A rare famille-rose 'figural' brushpot, inscribed with a poem by Su Dongpo, signed Tang Ying, Qing dynasty, 19th century


Lot 3023. A rare famille-rose 'figural' brushpot, inscribed with a poem by Su Dongpo, signed Tang Ying, Qing dynasty, 19th century; 21.5 cm., 8 1/2  in. Estimate 2,000,000 - 3,000,000 HKDLot sold 2,440,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's 2013

of broad cylindrical form with straight sides supported on a recessed base, masterfully painted around the exterior with a continuous scene taken after an episode of the Dongpo shihua, depicting the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo seated at a rock desk, grinding ink in the 'Jasper Pond' inkstone next to an open scroll with a wood brushpot containing further scrolls and a pile of books disposed nearby on the monolith table, serviced by two attendants carrying a ewer and a cup, and carefully observed by the poet and calligrapher Mi Fu standing, dressed in a long greyish-blue robe near a young attendant fanning live charcoals under a kettle, all set in a lush green meadow laden with jagged rocks, tall gnarled pines, pink plum blossoms, wutong and bamboo shoots in the distance, the bright famille-rose enamels carefully applied in soft shaded tones with fine detailing in iron red and black, the reverse inscribed with a five-column poem by Su, signed Shenyang Tang Ying with three red seals, the base inscribed in iron-red enamel with an apocryphal six-character Qianlong reign mark

PROVENANCE: Collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo.

EXHIBITEDArts of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Osaka, 1980.

LITTERATUREToji taikei, vol. 46, Tokyo, 1973, fig. 29.
Idemitsu Bijutsukan zhin zuroku. Chgoku tji/Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, col. pl. 231.

NOTEhe present finely painted brushpot has an illustrious provenance, having been treasured in Japan for a long period of time. It was included in the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art exhibition Arts of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Osaka, 1980, and is also illustrated in Toji taikei, vol. 46, Tokyo, 1973, fig. 29, and in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, col. pl. 231. It is based on a near identical brushpot in the Shanghai Museum, of the same dimensions and closely related decoration, but with a four-character ‘Qianlong nianzhi’ reign mark in red enamel on the base instead of the six-character mark seen on this piece. It is illustrated in a number of publications including, Zhongguo taoci quanji, [The complete works of Chinese ceramics], vol. 15, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 22, and also in Wenwu 1978, vol 7, pp, 83-84.

The figural scene on the brushpot, titled ‘Painting of Old Mi Examining His Inkstone’, depicts the Song painter, poet and calligrapher Mi Fu (1051-1107), standing in his garden eyeing his friend Su Shi (1037-1101) seated at a rock table before an inkstone.  The poem accompanying this scene reveals the story behind the painting. It may be found with a passage in the Dongpo shihua (Poetry Talks Related to Dongpo [Su Shi]), attributed to Mi Fu’s contemporary, Su Shi, later edited by Chen Xiuming and reprinted in Lin Li (ed.), Zhongguo lidai zhenxi xiaoshuo [Rare and Important Anecdotes from China throughout the Ages], Beijing, 1998, p. 398.

According to the passage, Mi Fu was once presented an inkstone named ‘Jasper Pond’2 by the Song emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126). Every time he brought it out for a look, he bowed twice toward it before appreciating but he never dared actually use it.  One day, his close friend Su Shi asked to see his much treasured ‘Jasper Pond’ inkstone. Mi Fu ordered Su Shi to bow toward it twice and only then brought it out to show him.  Su Shi said, ‘Although this inkstone seems very fine, we don’t know yet what the ink from it is like.’ He noticed an ink stick on the desk, spat into the inkstone and ground some ink with it. Mi Fu was outraged and scolded him saying, ‘You old bandit, you’ve ruined my inkstone!’ And then he tried to give the inkstone to Su Shi, who said, ‘How can you ever give a gift from the Emperor to someone else?’ Mi Fu replied, ‘How can such a soiled inkstone ever be used again?’ Su Shi laughed and, taking the inkstone, composed a poem in reply. The poem may be translated as follows:

This jade inkstone, shimmering and glossy
          came from the Imperial Manufactory,
A personal gift from the Ninth Layer of Heaven3
          to Mi Yuanzhang.
If it weren’t for the power to cough up and spit out
          jades and pearls,
How could this ‘Jasper Pond’ ever have reached
          the Jade Hall?4

1 Jasper Pond is located in the land of the Immortals.
2 “Ninth Layer of Heaven” is the abode of the emperor.
3 The third line may be interpreted as follows: ‘If Su Shi had not spat onto the inkstone, and if his writings were not praised as brilliant as jade and pearl, the inkstone would not have come to him, a Hanlin academician.’ ‘Jade Hall’ refers to the Hanlin Academy.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. Hong Kong | 08 april 2013