An extremely rare and important blue and white ‘magpie and prunus’ moon flask, Yongzheng six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1723-1735)

An extremely rare and important blue and white ‘magpie and prunus’ moon flask, Yongzheng six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1723-1735)



Lot 3309. An extremely rare and important blue and white ‘magpie and prunus’ moon flask, Yongzheng six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1723-1735). Estimate HKD 40,000,000 - HKD 60,000,000 (USD 5,180,308 - USD 7,770,462). Price Realised HKD 45,900,000 (USD 5,945,326). Photo Christie's Images Ltd 2016.

The moon flask is exquisitely painted in delicate tones of cobalt blue on one side depicting two Oriental magpie-robins facing each other on a flowering prunus tree, one perched on a higher branch looking down towards its companion on a lower branch, amidst budding and blossoming prunus flowers, with stalks of bamboo emerging from the bottom of the tree; the other side painted in a similar composition with two bulbuls perched in counterpose on an apricot tree accompanied by bamboo, one bird turning its head backwards to face its companion on the right. The shoulder and foot of the flask are decorated with bands of leafy-scroll motifs, the neck painted on each side with a single bamboo stem, and the arched handles adorned with lingzhi-scrolls. The elliptical base is inscribed with the reign mark in seal script. 14 1/2 in. (37 cm.) high

ProvenanceA private collection, London, since the 1950s and thence by descent

Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art

This magnificent flask is a fine example of the most popular painted subjects to appear on Chinese ceramics in the Ming and Qing dynasties - birds and flowers - huanniao hua. Traditionally, the three main subjects of two-dimensional Chinese painting on silk and paper were landscapes, birds and flowers, and figures. In earlier periods, flowers on their own were often associated with Buddhist art, but they became more widely depicted, especially in the 10th century. In this period birds and flowers as a naturalistic combination also appeared on a regular basis. Huang Quan ( c. AD 903-965) from Chengdu, Sichuan province, became famous for applying the style known as xiesheng, ‘lifelike painting’ to birds and flowers. This style was primarily adopted by professional or court artists. Huang himself served as a painter at the imperial court and his xiesheng style was typified by the meticulous use of fine outlines filled with bright colours. Xu Xi (AD 937-975), who came from a wealthy family but never took up an official post, painted birds and flowers in a different style. This was one in which there was greater freedom of interpretation, and a more calligraphic use of the brush. This style came to be known as Xu Xi xie yi ‘painting the idea’, and was the style largely adopted by the literati. Both Huang and Xu inspired followers who would carry the essence of their styles through the Song dynasty and beyond.

However, Lai Sukyee has noted that even as early as the Six Dynasties period (AD 220-589): ‘… the concept of combining ‘bird’ and ’flower’ motifs as a unified theme emerged in paintings.’ (see Lai Sukyee, ‘Bird and flower painting on Tang and Song ceramics’, Style in the East Asian Tradition, Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 14, (R. Scott and G. Hutt eds.), London 1987, p. 103). Lai points out that, despite the paucity of extant examples, historical records mention at least two painters in the Jin dynasty ( ?265-420) who specialised in ‘bird and flower’ painting, and that by the Tang dynasty this was a specific genre. Lai notes that some 20 painters specialising in ‘bird and flower’ painting are recorded for the Tang period. One of these was Bian Luan (active late 8th-early 9th century), whose style may be seen as a precursor to that of Huang Quan. These early bird and flower painters may have been important for the development of this subject on ceramics in the Tang period. 

Separate representations of flora and fauna can be seen amongst the painted decoration on ceramics as early as the Yangshao culture of the Neolithic period. These separate depictions continued spasmodically through the Shang, Zhou and Han periods, but with the advent of the Tang dynasty as increased interest in the depiction of nature saw birds and flowers painted as harmonious, naturalistic groups on ceramics, as well as appearing on woven textiles, chased metalwork, and works of art in other media. Amongst the most prolific applications of this theme to ceramics was on the painted wares from the Changsha kilns at Tongguan, where some 70% of the ewers excavated from the kiln site in 1979 were decorated with bird and flower motifs. These were painted in iron brown, copper green and sometimes in copper red (see, for example, Chinese Copper Red Wars, (R. Scott ed.) London, 1992, pl. 1). Interestingly, on these Changsha Tongguan wares the birds and flowers are frequently created using fine iron brown lines, while the broader lines are in copper green or copper red. Combined with the fine lines often incised into the clay body, this technique created a lively style, and one that is frequently full of movement. 

In the Song dynasty bird and flower painting on silk or paper reached new heights with artists such as Cui Bai (c. 1044-1088) undertaking further development of the xiesheng style using meticulous brush work to bring an even greater sense of realism. Significantly, the Xuanhe huapu - a catalogue of paintings in the imperial collection of the Xuanhe period (1119-25) – devotes five chapters to bird and flower painting and records the subject matter and its significance in detail. Maggie Bickford has noted that amongst the works cited, 54 paintings by 16 artists include the word mei (plum) in their title (see Maggie Bickford, Ink Plum – The Making of a Chinese Scholar-Painting Genre, Cambridge, 1996, p. 83). It is suggested that the rise in the popularity of plum blossom as a subject for the arts coincided with a rise in bird and flower painting. Certainly an appreciable proportion of depictions of birds and flowers, in both the two and three-dimensional arts, show the birds perched on blossoming plum branches – as they do on one side of the current flask. 

The Northern Song Emperor Huizong ( AD 1100-1126) was himself an accomplished calligrapher and painter, who also established the Imperial Painting Academy Hanlin huayuan. One of the emperor’s favourite subjects in his own work was bird and flower painting. A number of bird and flower paintings attributed to Huizong have survived, and these too are characterized by a meticulous realism. Huizong’s extant bird and flower paintings include Five-coloured Parakeet, in which the bird is shown perched on the branches of a blossoming apricot (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the album Four Birds [on Blossoming Branches and Bamboo], illustrated by Maggie Bickford, op. cit., pl. 2), in which the small birds perch on blossoming plum branches and bamboo stems (now in the Palace Museum, Beijing), and Finches and Bamboo, in which the birds are depicted perching on leafy bamboo stems (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York). The birds on the current flask are also shown in association with blossoming plum, blossoming apricot and with leafy bamboo. It is additionally interesting to note that on two of the four album leaves by Huizong, mentioned above, two birds are depicted in a counterpoise to each other, similar to the way in which they appear on both sides of the current porcelain flask. 

On Song dynasty ceramics the finest bird and flower painting was undoubtedly to be seen on pillows from the Cizhou kilns, especially those from Dong’aikou kiln at Guantai, those made in Yuxian, and those made at Hebiji, in Tangyin. While these pillows were made in a wide variety of shapes, including those formed as tigers and children, the top surface was always wide and flat, and as such, provided an ideal canvas on which a skilled artist could paint birds and flowers – or indeed any other subject. The bird and flower groups painted on Cizhou pillows were invariably created using a free, calligraphic style, resembling the yibi style preferred by the literati, as opposed to the gongbi style associated with the court. The fact that the Cizhou pillow paintings were executed in monochrome black on white (with only an occasional use of amber brown) also contrasted with the colourful court style, and was closer to ink painting of the literati. 

In the Yuan dynasty the political situation affected the literati painters, who, in many cases, were either not offered positions at the Mongol court or refused to accept them, preferring to withdraw from court life and concentrate on scholarly pursuits. In some cases a change of style accompanied this change of circumstances. Qian Xuan (1235-1305), for example, who prior to the Mongol conquest, employed a highly realistic style in his bird and flower painting, reacted to the establishment of Mongol rule by seeking to revive ancient styles, such as the ‘blue and green’ style of the Tang dynasty in his landscape paintings, while developing a more individual and mannered style for other themes. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), who was a descendant of one of the Song emperors, and wrote a colophon to Huizong’s painting Finches and Bamboo, did accept Khubilai Khan’s offer of an official post, and rose to high positions under several emperors, including the position of Hanlin xueshi chengzhi (the Hanlin Academician in Receipt of Edicts). His paintings, which were highly esteemed, included landscapes, horses and other animals, figures, bamboo and rocks, and, primarily in his early career, birds and flowers. One of his bird and flower paintings is Hoopoe Perching on a Branch of Secluded Bamboo, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing. In this painting Zhao used a ‘double outline’ technique (shuanggou) for the bamboo and a ‘boneless’ technique (mogu) for the bird. This is perhaps reflective of the eclectic taste he demonstrated in his own collection of paintings. One of his protégées was the professional painter Wang Yuan (active mid-14th century) who specialised in bird and flower and bamboo paintings – which he typically painted in ink, in a style recalling that of Huang Quan. 

For ceramics, the latter part of the Yuan dynasty saw the establishment of fine underglaze blue painting on the porcelains of Jingdezhen. The use of ground cobalt blue in suspension, painted directly onto unfired, porous, porcelain is perhaps the ceramic decorative technique which is closest to painting in ink on silk or paper, and is the one used on the current flask. Painting in enamels on a pre-fired glaze will not be included in this discussion. The overall widening of decorative subjects on ceramics in the Yuan dynasty, as well as the diversity of the patrons for whom they were made, appears to have resulted in a relatively limited number of designs which could strictly be described as ‘bird and flower’ motifs being applied to Jingdezhen porcelains in this period. While a significant number of subjects from nature do appear on fine Yuan blue and white porcelains, the most common bird and flower scheme is ducks and lotus, with some occasional alternatives, such as geese and millet, and peacocks and peonies. 

It was in the early 15th century of the Ming dynasty that fine bird and flower painting really came into its own on underglaze blue decorated porcelains at the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen. This was in part inspired by paintings of earlier artists, partly by the work of a number of successful contemporary court painters of birds and flowers, such as Bian Jingzhao (active early 15th century), who themselves built on the traditions of the past, and partly by the increasing availability of illustrated woodblock printed books, including materia medica (pharmaceutical literature dealing with plants for their medicinal properties). Perhaps the most exquisite of the early 15th century bird and flower painting on porcelain can be seen on certain moon flasks, which, in turn, provided the inspiration for the current flask. The early 15th century moon flasks, exemplified by examples in the collection of Sir Percival David (see R. Scott, Imperial Taste – Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles, 1989, p. 59, no. 30), and in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Porcelain of the National Palace Museum: Blue-and-White Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book I, Hong Kong, plate 9a), established a very distinctive style. The body of the vessel was a simple flattened sphere, which stood on a slightly recessed oval base, without additional foot. The neck was cylindrical and was joined to the shoulder of the vessel on either side by a cloud-shaped handle, decorated with a simple scroll. The neck was decorated on either side with a spray of bamboo, and around the shoulder and the base was a distinctive archaistic cloud band. On one side of the body was a bird perched on a branch of blossoming plum and on the other a bird perched on a branch of blossoming apricot – in each case accompanied by a spray of bamboo. Such moon flasks were clearly to the taste of the Chinese elite, but it is interesting to see an identical flask depicted in a painting from Herat, dated to AD 1488 (see fig. 1, detail from a Bustan of Sa’di copied by Sultan-Alial-Katib for Sultan-Husayn Mirza, Herat, dated to the equivalent of June AD1488). This would suggest that such pieces were also appreciated by the Near Eastern courts, and it seems possible that the flask in the painting may have come to Herat (then an important Timurid trading centre; now in modern day Afghanistan) as a diplomatic gift in the Yongle reign. 


fig. 1. Detail from a Bustan of Sa’di copied by Sultan-Alial-Katib for Sultan-Husayn Mirza, Herat, dated to the equivalent of June AD1488. Collection of the General Egyptian Book Organization.

It is not surprising to find that the Yongzheng Emperor, perhaps the Qing dynasty emperor with the most refined tastes should appreciate the style of these early 15th century bird and flower flasks, and several versions of the design appear on vessels from his reign. Two rare groups of these are particularly close to the 15th century aesthetic. A limited number of small Yongzheng moon flasks have survived in collections, which are of approximately the same size as the 15th century examples, and, like them, are decorated with a single bird on each side. One of these, formerly in the collection of Richard de la Mare, was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2011. An even smaller Yongzheng version of this type (approximately 22 cm. high) is also known and an example was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in June 2015 (fig. 2). Both of these small versions of the style usually have flared mouths and do not normally bear reign marks. The current moon flask belongs to the second, and even rarer, group of Yongzheng bird and flower flasks, which are usually approximately 37 cm. high, have columnar necks. One of these in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing is illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 36, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 111, no. 97 (fig. 3), while another was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong from the collection of Robert Chang in November 1999. While the flask in the Palace Collection bears a similar mark to the one on the base of the current flask, the vessel sold in 1999 appears to have had its mark largely erased.

An exceptional and extremely rare blue and white Ming-style moonflask, Yongzheng period (1723-1735)

fig. 2. An exceptional and extremely rare blue and white Ming-style moonflask, Yongzheng period (1723-1735). Price Realized HK$17,440,000 ($2,258,567) at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3 June 2015, lot 3126. Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2015.

A blue and white Ming-style moonflask, Yongzheng six-character mark in underglaze blue

fig. 3 A blue and white Ming-style moonflask, Yongzheng six-character mark in underglaze blue. Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

While retaining the general design of the early 15th century moon flasks and the smaller 18th century examples, the decorators of the larger Yongzheng moon flasks, of the current type, took advantage of their more extensive ‘canvas’ and further developed the design to include two birds on each side of the vessel. While it is often assumed that in Chinese designs all apparently black and white birds on plum trees are magpies xique, with the help of Philip Brakefield, it has been possible to identify the birds on the branches of the blossoming plum on the current flask as Oriental magpie-robins (Copsychus saularis), rather than magpies. These are small passerine birds, and were formerly classed as members of the thrush family. They are much admired for their song, and in former times were popularly kept as caged songbirds. It is tempting to identify the birds on the apricot tree as bulbuls of the type known in China as baitou weng (hoary headed old man), but that type of bulbul has a white throat, and the birds on the flask only have white caps and white breasts. 

The birds on both sides of the moon flask face each other in counterpoise across the branches, although in the case of the birds on the blossoming apricot, the bird on the left turns its head backwards in order to look at its companion. This positioning of the birds harks back to the paintings of the Northern Song dynasty, as exemplified by the album of Emperor Huizong discussed above. The result is a design of somewhat greater complexity than the early 15th century version, but one which is executed with refinement and artistry. In addition, the contrast between the bare, gnarled branches of the plum tree with its delicate blossoms and the softer, leafy branches of the apricot tree with its more rounded flowers has been achieved with consummate painterly skill. 

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 30 November 2016, Hong Kong, HKCEC Grand Hall