Works of Art 2019

This autumn, we feature thirty-two objects in varying materials, from bone and ivory to jade and coco de mer, to highlight the boundless ingenuity of Chinese art.

Animal bone and ivory have been used from time immemorial to make utilitarian or decorative ritual objects. This was particularly so in China during the Shang period (1600–1046 BCE). Many objects from this time share designs similar to those found on jade carvings and bronze vessels. One such example is a green-stained bone jue, or tripod vessel (no. 4). The jue form is rarely found in this material, and is most often made of bronze. The finely carved details on this piece can be also found on bronze vessels. From the subsequent Western Zhou period is a ritual jade cong (no. 7) of plain form typical of this time. However, it was enhanced through burial when it acquired glorious hues of mottled yellow, red and olive-brown tones.

We include three archaic jades with impeccable provenance from an English collection. One is a mottled dark-and pale-grey jade plaque (no. 8) previously owned by the celebrated collector W. W. Winkworth (1897–1991) and later purchased from a 1980 London auction. This unusual and superbly carved object possibly decorated a sword owned by a person of high rank or was placed across the chest of the owner. Although it has a shape similar to that of a chape, it differs in its concaved back. It is closely related to a piece in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which the curators describe as a decorative panel. The carving details on our example are typical of the Western Han period (206 BCE–24).

Song period (960–1279) jade carvings are a mainstay of objects offered by this dealership. A Southern Song (1127–1279) cylindrical ‘dragons and phoenix’ vase presumably used for burning incense (no. 12) was included in the seminal 1975 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition ‘Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages’. Delicate yet powerful, its carving style pays homage to earlier designs from the Han period (206 BCE–220). It also comes from the W. W. Winkworth Collection and was previously owned by Dr and Mrs Peter Plesch (1918–2013). The lotus cup with finely defined deep russet inclusions (no. 13) from a private European collection is similar to other well-documented pieces in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and the Victoria and Albert Museum. A rather unusual example is the softly polished and subtly carved white jade water pot in the form of a goose with its neck extended (no. 10). It is reminiscent of Song jade carvings of geese, such as a yellow example in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

A beautiful and elegant rock-crystal robe weight in the form of a bi (no. 11) represents the refined taste of the Song literati. As clear as glass, the simple disc mesmerizes with its subtle cloud inclusions. A number of similar rock-crystal discs were unearthed in tombs all over China. One such disc from a Song dynasty tomb in Taizhou, Zhejiang province has its original cord attached, suggesting that these decorative objects, hung from belts, served the purpose of weighing down lightweight fabrics such as silk.

A Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) jade stem cup (no. 16) is from a private English collection but was previously in the Dr and Mrs Peter Plesch Collection. Stem cups, a form typical of this period, are often found in bronze and porcelain. Another Yuan example, a thinly formed plain jade bowl (no. 15) with an unusual foot, can be compared to one in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Our bowl has russet speckles and is from the collection of the Swedish academic Emil Hultmark (1872–1943), who cofounded the Kinaklubben, or ‘China Club’, in Stockholm in the 1920s with Carl Kempe (1884–1967) and Crown Prince Gustav Adolf (1906–1947). Part of the Hultmark Collection is now housed alongside the Swedish Royal collection in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm.

We highlight a group of coco de mer objects, an esoteric category of Chinese art. Coco de mer was used to make various items such as drinking cups and was occasionally used to furniture. One such example is a huanghuali-and-coco de mer seal chest (no. 23). Great care has been taken to cut and inlay the pieces to create the ‘cracked ice’ pattern seen on porcelain. Similar furnishings from the Hongzhi period (1487–1505) can be found in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Lastly, we present three imperial hardstone objects. The first, a yellow jade vase group with its original stand (no. 30) from an important Taiwanese collection is of a rarely seen pure yellow tone. The second is an unusually large and clear rock-crystal kundika or ‘water sprinkler’ with gilt-copper mounts (no. 29). The dragon carving, of the highest quality and with a staggering depth of relief, was undoubtedly produced by a top craftsman. It was likely ordered from the imperial workshops as a gift to a high-ranking official in Nepal, who then added the gilt-copper mounted. In addition to marital alliances and religious beliefs, the Qing (1644–1911) emperors consolidated their authority through tributary relations. Thus, objects given as tribute often displayed unique characteristics and a cultural context.

There are few extant examples of mountains carved out of turquoise and not many have passed through our hands over the years. In the mid-2000s, one with its original boxwood stand was sold by Knapton Rasti Asian Art to a private American collection. In this exhibition, we offer an unusually vibrant blue-and-green turquoise mountain (no. 28), bearing a four-character inscription reading wansong diecui or ‘myriad pines in layers of greenery’. Its carving is also of imperial quality and similar to one in the British Museum and another in the Augustus L. Serle (1863–1955) Collection at the Minneapolis Museum of Art.