of time, and the sparse detail of the raised decoration in comparison with its busier predecessor, indicates a sign of scholarly refinement and its use as personal adornment, rather than a fitting or other worldly use. The second era is that of Qianlong (1736-1795), from which we include three very different jades, two of the same colour. The triple combination of vases and a monkey (No.18), brings together familiar rebuses of wealth and longevity, but it is the purity of the pale stone and its mushroom coloured inflections that mark it out as a work of art of high quality. The pendant(No.15) of confronting phoenix fits in with similar ones we have presented before, and represents the symbol of the Emperess and the harbinger for Daoist immortals. Its modern day connotations, with brides and the marriage ceremony, have certainly evolved from the accompanying message, two hundred and fifty years before: flying together united with the same heart. The final jade (No.21) has clearly been chosen in the atelier for its stone, and the extraordinary colours that are incorporated in it. The shape, melon form, is clearly of its age, the eighteenth century, but the mottled grey and greens are intended, we would suggest, to imitate the steatite vases and covers, of similar full form, of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), with their corresponding darker flaws and markings, on a grey ground.

Although Samarkand is the well-known city of Sogdiana, each area within this huge society developed of its own accord. The walled town of Panjikent to the east of Samarkand reflects the rich influence of merchants in the fifth to eighth centuries, especially with their spacious dwellings. The society was not feudal, with these townspeople high in the hierarchy, where merchants and their ilk played a significant role in urban communities. Among the many main wall paintings discovered here are rows of horses led by their grooms, a reflection of the trade in these beasts, bred in the Ferghan Valley. One effect of this trading was the depiction of horses, particularly by the Tang painter Han Gan (706-783), who was assiduously copied by later generations of painters. Indeed, there is a woodblock print from the 16th century depicting one of his famous paintings, and Binyon illustrates a Tartar rider in his book, Painting in the Far East, p.92, assigning to Han Gan, but now generally acknowledged as early Ming in date. This is the period our two paintings (Nos. 45 and 46) emerge from, though with less formality than some. The sign of a groom wearing a distinctive hat, pulling a stone or renewing a shoe on his horse, gives it a warmth and informality not always seen in these paintings. In her book, Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures, Lauren Arnold illustrates a Ming painting by Zhou Lang (dated 1342) and quotes from the poet Lu Guimeng (9th century), who is eulogising tribute horses: ‘Grandchildren of dragons from the dews of the moon, from a hundred hooves, proud prancers, lightly pacing, responsive to the golden war drums’. Whether tributes or hunting animals, real horses were a sign of Chinese dominance and subjugation from other peoples.

Finally a word on the pair of zitan incense stands (No.35), xiangzi, which combine the classic Qing combination of streamlined form and intricate French Rococco style. The carving of lotus flowers and entwined leaves stretches down the cabriole legs and reflects the court’s love of opulence and familiar Western motifs. This introduction began with a brief discussion on the varieties of stone in jade carvings, and the stands conclude with a monochrome, purplish black patina of equal subtlety.

Nader Rasti