A magnificent and extremely rare kesi imperial suit of parade armour. Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period.
comprising a jacket, chaps, two arms and a further seven detachable panels, each piece of armour of similar basic form and decoration, made up of overlapping metal plates covered with luxury silks and held in place by gilt brass studs, the black silk slit tapestry kesi weave covering the exterior side of the metal plates finely embroidered with writhing five-clawed dragons finely woven in gilt thread, and bats, amid cloud scrolls, above mountains and crashing waves above a lishui band, those on the jacket and chaps issuing precious objects, with an olive green silk trim and turquoise lining - jacket length 78 cm., 30 3/4 in. length of chaps 88 cm., 34 5/8 in. - Lot Sold: 14,100,000 HKD
PROVENANCE: Collection of Alfred Forgeron (pre 1910).
Drouot, Paris, 26/27th February 1910, lot 362.
Collection of the painter Georges Papazoff (1894-1972), Paris.
Collection of Myriam Papazoff.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 10th April 2006, lot 1539.
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES: John E. Vollmer, Ruling from the Dragon Throne: Costume of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Berkeley and Hong Kong, 2002, pp 87-88.
John E. Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars. Chinese Costumes and Textiles, Paris, 2004, pls 36-38.
NOTE: The high quality of the present suit and the use of kesi to cover the metal plates strongly suggest an imperial association for this piece, in this case with the Qianlong Emperor. No comparable suit of armour appears to have been offered at auction so far.
Imperial armour suits made in the complicated kesi (cut silk) technique, are extremely rare, although a very similar kesi semi-formal robe can be found in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Costumes and Assessories of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 2005, pl. 40.
The Emperor was particularly proud to present himself as the successful military leader and appears in one of his most famous portraits, by the Italian court painter Giuseppe Castiglione, on horseback, wearing a glamorous yellow suit of armour; see the exhibition China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, cat.no.65. This portrait served to glorify Qianlong as the ultimate military commander and ruler.
A Qianlong suit of ceremonial armour, very similar to the one depicted in the Castiglione painting, which appears to be embroidered only, is preserved in the Chateau de Fontainebleau, France, illustrated in Le Musee chinois de l'imperatrice Eugenie, Paris, 1994, pl. 7. A blue-ground suit of parade armour of the Kangxi reign preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, also with the designs embroidered rather than woven and illustrated in the China: The Three Emperor's catalogue, op.cit., no.62. An imperial parade armour suit completed in the early 1760s at the Hangzhou Imperial Textile factory and made of 600,000 tiny steel plates was included in the exhibition Splendours of China's Forbidden City, The Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, cat.no. 134.
Ceremonial suits of armour were an essential part of the imperial wardrobe. The Qianlong Emperor in particular was obsessed with his military successes and in his old age referred to himself as Shiquan Laoren, 'The Old Man of the Ten Completed Great Campaigns'. Qianlong's warfares were massive undertakings, including expeditions to Central Asia, Tibet, western Sichuan, Burma, Vietnam, Tibet and Taiwan, designed to establish, consolidate and expand Manchu rule. Apart from these military expeditions, Qianlong was a keen hunter, thereby upholding the marshal arts heritage and nomad origins of the Manchus. He was a skilled archer and spent a month every year at the summer retreat at Chengde hunting. These hunts became glorified showcases where he was able to demonstrate his skill and bravery. Mark C. Elliott in 'Manchus and Tigers and Bears', Splendors of China's Forbidden City, Chicago, 2004, p. 110, notes that 'the hunt, after all, was a kind of military exercise and the elaborate drill of the battue helped prove that the conquering Manchus retained their edge even after long years of residence in China'.
According to Valerie M. Garrett in Chinese Clothing: An Illustrated Guide, Oxford, 1994, p. 122, ceremonial suits of armour of this type were made in the Imperial Workshops in Hangzhou, the centre of silk manufacturing, and when not worn were stored at the Western Gate of the Forbidden City. John E. Vollmer in Silks for Thrones and Altars. Chinese Costumes and Textiles, Paris, p. 78, notes that this suit of armour 'can be related to the wuxing (five elements), in which the colours black or dark blue correspond to the element water and to north'. He further mentions that the five-clawed dragons reflect the imperial iconography, and each armour component is marked with a dragon amid clouds above mountains and waves, each forming a miniature cosmic pattern (p. 78).
Sotheby's. Legacies of Imperial Power: Treasures from the Imperial Collection. 08 Oct 08. Hong Kong - www.sotheby's.com - Photos Courtesy Sotheby's