Man | Beast

Dating of objects remain problematic in many areas of Chinese art. While some materials such as pottery and bronze can be tested with a relative degree of accuracy, one cannot test jades, and thus, having an experienced eye is of paramount importance. One must be aware and most cautious of imitations as copies become increasingly sophisticated. Therefore, pieces with provenance are highly valued and sought after.

It is fortunate that we have gradually put together this group of objects over the last five years as we have been unable to travel recently due to the global pandemic. While we are, perhaps, best known for our jade animal carvings, we have included several figural ‘boys’ and human and beast composites spanning a period of almost 2000 years. The pieces have exceptional provenance, were published in various museum exhibitions, and or come from renowned collections.

I first met Michael Gulbenkian, a passionate collector of jades, in the mid-80s. It was clear from the start that he was a collector in the most traditional sense, one who is generous in sharing his knowledge with a then young enthusiast like myself. We present three pieces from his collection in this exhibition. The first is the extremely rare Six Dynasties (220–581) seated mythical beast (no. 1), previously owned by another celebrated collector, Desmond Gure, and also published in 1995 in Naturalism & Archaism: Chinese Jades from the Kirknorton Collection (Morgan and Li, no. 9). Next is a jade carving of an owl (no. 8) from the Song dynasty (960–1279) or possibly earlier. The third is the unusual Jin to Yuan dynasty (12th–14th century) deep russet jade figure of Garuda (no. 13). It was previously in the Peony Collection and published in 1994 by the Museum of East Asian Art, Bath. All three are representations of animals or birds with humanoid bodies.

Of great personal sentiment is the gloriously coloured late Tang dynasty to Five Dynasties (8th–10th century) model of the seated tianlu (no. 2) from the collection of jade dealer and collector Durwin Tang, who was not only a respected colleague but also a friend. He showed me this piece from time to time over the years but it was never for sale. Two smaller carvings come from East Asian collections, one a Tang to Song dynasty (8th–10th century) recumbent pig (no. 3) and a Five Dynasties to Northern Song dynasty (10th–11th century) recumbent rat (no. 4), both with apertures through the top of their bodies and is in a style typical of the period. Three jade animals come from the Studio of Ten Obsessions in Hong Kong, one of which is a finely carved Five Dynasties (907–960) yellow and russet jade mythical beast (no. 5) with bulging eyes and pig-like ears; its flat, uncarved base is typical of the period.

We present three whimsical ‘boy’ jade carvings. The first is the superb Song to Jin dynasty (11th–12th century) black and white boy playing blind man’s buff (no. 11) from a Japanese collection; the carver ingeniously utilised the natural colours of the stone. Next is a small carving of a crouching boy (no. 12) with cleverly and dexterously executed details dating from the late Song to early Ming dynasty (13th–15th century). Last is an atypical late Ming dynasty model of a standing boy holding a branch of pomegranates (no. 23) behind his back; it was published by Knapton Rasti Asian Art in 2005 and originated from the collection of a lady.

The precisely carved grey jade mythical lion (no. 14) from the 13th–14th century with large eyes and unusual details is reminiscent of earlier carvings of similar subjects and paintings of lions. The iconic

17th century sage green jade toad (no. 18) was from the Gerald Godfrey Collection and subsequently in
the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. A late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) yellow and russet jade recumbent beast (no. 21) is also from the Gerald Godfrey Collection. These two objects exemplify Godfrey’s exquisite taste.

There are two jades from the Philip Cardeiro Collection that Knapton Rasti Asian Art previously handled in 2009. The first is a Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) group of a hare and its young (no. 16) and the second is the late Ming dynasty (16th–17th century) white and deep russet jade recumbent ox (no. 22); the latter’s large size suggests that it was used as a paperweight. The late 14th–early 15th century white jade model of a seated dragon (no. 17) was discovered in Japan and originally set into a wooden cover, probably for a large guan of the same period. The beast is powerfully carved with an unusual head and protruding chest in an even white stone. Similar examples from the same period can be found in lacquer.

We have three jades from the Speelman Collection. The first, previously from Michel Duchange in the 1980s, is a compelling Ming dynasty yellow and russet jade recumbent horse (no. 24) of good size and with fine details. The second is a well-carved Kangxi period (1662–1722) yellowish-celadon and deep russet large elephant and boy group (no. 30), previously in the Fryers Collection. The third is an imperial Qianlong mark-and-period (1736–1795) model of a mottled recumbent elephant (no. 31), acquired by a German collector prior to 1922. Animals with reign marks are rare, indicating Qianlong’s particularly fondness for this object.

Pebble carvings utilise the natural form of the stone and often showcase the thoughtfulness and ingenuity of the carver. We include three such carvings of jades with different tonalities. The carving of the late Ming dynasty russet and creamy jade model of a recumbent beast (no. 25) highlights the stone’s natural skin and bright tone. It is from a private English collection and acquired in the 1950s. The second, a recumbent ox (no. 29) with russet patches left to the head and back, dates to the Kangxi period, and was purchased at Spink & Son in 1956 by an English collector. The third, from the Qianlong period, is an unconventional depiction of a white jade rabbit (no. 33). The head and ears follow the shape of the pebble giving the animal a more flattened look with the impression that the head retreats back onto the neck. In comparison, another rabbit with inset eyes from the same period (no. 34) is completely different stylistically.

Lastly, the imperial jadeite pendant with frogs and lotus (no. 35), is one of the finest examples in colour and of carving of jadeite from the Qianlong period. The use of such precious material suggests that it would have most likely belonged to a high-ranking concubine. The pendant was acquired in China between 1894 and 1922 and entered into a German private collection and thence by descent.

Nader Rasti