Lot 269. A magnificent pair of large blue and white vases, hu, Qianlong seal marks and of the period (1736-95), 20½ in. (51 cm.) high. Estimate GBP 500,000 - GBP 800,000. Price realised GBP 499,250. © Christie's Images Ltd 2011
Each robustly potted vessel finely painted around the bulbous lower section with large peony blooms borne on leafy meandering scrolls with smaller blooms and set between a band of pendant ruyi heads at the shoulder and turbulent waves at the base, the broad shoulders luted to the body with a subtle indentation sweeping up to the flaring neck flanked by a pair of tubular lug handles, the wave band further repeated around the shoulders, mouth and handles, with two registers of lotus flowers filling out the decoration around the neck, each containing scrolling foliate vines punctuated by large blooms.
Provenance: The property of a lady.
This superb and rare pair of large vases typifies the finest quality of construction and underglaze blue decoration in the reign of one of the Qing dynasty's greatest patrons of the art, the Qianlong Emperor. It is interesting to note, however, that the shape of these vases originates in earlier metal proto-types, while the direct inspiration for both shape and decoration came to the Qing court through imperial porcelains of the Ming dynasty Xuande reign (1426-35).
In the case of the shape, this inspiration is confirmed by archives for the third year of the Qianlong reign (1738), which record an instruction sent to the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen requesting 'vases like those of the Xuan(de) period with straight necks and cylindrical handles, but make them larger.' In the Qianlong reign vases of this form and size were made with straight necks, such as the two which are preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 36 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red III, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 144-5, nos. 130-1), and with flared necks, like the current example; another, reputedly from the British Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 31 May 2010, lot 1907; a third sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 30 May 2005, lot 1480; and a fourth included in the exhibition The Wonders of the Potter's Palette: Qing Ceramics from the Collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1984, no. 63. It has been suggested that the everted mouths of this latter group provided a pleasing balance to the vessels' strong, angular, shoulders.
A fine large blue and white hu-form vase, Qianlong six-character sealmark and of the period (1736-1795), 20 in. (50.8 cm.) high. Sold for HKD 10,180,000 at Christie's Hong Kong, 31 May 2010, lot 1907. © Christie's Images Ltd 2010
Interestingly, from the previous Yongzheng reign (1723-35) comes a version of this form with a mouth that falls between the two Qianlong versions. These Yongzheng vases, such as the example in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Harmony and Integrity - The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times, Taipei, 2009, p. 221, no. II-47), and another in the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1995, no. 43), stand on a flat base, and, more importantly, have mouths that flare only very slightly. It may be assumed that the Qianlong Emperor felt that the mouth should either be generously flared or remain straight. Certainly the form with flared mouth appears to have found particular favour with the Qianlong Emperor, as this form is also found amongst monochrome porcelains of his reign. Interestingly, these monochromes display additional archaistic interest, since they imitate Song dynasty glazes. An example with Ge-type glaze is illustrated by Qian Zhengzong in Qingdai ciqi shangjian, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 145, no. 182, while a further example with Ru-type glaze was sold in our Hong Kong rooms 31 May 2010, lot 2010.
The floral decoration on both the Yongzheng vases and the Qianlong examples with flared mouth, like the current example, is clearly inspired by the floral scrolls on early Ming porcelains with underglaze blue decoration. Not only are the forms of the floral scrolls similar, but the 18th century potters at the imperial kilns were at pains to try and imitate the 'heaped and piled' effect of the cobalt seen on early 15th century porcelains. Such 'heaped and piled' effects were natural when using the type of cobalt available in the early 15th century. Hewever cobalt from a different source and enhanced preparation methods in the 18th century meant that if this effect was to be achieved on imperial porcelain of the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, it had to be painted on deliberately by the ceramic decorator. While the Yongzheng vases have an 'Indian lotus' scroll on the neck and handles, and a mixed floral scroll around the body, the Qianlong examples have three different floral scrolls around the neck, upper shoulders, and body, with each band depicting a single flower type.
The Yongzheng vases have only a very narrow wave band around the lower part of the shoulder. This band is composed of alternating spray and whirlpools. The wave bands on the Qianlong vases are much wider and more important in the overall decorative scheme. Indeed bands of turbulent waves have been used to great effect on the current vase and others of this group. The wave bands encircle the lower part of the body of the vessel, the shoulders, the mouth, just below the rim, and even the tubular handles. The form of these turbulent waves, like the floral scrolls, have their origins in the early 15th century, when, in a change from the 14th century style, the depiction of the sea consisted of rolling waves interspersed with dramatic plumes of spray. Although the Qianlong version of this decoration is more formal and controlled, it retains the essential form of the early 15th century. In the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande reigns of the 15th century such waves usually provided a background for either a five-clawed imperial dragon or a group of mythological sea creatures. The dragon was associated with waves because at the spring equinox it was believed to rise from winter hibernation amongst the waves in order to bring rain to water the crops and provide a bountiful harvest. By the 18th century the waves alone would have conveyed this message of bounty.
Although important vases of this type would generally have been supplied by the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen to the emperor in pairs, it is extremely rare that a pair of these magnificent vessels has survived into the present day. Indeed no other pair of vases of this type appears to have been published.
Christie's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 10 May 2011, London, King Street