Lot 15, A fine, magnificent and extremely rare blue and white holy water vessel, Ming dynasty, Yongle period. Estimate HK$35,000,000 — 45,000,000 (€4,093,008 - 5,262,439). Sold 99,320,000 HKD (12,804,334 USD). Photo Sotheby's.
Provenance: Collection of H.R.N. Norton (d. 1961/62).
Sotheby’s London, 26th March 1963, lot 47 (£1350).
J.T. Tai, New York, 1963 (£1350).
Christie’s London, 23rd October 1967, lot 121 (4000gns).
Bluett & Sons Ltd, London, 1967 (4000gns).
Collection of Roger Pilkington (1928-69), from 1967 (£5000).
Revered by the Qianlong Emperor: A Yongle Vessel of Ritual Significance
A magnificent and extravagant vessel such as this ewer, would have been a rare and extraordinary sight at the court of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-24), and became a revered and auspicious antique several centuries later, at the court of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95). With its exaggerated proportions and imposing stepped foot, it would not go unnoticed in any environment and can leave no viewer in doubt as to its importance. This is no ordinary utensil of the household, not even an imperial household, but a vessel that calls for ceremonial use at very special occasions. Very different in concept from other contemporary pouring vessels used for tea or wine, there can hardly be a more eccentric ceramic ewer shape, yet it pours beautifully, in a thin, elegant stream. Successfully completed examples must have been exceedingly rare, and examples preserved in the world today are limited to three pieces, including the present one, all of imperial blue-and-white porcelain and dating from the Yongle period: one is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection (fig. 1), the other, from the collections of F.C. Palmer of Connecticut, Frederick Knight and T.Y. Chao, was twice sold at Sotheby’s in the 1980s (fig. 2).
fig. 1. Blue and white holy water vessel, Ming dynasty, Yongle period © The Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing
fig. 2. Blue and white rosewater sprinkler, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, from the collections of F.C. Palmer of Connecticut, Frederick Knight and T.Y. Chao. Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 18th May 1982, lot 24. Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 234.
The usage of this form, which has clearly been inspired by a metal prototype, has been much debated. It has been interpreted as a hookah base, although it would not function as that, since there is no tube inside to let the smoke pass through the water, and because the spout is attached at the lower part of the body. Since the spout of a hookah base is for smoking, it must remain above the water level, which in this case would have to be kept exceedingly low. Use as a rosewater sprinkler has also been suggested, but traditional rosewater sprinklers are bottles with only one opening, on top of the tall, narrow neck, without an additional spout, as only this guarantees a controlled distribution of the liquid. The stepped foot and the thin spout with seemingly reinforced tip could only have been conceived following a metal prototype; but although in the Yongle period many porcelain shapes were formed after Syrian or Persian metal wares, and ewers with similar spouts are indeed known from the Middle East, no model of similar proportions and lacking a handle appears to be recorded from that part of the world. Related shapes are better known from Indian metal ware, albeit much later, where handle-less ewers were in use as water vessels from which one would drink without touching the spout.
The companion piece in the Palace Museum and fragmentary excavated pieces are considered to have been used in Buddhist ritual ceremonies, and this might well apply to this piece, since the Yongle Emperor was a devout Buddhist who commissioned many porcelains for use in Buddhist rituals. In fact, the Jingdezhen imperial kilns also worked on monochrome white versions already in the early Yongle period, white being a preferred colour for ritual porcelains. Today no white vessel of this form appears to be extant, but a fragmentary example, now reconstituted from sherds, was excavated from the early Yongle stratum of the imperial kiln site at Zhushan, Jingdezhen (fig. 3), together with a white monk’s cap ewer, another vessel used in Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies.
fig. 3. White-glazed kendi, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, Zhushan, Jingdezhen. Courtesy of Jingdezhen Municipal Institute of Ceramic Archaeology
As an antique, the Yongle blue-and-white vessel had obviously not lost any of its significance over 300 years later. It appears to have been of particular relevance to the Qianlong Emperor, probably also on account of its Tibetan Buddhist connotation. The Emperor, who was a master of using the past to add lustre to his own rulership and to underline his natural place in the lineage of rulers in China, chose a vessel like this – probably the companion piece still in the Palace Museum, Beijing, today – to feature most prominently in one of his most poignant portraits, a double portrait enigmatically titled ‘One or Two?’ (fig. 4).
fig. 4. Anonymous court artists, One or Two?, colour on paper, hanging scroll, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, Palace Museum, Beijing. After: Jessica Rawson, ‘The Qianlong Emperor: Virtue and the Possession of Antiquity’, Evelyn S. Rawski and Jessica Rawson, eds, China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, p. 283, cat. no. 196.
This double portrait was obviously of major importance to him, as it is known in four different versions, from different periods of his long reign and depicting him at different ages, all similarly inscribed by himself, but with different signatures, and probably intended to be displayed in different locations around the imperial palaces. The two earlier versions have been attributed to the major court painters, Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688-1766) and Yao Wenhan (act. 1743 - ca. 1773), although – as usual – probably represent a cooperation of several court artists. No other Qianlong painting has attracted as much scholarly interest as these double portraits, yet the pouring vessel, which occupies prime position in the action depicted, does not so far seem to have been much noticed.
The paintings show the Emperor seated on a couch dressed as a Han Chinese scholar or, as Patricia Berger has interpreted, a Buddhist layman (Berger, 2003, p. 51), flanked by an ancient bronze measure commissioned by Emperor Wang Mang (r. 9 – 23) and a blue-and-white jar of the Xuande period (1426-35), inscribed in Sanskrit with a Tibetan Buddhist dhāraņī charm. These two distinctive objects, which have been selected to signal the Emperor’s dual role as personification of state authority on the one hand and upholder of religious beliefs on the other, are identifiable in the Chinese imperial collections today, the former in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, the latter in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Other antiques depicted in the painting are archaic jades and bronzes and classic Song ceramics, all of which underline the Emperor’s role as protector and propagator of China’s ancient culture.
The One or Two? paintings are based on an earlier anonymous double portrait painted in Song style (960-1279), although probably originating from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which formally depicts the same scene, showing a scholar seated on a couch in front of a screen hung with his portrait.  The sitter is surrounded by the typical, if idealised, accoutrements of a scholar’s home, the attendant is filling his cup from a classic white wine ewer of the period, and the composition completely lacks the air of self-stylisation or – in the terms of Wu Hong (1996) ‘self-mystification’ - that pervades the Qianlong paintings. Whereas in the Emperor’s portraits the scene is most deliberately staged, every object carefully selected and no detail left to chance, the original Song setting seems quite natural and relaxed.
All four versions of the Qianlong painting bear the same enigmatic inscription in Qianlong’s hand, a short, rigorously styled four-line poem, which has been translated in many different ways, for example, by Wu Hung (1996, p. 235):
One or two? My two faces never come together yet are never separate. One can be Confucian, one can be Mohist. Why should I worry or even think?
The phrase ‘one or two?’ had also been used by the Qianlong Emperor in various other contexts. It is understood as reference to the doctrine of ‘non-duality’, the “mutual dependence of all phenomena”, of the Mādhyamika ‘Middle Way’ Tibetan Buddhist school (Berger, 2003, p. 52). The second line is taken from the Mahāyāna Buddhist Sūtra of Perfect Enlightenment. The third line emphasises China’s philosophical tradition that is based on writings of the late Zhou dynasty, 6th – 4th century BC, although the philosophical school of Mozi, or Mo Di, Mohism, which criticised the teachings of Confucius, is not known to have had a particular influence on the Emperor. The last line is taken from the Appended Phrases of the Yijing [Book of Changes], which are attributed to Confucius.
The only action in the painting, which is the focus of the Emperor’s attention, is that of the attendant pouring from a vessel such as the present piece into a cup (fig. 5). It is clear that the Emperor is not depicted simply taking tea or wine, and the ewer of the earlier painting was not replaced with a regular tea or wine pot. The setting with its many Buddhist reverberations called for a ritual vessel. The selection of this blue-and-white piece of the Yongle period was a very deliberate choice of a vessel probably with Tibetan Buddhist associations. No metal prototype of closely related form appears, however, to be preserved.
fig. 5. Anonymous court artists, One or Two?, detail, colour on paper, hanging scroll, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, Palace Museum, Beijing. After: Jessica Rawson, ‘The Qianlong Emperor: Virtue and the Possession of Antiquity’, Evelyn S. Rawski and Jessica Rawson, eds, China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, p. 283, cat. no. 196.
This vessel, like the Yongle ‘sweet-white’ bottle, lot 16, the Xuande turquoise-glazed dish, lot 21, and other pieces in the Pilkington collection, comes from the private collection of H.R.N. Norton, who had visited China in the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911), established himself as a dealer in London in the 1920s/30s, and according to Roger Bluett, was “the only British dealer to have built up a significant private collection of Chinese art, which he kept at home in fitted boxes. He did this in his modest and unassuming way by taking home exceptional pieces, from time to time, over the years, when they came his way.” (Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance. Collectors, Dealers and Scholars: Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America, Great Haseley, 2011, p. 340). His private collection was sold in two sales at Sotheby’s in 1963.
 For specific studies of Qianlong’s double portraits, see, among others :
Angela Zito, ‘Silk and Skin: Significant Boundaries’, in Angela Zito and Tani Barlow, eds, Body, Subject and Power in China, Chicago, 1994, pp. 111-113.
Wu Hung, ‘Emperor’s Masquerade: ‘Costume Portraits’ of Yongzheng and Qianlong’, Orientations 26, no. 7, July-August 1995, pp. 25-41.
Wu Hung, The Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, Chicago, 1996.
Charles Lachman, ‘Blindness and Oversight: Some Comments on a Double Portrait of Qianlong and the New Sinology’,Journal of the American Oriental Society, 116, no. 4, October-December 1996, pp. 736-744.
Angela Zito, Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in Eighteenth-Century China, Chicago, 1997, pp. 39-43.
Patricia Berger, Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China, Honolulu, 2003, pp. 51-54.
Kristina Kleutghen, ‘One or Two, Repictured’, Archives of Asian Art, 62, 2012, pp. 25-46.
 Qianxi nian Songdai wenwu dazhan/China at the Inception of the Second Millennium: Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, catalogue of an exhibition at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2000, pl. IV-6.
Following could be used as footnote rather than in the essay:
Only two companion pieces to this vessel exist in the world, both of the same form, design, size and period, one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, the other from the Palmer, Knight and Chao collections. The Beijing companion ewer is illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, p. 20.
The other ewer, from the collections of F.C. Palmer of Connecticut, Frederick Knight and T.Y. Chao, was sold in these rooms, 18th May 1982, lot 24, and again 19th May 1987, lot 234; at Christie’s London, 7th October 1968, lot 99, and at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th October 1995, lot 669, and is illustrated in Anthony du Boulay, Christie’s Pictorial History of Chinese Ceramics, London, 1984, p. 116, fig. 3; in Feng Xianming, ‘Yongle and Xuande Blue-and-white Porcelain in the Palace Museum’,Orientations, November 1987, p. 68, fig. 27; and in Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 54.
Besides these three pieces, the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi/Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, included both a fragmentary example in monochrome white from the early Yongle stratum of the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns, pl. 93, excavated together with a white monk's cap ewer, pl. 99, and a fragmentary blue-and-white piece of Xuande mark and period, excavated from a Xuande stratum, pl. 136. The reconstructed white ewer differs slightly in model from the present piece, as it appears to have an unglazed base with a sharp, cylindrical recess cut into the foot. No handed-down examples of either of these types appear to be recorded.
Sotheby's. The Pilkington Collection of Chinese Art, Hong Kong, 06 avr. 2016, 10:00 AM