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A rare cinnabar lacquer mallow-shaped figural dish, Yuan Dynasty. Photo: Sotheby's.

the shallow sides rising from a low foot to an eight-lobed rim resembling petals of a mallow flower, the interior deftly carved in varied layers of relief with two scholars carrying baskets crossing a bridge en route to a doorway behind two large tree trunks, greeted by two ladies looking out from within the doorway at the scholars, the landscape arboured with jagged slopes and two tall, blossoming pine trees with gnarled trunks, all surrounded by a composite floral scroll shaped to correspond to the rim, the eight 'petals' respectively decorated with a hibiscus, prunus, camellia, lotus, rose, magnolia, chrysanthemum and morning glory, the underside carved with a broad band of 'classic' scroll, the base lacquered in dark brown; 32.8 cm., 12 7/8 in. Estimate 500,000 — 700,000 HKD

Note: The present dish is representative of the technical virtuosity of 14th century Chinese carved lacquer ware, evident in the greater complexity of the overall design and the increased plasticity to the relief carving. As a result, the lacquer artists created fluid and complex three-dimensional designs that covered the surface almost entirely, leaving very little of the surface exposed.

While the lush flower motifs on the well and tixi design on the underside still draw on the Song tradition, the focus of attention is undoubtedly the figural scene in the center of the dish. Such narrative scenes involving human figures in a landscape or architectural setting, known as renwu gushi, first appeard in the late Song period but flourished on lacquer of the Yuan and early Ming periods. As this dish demonstrates, a variety of diaper patterns derived from textiles, were developed and applied to represent the ground and the air, a convention that was to remain with carved lacquer depictions of such narrative scenes in all subsequent periods.

While the flower motif on the well of this dish draws on the Song tradition, the narrative scene, known as renwu gushi, is representative of the technical developments achieved during the 14th century, evident in the greater complexity of the design and increased plasticity of the relief carving. Other Yuan Dynasty examples with related designs include a dish carved with children at play included in the exhibition East Asian Lacquer. The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, cat. no. 23; another depicting a scholar leisurely resting by the lakeside exhibited in Im Zeichen des Drachen, Museum fur Lackkunst, Munchen, 2006, cat. no. 7; and a third dish included 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 36.

For examples of closely related Yuan lacquer dishes sold at auction, compare an oval dish with similar composition and subject matter, depicting figures in a pavilion in a landscape, also sharing the same distinct feature of parallel grooves carved at the rim, from the Lee family collection, illustrated in Dragon and Phoenix, Chinese Lacquer Ware The Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, 1990, cat. no. 35. See also a Yuan lacquer dish depicting scholars in an architectural setting was sold in our New York rooms, 15th September 2010, lot 331; and another of circular form, from the collection of Edward T. Chow, was sold at Christie’s London, 14th July 1980, lot 327.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. Hong Kong - www.sothebys.com