A highly important and extremely rare Guan mallow-shaped brush washer, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)






Lot 3126. A highly important and extremely rare Guan mallow-shaped brush washer, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Estimate HK$30,000,000 – HK$40,000,000 ($3,880,110 - $5,173,480). Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2016. 

The brush washer is potted with ten lobes, each in the shape of a mallow petal, flaring from a slightly recessed base with six spur marks, covered overall with a thick pale bluish glaze suffused with a dense network of russet crackles thinning on the mouth rim. 4 3/4 in. (12 cm.) wide

ProvenanceSir Harry (1891-1977) and Lady Garner, Beckenham, UK 
Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler (1916-2010)

An Imperial Guan ware brush washer
Rosemary Scott
International Academic Director Asian Art

This exceptional Guan ware brush washer is part of the remarkable history of imperial ceramics in the Southern Song period. Fine Guan wares, which were made for the court of the Southern Song emperors, also reflect the aesthetic traditions of the Northern Song court. They belonging to a group of wares so highly esteemed by successive generations of connoisseurs that they were to influence the ceramics made for the Chinese imperial court well into the Qing dynasty. 

In ceramics, when referring to the aesthetics of the Northern Song court, it is the Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126), who had the most significant impact. Indeed, rather than being remembered as a particularly competent emperor, to a greater extent he is known as a collector, artist and aesthete. His legacy to the arts of China was an important one that ranges from the publication of illustrated records of his collection of antiques, to the contemporary art commissioned for his court and temples. The artistic links between Huizong and the Southern Song court are particularly significant for the discussion of Guan wares, since it was the refined imperial tastes of the Emperor Huizong, as exemplified by the Ru wares made for his court, which largely provided the inspiration for the Guan wares made for the court of the Southern Song emperors. 

Under attack from the Jurchen invaders the Emperor Huizong abdicated in January AD 1126. He was succeeded by his son, Zhao Huan, who ruled as Emperor Qinzong ?? until March 1127, when he too abdicated, having surrendered to the Jurchen in January of the same year. In May 1127 both former emperors were forcibly taken by the Jurchen invaders to the latter’s tribal home in Manchuria. The loss of the north was not the end of the Song dynasty, however. Huizong’s ninth son Zhao Gou had been sent in December 1126 to the Jin headquarter in north China to try and negotiate some kind of peace settlement, but instead he was persuaded by his officials to lead a military resistance to the invaders. Having managed to evade capture by the Jin, he avoided being taken north with his father, brother, and thousands of other members of the court. Following his brother’s abdication in March, Zhao Gou declared himself emperor in June 1127, at what was then known as the Song’s southern capital at Yingtianfu (modern Shangqiu) in Henan province. He would become known as Emperor Gaozong. 

Under further threat from the Jin, Emperor Gaozong fled to Lin’an (modern Hangzhou) in south-eastern Zhejiang province, where he established his ‘travelling palace’ in 1129. It was this move south, known euphemistically as ‘crossing the river’, that caused later scholars to distinguish the Northern Song and the Southern Song periods. In the eighth year of the Shaoxing reign (1138) Lin’an was officially designated Emperor Gaozong’s ‘temporary residence’, reflecting the hope that one day the Song would regain northern China and the court would move back to the northern capital at Kaifeng. The Lin’an imperial palace was built on the lower slopes of Phoenix Hill on the northern side. 

When the Song court ‘crossed the river’, that is fled to Hangzhou, the products of the northern kilns were no longer available to its members, and by all accounts they were unable to bring many vessels with them on their journey south. Huge quantities of Song imperial treasures had also been taken by the Jin troops when they returned to their northern homeland in 1127. The famous and revered Ru wares made for the Northern Song Emperor Huizong would have been in short supply at the Southern Song court. It is also worth bearing in mind that while ceramic vessels were not the main type used in imperial ritual during the Northern Song period, the lack of vessels in materials such as bronze meant that the Southern Song court probably had to replace some ritual vessels with ceramic wares. Thus new kilns to provide fine ceramics for both ritual and daily use by the court had to be found. It is significant that a number of objects in the form of ritual vessels have been found at the Guan kilns. In part this would have been archaism in response to Emperor Huizong interest in antiquities and the publication of the illustrated catalogues of his ancient bronze collection, much of which had been removed from Kaifeng and taken north by the Jurchen. It is also probable that some of these fine ceramic gulei, and gui were used by the Southern Song court in ritual, in place of bronze vessels. 

Not surprisingly, the first impulse of the Southern Song court appears to have been to try to have official ceramics made at the Yue ware kilns, which had long been established in Zhejiang province and had found favour at the northern court in the early Song period. However, this does not seem to have been a success, and in around 1144 imperial kilns were specifically set up in Hangzhou. Two kiln sites producing Guan (official) wares are mentioned in the texts. One of these is the Jiaotanxia (Beneath the Sacrificial Altar) kiln, which was located by archaeologists on Wuguishan (Turtle Hill) in the suburbs of Hangzhou in the 1930s. Several periods of excavation were undertaken, culminating in a sustained and thorough examination and excavation of the site in the 1980s. However, an earlier kiln is mentioned in literature, and has traditionally been credited with the finest Guan ware: this is the Xiuneisi (The Palace Maintenance Office) kiln, which was not located until 1996. 

A famous reference to the Xiuneisi kiln appears in similar form in both the Shuofu, compiled by Tao Zongyi (1316-1403), but published after his death, quoting the Southern Song writer Gu Wenjian’s Fuxuan zalu (Miscellaneous Records from Under the Sun), and the Chuogeng lu (Idle Notes), also by Tao Zongyi, quoting another Southern Song author, Ye Zhi’s Tanzhai biheng (Notes from the Tranquil Study): 

“After the capital was transferred across the river, Shao Chengzhang was placed in charge of production in the Rear Park, which came to be known as the Shao Bureau and carried on the traditions of the old capital. A kiln was established under the Xiuneisi to make green wares, called neiyao [inner ware], made using fine clay moulds to produce an exquisite ware. The colour is clear and translucent, and they are greatly valued today. Later another kiln was set up at Jiaotanxia, but the wares made there could not be compared with those from the old kiln”. 

Chinese archaeologists have now found the site of the Xiuneisi kiln at Laohudong (Tiger Cave) less than 100 metres from the northern wall of the imperial palace of the Southern Song emperors on Phoenix Hill. In reference to this much quoted text regarding the setting up of the Xiuneisi kiln, a modern scholar, Sha Menghai, has discovered that, although the eunuch Shao Chengzhang was an official under the Huizong emperor (AD 1101-25), he was dismissed from office, exiled to Nanxiongzhou, and did not return to the court (Sha Menghai, ’Nan Song guanyao Xiuneisi yao zhi wenti de shangque’ (On the Question of the Site of the Southern Song Xiuneisi Guan Ware Kiln), Kaogu yu Wenwu, 1985, no. 6.) He was therefore unlikely to have been responsible for the imperial kiln in the Southern Song period. Traditionally, however, it has been assumed that the Xiuneisi kiln was set up before that at Jiaotanxia, and did produce the higher quality ware. This seems to be born out by comparisons made between some of the pieces surviving in museum collections and the material excavated from the Laohudong and Jiaotanxia kilns. 

A map of the Southern Song Imperial Palace on Phoenix Hill in Hangzhou, was included in a gazetteer, ‘Gazetteer of Lin’an during the Xianchun Period’, commissioned by the Southern Song Emperor Duzong (1265-74), and compiled by Qian Shuoyou. On this map, near the north eastern wall of the palace, two groups of four characters appear. These characters read Xiuneisi ying, which should roughly translate as Xiuneisi camp, but could also translate at Xiuneisi administration. The position of these areas ties in quite well with the position of the Laohudong kiln and with the descriptions of the location of the Xiuneisi kiln found in literature. During excavations carried out at Laohudong between 1996 and 2002 five strata have been excavated - the top stratum being modern, the second dating to the Yuan dynasty, the third and fourth dating to the Southern Song and the fifth dating to the Northern Song period. The excavated ceramics from the two Southern Song strata conform to the descriptions found in literature of Xiuneisi Guan wares. 

The Fuxuan zalu by Gu Wenjian notes that, in addition to being very fine, some of the Guan wares made at the Xiuneisi kiln had ‘claw-marks’ and ‘purple mouth and iron foot’ zikou tiezu. This latter feature is due to the use of dark, iron rich, clay which is revealed when the foot of a vessel is wiped clean of glaze to allow the vessel to be fired standing on its foot, and which shows through where the glaze runs thin at the rim of the mouth. It is also stated inFuxuan zalu that the very refined ceramics from the Xiuneisi kiln were rather similar to the pieces made at the Ru kilns (Gu Wenjian, Fuxuan zalujuan 18, Han Fen Lou edition). These remarks are reiterated in the Gegu yaolun(Essential Criteria of Antiquities) by Cao Zhao published in AD 1388 (Published in translation with facsimile of the Chinese text by Sir Percival David as Chinese Connoisseurship: The Ko Ku Yao Lun, The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, London, 1971), which says of Guan wares:  

“... those made at Song Xiuneisi are of fine, smooth clay, are blue with a pinkish hue and uneven tone, they have ‘crab’s claw’ crackle, purple mouth and iron foot, and at best their colour is the same as Ru wares.’ These features, including the link with Northern Song Ru wares, have been found in the ceramics excavated from the Southern Song strata at the Laohudong kiln site, and apply to the current washer.  

Petal-lobed washers, such as the current example, seem to have been made in several versions at the Guan kilns during the Southern Song and the Yuan dynasties – some having six lobes, some eight lobes, some, like the current vessel, ten lobes, and some twelve lobes. All appear to have completely glazed feet and have been fired on spurs. A number of washers of this type have been excavated at the Laohudong Xiuneisi kiln and an eight-lobed example was published inHangzhou Laohudong yaozhi ciqi jingxuan, Beijing, 2002, no. 123. Two ten-lobed Guan ware washers in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing have been published (illustrated Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum – 33, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 22, no. 17 (fig. 1) and p. 25, no. 20 (fig. 2)). A further ten-lobed Guan washer formerly in the collection of Sir Alan and Lady Barlow, and now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, was included in the exhibition Ju and Kuan Wares, held in London in 1952, illustrated in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 1951-1952, 1952-1953, vol. 27, London, 1954, pl. 4, no. 72. A further tenlobed Guan washer, formerly in the collection of Severance and Greta Millikin, is now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. These ten-lobed washers were all fired on five spurs, which have left corresponding marks on their glazed bases. The National Palace Museum, Taiwan, also has in its collection a tenlobed Guan ware washer, which, like the current example, has six spur marks on its base (illustrated Kuan Ware of the Southern Sung Dynasty, Book I (part 2), Hong Kong, 1962, no. 41). A six-lobed washer of this type is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum – 33, op. cit. p. 24, no. 19). Three more eight-lobed Guan washers are in the collection of Sir Percival David – accession numbers PDF 30, A53 and A54. One of these, accession number PDF A53, is illustrated in Song Ceramics – Objects of Admiration, London, 2003, pp. 96-7. This washer, along with PDF A54, has 6 spur marks on the base, while the smaller vessel, PDF 30, was fired on five spurs and is illustrated in Illustrated Catalogue of Ru, guan, Jun, Guangdong and Yixing Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, Revised Edition, London, 1999, p. 29, and p. 60. Two eight-lobed Guan washers, both with six spur marks on the base, are illustrated in Kuan Ware of the Southern Sung Dynasty, Book I (part 2), op. cit., nos. 39 and 40. Another smaller washer, with twelve-lobes, from the collection of Sir Alan Barlow, is currently on loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. This washer was fired on five spurs.

A Guan mallow-shaped brush washer, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)

fig. 1. Guan mallow-shaped brush washer, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

A Guan mallow-shaped brush washer, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)

fig. 2. Guan mallow-shaped brush washer, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The current beautiful Guan ware washer has a particularly successful glaze and well defined crackle. It was formerly in the collection of Sir Harry and Lady Garner, and was included in the 1952 exhibition Ju and Kuan Wares, organised by the Oriental Ceramic, see Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 1951-1952, 1952-1953, vol. 27, London, op. cit., no. 67. This washer was also included in the famous 1954 Venetian exhibition Mostra d’arte Cinese, held to celebrate the hepta-centenary of the birth of Marco Polo, and is illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, p. 131, no. 460. (fig. 3)


fig. 3 The current lot illustrated in the 1954 Venetian exhibition catalogue Mostra d’arte Cinese

Property from the estate of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler


Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler KBE possessed a lifelong dedication to helping others. Whether in his pharmaceutical research or the gifts he made to institutions across the globe, Dr. Sackler strove to create a more vibrant and inspired world. 

Born in 1916 to immigrant parents, Mortimer Sackler studied medicine in the United States and Britain before joining his brothers, Arthur and Raymond, in co-founding New York’s Creedmoor Institute for Psychobiologic Studies, where the Sacklers were pioneers in psychiatric research, pursuing treatments for mental health issues.

In 1952, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler acquired the small Manhattan firm Purdue Frederick Company. In the years to come, the Sacklers grew Purdue Pharma into a world leader in research and development, and fostered a culture of innovation that transformed the wider industry.

Mortimer Sackler was “unusual as a patron,” noted London’s Daily Telegraph, “because of the genuine interest he took in each of the astonishing number of projects he promoted.” Together with his wife, Dame Theresa Sackler, and in collaboration with his brothers, Dr. Sackler came to make an indelible mark on the landscape of modern philanthropy. Recipients of the collector’s financial support and leadership included London’s National Gallery of Art; the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Serpentine Gallery; Tate; Oxford and Cambridge Universities; and eponymous medical research centers in cities such as London, Glasgow, Brighton, Edinburgh, Tel Aviv, New York, and Boston. His philanthropic vision reflected a polymathic mind: from the restoration of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey to contemporary architect John Pawson’s bridge at Kew Gardens, Dr. Sackler was committed to illuminating both the past and the present.

The recipient of numerous awards, Mortimer Sackler was named an Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1997, and an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1999. Today, the Sackler name remains synonymous with extraordinary philanthropy and public service—a spirited legacy that continues to grow through the ongoing work of the Sackler family.

Exhibited: The Oriental Ceramic Society, Ju and Kuan Wares, London, 12 November to 13 December 1952, Catalogue, no.67 
Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Mostra d'arte Cinese, 1954, Catalogue, no. 460

Notes: Sir Harry Garner (1891-1977) was a distinguished mathematician, scientist, scholar and collector of Asian art. Born in Leicestershire, Sir Harry joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in 1916 after graduating from Cambridge University. He later became Chief Technical Officer of the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe as well as Chief Scientist to the Ministry of Supply, and helped design the Supermarine aircraft. Aside from his remarkable achievements in the science, Sir Harry was also notable for his scholarship in Asian art. His many publications, including Oriental Blue and White (1954), Chinese and Japanese Cloisonné Enamels (1962) and Chinese Lacquer (1979), were widely read by students first initiated into the field. He had also formed a substantial collection of Asian art encompassing ceramics, cloisonné and lacquer, many of which were donated to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum; the rest sold through Bluett’s after he passed away. Legend has it that Sir Harry purchased two Ru cupstands for as little as £2.10 and donated them separately to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.