A rare blue and white arabic-inscribed brush rest

Lot 1270. A rare blue and white arabic-inscribed brush rest, Zhengde six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double square and of the period (1506-1521)7¾ in. (19.7 cm.) long. Estimate $70,000 - $90,000Price realised USD 278,500. © Christie's Images Ltd 2012

In the form of five peaks, each side painted with an Arabic inscription within a roundel reserved on a ground of dense scrolling tendrils set within line borders that outline the peaks and are repeated on the inner surfaces, all above a waisted rectangular base painted in imitation of a wood stand, the base with two holes at the ends and the reign mark in the center

ProvenanceC.T. Loo & Co., New York.
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1984, lot 346.

Exhibited:  Exhibition of Chinese Arts, C.T. Loo & Co., New York, 1941, no. 652.

Note: This brush rest belongs to an interesting group of porcelains from the Zhengde reign, which bear well-written six-character reign marks, are painted in high quality cobalt, and bear inscriptions in Arabic or, more rarely, Persian. These pieces, the majority of which are items for use on the scholar's table, contrast in quality and style with the Zhengde porcelains decorated with five-clawed dragons and bearing four-character reign marks. It is significant that there were some extremely powerful eunuch officials at the court of the Zhengde emperor, many of whom were Muslims, and some of whom were of Arab or Persian extraction. Since some of these eunuchs controlled court orders from the imperial kilns, it seems likely that they ordered fine pieces, such as this brush rest, to be made for their own use.

A number of the inscriptions on these porcelains are quotations from the Qur'an, as in the case of a table screen in the Percival David Foundation, which bears a passage from Surat al Jinn, LXXII, v.18-20, illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art - A Guide to the Collection, London, 1989, p. 79, pl. 69. Other inscriptions are statements of use, such as 'pen rest' on another example in the Percival David Foundation illustrated by R. Scott inElegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, London 1992, p. 71, no. 70, or are proverbs - often related to literary or academic achievement. The inscriptions within the roundels on either side of the current brush rest are read together providing the Arabic proverb, al-qalam aqbalu min kul shay'in ('the pen is above all else', or 'the pen is superior to all'). This would have been an appropriate inscription for an item which was intended to stand on the writing table of someone who owed his wealth and power to his literary and administrative abilities, rather than his military prowess or family ties.

The form of this brush rest, with its five peaks, is a popular shape for brush rests in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Maura Rinaldi and Eng-hee Seok Chee have suggested in Ceramics in Scholarly Taste, Singapore, 1993, p. 100, no. 85, that the earliest appearance of this form for brush rests is in qingbai porcelain of the Yuan dynasty. The form is a reference to the Five Sacred Mountains of China - Taishan, Huashan, Southern Hengshan, Northern Hengshan, and Songshan - which are not only sites of religious significance, but also represent both the Five Directions and the Five Elements. It was necessary that brush rests were stable and had a low center of gravity, thus they tend to have heavy bases, and the current example is no exception. However, the decorators at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the early 16th century developed a clever optical trick to make the pieces appear lighter. They painted ruyi-shaped feet at each corner and in the center of the long sides of the brush rest. These deceive the eye into ignoring the heavy base, and make the overall form more visually pleasing.

Brush rests of similar form and with similar inscriptions are in the Percival David Foundation illustrated by Sir Harry Garner, 'Blue and White of the Middle Ming Period,' T.O.C.S, vol. 27, 1951-53, pl. 19c; and the British Museum illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pp. 193-4, no. 8:4. Another similar brush rest from the Honolulu Academy of Arts was included in the exhibition, Ming Blue and White, (published inPhiladelphia Museum Bulletin, vol. XLIV, no. 223, Philadelphia, 1949, no. 105), while a further example from the Seligman Collection is illustrated by S. Howard Hansford and J. Ayers, The Seligman Collection of Oriental Art, vol. II, London, 1966, pl. LXXIV, no. D 249. Recently another similar example from a private collection was published by M. A. Pinto de Matos in The RA Collection of Chinese Ceramics - A Collector's Vision, vol. I, London, 2011, pp. 74-5, no. 29.

Christie's. Auspicious Treasures for Scholars and Emperors: Selections from the Robert H. Blumenfield Collection, 22 March 2012, New York, Rockefeller Plaza