An Exceptionally Fine And Rare Imperial White Jade 'Phoenix' Wine-Pot And Cover. Qianlong/Jiaqing

Of globular form with a the short spout in the shape of a phoenix head, the sides carved in shallow relief with the spreading wings, the legs tucked under the body supported on four shallow peony blooms, with a 'C'-scroll dragon-head handle, the domed cover with a peony finial, the highly polished stone of an even white tone with some russet inclusions. 6½ in. (16.5 cm.) wide. Estimate £200,000 - £300,000 ($323,600 - $485,400)

Provenance: William Clayton Ltd., London, 6 December 1968

Notes: This exceptional wine-pot has a spout in the form of a phoenix head, while the feathers and wings of the bird have been carved into the surface of the wine-pot's body. The handle takes its shape from an archaistic dragon form. The use of birds' heads to provide the shape of the spout on pouring vessels has a long history in China. Not only do they appear on bronze vessels, they can also be seen among ceramic wares. Chickens' heads, for example, provide the spout form on a number of Jin dynasty (AD 265-420) ewers with both celadon and black glazes (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 31 Porcelain of the Jin and Tang Dynasties, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 42, no. 37 and p. 52, no. 47, respectively). Ewers with their upper section in the shape of a phoenix head appear can be seen amongst green-glazed and sancai (three-coloured) wares of the Tang dynasty (618-907) (see ibid.., p. 186, no. 172 and pp. 226-7, no. 208, respectively).

The theme of the phoenix to provide inspiration for shape and decoration can be seen in various media in succeeding dynasties, but interestingly the current jade teapot is especially close in concept to the famous Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) blue and white porcelain ewer excavated from the Yuan capital Dadu in 1970 (fig. 1). The way in which the neck of the jade phoenix rises from the body of the vessel, the way in which the crest travels from the top of the bird's head and joins the shoulder of the vessel above the birds neck, as well as the way in which the wings enfold the body, are all reminiscent of the ancient porcelain vessel.

A jade teapot or wine pot with phoenix-head spout, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was loaned by the Chinese Government to the 1935-6 International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy, London (see International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, p. 255, no. 2828). The Taipei teapot (fig. 2) is of similar size to the current vessel, has a similar, if heavier, phoenix-head spout while its cover is also topped by a flower-shaped finial. However, the Taipei teapot has a handle of ruyi form, rather than the archaistic dragon shape of the current teapot, and the former bears a four-character Jiaqing mark (1796-1820). The Taipei vessel is also less rounded than the current example, stands on a plain ring foot, and does not appear to have details of the bird's wings carved into the body.

The slenderness of the bird's crest leading from the top of its head to the shoulder of the vessel is in fact more reminiscent of the delicate horns of the ibex on the famous jade ewer in the Woolf collection (see S. Howard Hansford, Chinese Carved Jades, Faber and Faber, London, 1968, pl. 93). Indeed the roundness of the body and cover of the current vessel also brings it closer to the Woolf ewer. The latter bears a four-character Jiaqing mark, but with its multi-lobed form is clearly in Indian style, while the current vessel is more in keeping with Chinese style. The shape of the current teapot - its roundness and the whimsical shape of its feet - suggest that it could have been made late in the Qianlong reign or early in the Jiaqing period.

Christie's.  A Private English Collection of White Jade Carvings. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art including Export Art. 4 November 2008. London, King Street. Christie's Image 2008 Ltd. www.christies.com