A superb pair of famille rose vases, Jiaqing iron-red six-character seal marks and of the period (1796-1820)

Lot 238. A superb pair of famille rose vases, Jiaqing iron-red six-character seal marks and of the period (1796-1820), 12¾ in. (32.4 cm.) high. Estimate GBP 200,000 - GBP 300,000Price realised GBP 289,250. © Christie's Images Ltd 2011

Of bottle form with stylised dragon handles to the cylindrical necks, supported on a short foot, delicately decorated around the body with large peony flowers and leafy stems issuing from rockwork, all between bands of lappets and ruyi, the interiors and bases enamelled turquoise.

NoteThis rare pair of Jiaqing famille rose vases represent a very successful melding of features from the imperial porcelains of the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns. The archaistic kui dragon handles enamelled in vermilion and gold to imitate lacquer are of a type particularly associated with the Qianlong reign, and can be seen on vases preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, such as the turquoise ground vase in cloisonné style illustrated in The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum 39 Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 136, no. 119. Handles of this type were also adopted in the Jiaqing reign, and indeed on some examples the colour was changed to either pastel pink or pastel blue with darker details. The lacquer red with gold details however, as seen on the current vases, remained the most popular variant.

While the handles on these vases may have been inspired by porcelains of the Qianlong reign, the painted decoration on the body of the vase was inspired by fine famille rose, porcelains of the Yongzheng reign. The shape too is based on the tianqiupingof the Yongzheng reign, but it is the naturalistically painted blossoming branches that demonstrate an especially close link with Yongzheng enamelled wares. Inspiration was undoubtedly taken from imperial Yongzheng vases like those still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing which are published in Qingdai yuyao ciqi, vol. 1, part 2, Beijing, 2005, pp. 178-9, no. 76, pp. 182-3, no. 78, and pp. 184-5, no. 79. The inclusion of branches bearing different flowers particularly recalls the famous vase illustrated ibid, p.185, and the exquisite dish, also in the Palace Museum, illustrated ibid, pp. 190-1, no. 82.

The choice of decorative motifs at first seems to mirror that of those of the Yongzheng reign, but an additional flower has been included for its auspicious meaning. Peonies, which are knows as the 'king of flowers' in China, appear in three colours on each vase, each painted in a slightly different technique. The peony is one of the most popular flowers in the famille rose palette, not only for its beauty, but for its auspicious associations as the flower of wealth and honour. The ornamental rocks beside the peonies on these vases are symbolic of longevity, and thus suggest the phrase 'May you live long and achieve wealth and honour'. It is, however, the inclusion of flowering begonia that is unusual. The begonia branch is the longest in the composition on these vases and has been used particularly effectively to meander up the neck of the vase, where the smaller blossoms of this plant fit well within the narrower space of the neck. The pleasing shape of begonia flowers have provided the inspiration for vessel forms in China for centuries, but more rarely are the flowers depicted in painting. However the name of the plant in Chinese qiuhaitang means that it is sometimes used as part of a rebus to stand for the four seas that were thought to surround China. The decorative motifs on these vases may therefore not simply provide an auspicious wish for a single person, but for all China 'May the land of the four seas enjoy prosperity and honour for ever'.

Christie's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 10 May 2011, London, King Street