An extremely rare and important carved cinnabar lacquer embellished famille rose vase, Jiaqing six-character sealmark and of the period (1796-1820)

Lot 1910. An extremely rare and important carved cinnabar lacquer embellished famille rose vase, Jiaqing six-character sealmark and of the period (1796-1820), 10 in. (25.3 cm.) high. Estimate HKD 5,000,000 - HKD 7,000,000Price realised HKD 9,620,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2010

The globular body decorated with the large gnarled branches of a flowing pomegranate tree heavily laden with fruit, above aruyi-form band enclosing classic lotus scroll against a yellow ground, the foot with a scrolling floral band, and below a band of pendent ruyi heads enclosing florets against a yellow ground at the shoulder, the neck covered in red lacquer and similarly carved with ruyi and classic lotus scroll and flanked by a pair of openwork C-shaped handles in gilt, the interior of the neck and the base surrounding the iron-red reign mark in turquoise enamel.

Provenance: Previously sold at Christie's Paris, 7 December 2007, lot 175 

Exhibited: Osaka Municiple Museum, Art of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, 1980, Catalogue, no. 163 

Novelty And Dexterity - Re-Interpretation of Techniques
Rosemary Scott - International Academic Director, Asian Art

This exceptional vase combines well-painted overglaze enamel decoration with skilfully carved red lacquer. The body of the vase is richly painted with blossoming and fruiting pomegranate trees and blossoming peonies, whose white blooms contrast very effectively with the red flowers of the pomegranate. These plants combine to offer wishes for riches and honours and many sons to the recipient of the vase. The enamelled ruyi bands around the shoulder and base of the vase also suggest a hope for 'everything as you wish'. The alternating large and small ruyiin the painted enamel bands are mirrored in the band around the lower part of the lacquer, just above the finely carved squared-spiral band. The lacquer carver has even gone so far as to mirror the interior decoration of each ruyi head. The colour of the vermillion lacquer also complements the enamels, especially the red used for the pomegranate flowers. The use of lacquer on porcelain has traditionally been much admired, but is very rare, since the application of the lacquer to the surface of the porcelain requires great skill and would have added considerably not only to the original cost of the item so adorned, but also to the time required to make it. As lacquer can only be applied in very thin layers, it would have taken a considerable amount of time to build up sufficient thickness to allow the multi-layered carving on the current vase. It is also rather fragile, and it is likely that of the few examples of this type made, even fewer have survived into the present day.

As early as the Tang dynasty lacquer was applied to valuable ceramics. When the so-called 'underground palace' beneath the pagoda of the Famen Temple near Xi'an in Shaanxi province was opened, archaeologists were delighted to discover both fine examples of the much prized Yue type known as mise yao, or secret-coloured celadon wares, and an inventory, dated to AD 874, identifying them. This pagoda was patronized by two of the Tang emperors - Yizong (860-873) and Xizong (874-888). The mise Yue wares found in the crypt were part of imperial gifts to the Buddhas's sacred relics in the Famen Temple and are recorded on a stone stele. What is also remarkable is that two of these precious mise yao bowls were embellished on the exterior with black lacquer inlaid with decoration in gold and silver foil (illustrated Report of the Archaeological Excavation at Famen Temple, vol. II, Beijing, 2007, plate CXCVII: 1-2). This, therefore, may have marked the beginning of the use of black lacquer with gold decoration applied to fine ceramics.

One of the earliest extant examples of lacquer applied to white porcelain is the beautiful Yuan dynasty seated figure of the Buddha Amitabha in the collection of the Beijing Art Museum, which was displayed as exhibit no. 7 in Treasures from Ancient Beijing, held at Christie's New York in 2000, and which also appeared on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The robe of the figure is lacquered, and gilded decoration has been applied to the surface of the lacquer, producing an elegant and opulent effect. Such pieces with surviving lacquer are extremely rare, and it appears that only in the Qing dynasty were serious attempts made to revive the technique.

It was under the aegis of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) that there was renewed interest in the lacquering of porcelain, but very few of these have survived. A small number of porcelains with black lacquer coating inlaid with mother-of-pearl are extant. One such Kangxi piece is a brush pot formerly sold in our London rooms on 8 June 2004, lot 465, which was recently among the items from the Robert H, Blumenfield Collection sold by Christie's New York on 25 March 2010, lot 953. Even more rare are porcelains, like the current vase, on which lacquer had been applied in sufficient depth to allow carving. One such vessel is a large Kangxi beaker vase in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which has alternating layers of red and black lacquer which have been carved with designs of ruyi and shou characters in the style of tixi lacquer more usually made with wooden or cloth bases (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 46 Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2006, no. 3. A porcelain bottle vase covered with carved red lacquer, dated to the Qianlong reign (1736-95), is illustrated by Edward F. Strange in Chinese Lacquer, London, 1926, pl. XXI. An enamelled porcelain vase, from the Daoguang reign (1821-50), the neck of which had been covered with carved red lacquer, was recently sold at Christie's New York, 26 March 2010, lot 1449.

The Qing dynasty also saw experimentation with other material used as a base for lacquer decoration. Some pewter vessels were lacquered, as in the case of the Kangxi pewter teapot covered with lacquer and inlaid mother-of-pearl, which was formerly in the collection of Mrs. Walter Sedgwick (illustrated by R. Soame Jenyns and William Watson in Chinese Art - Gold, Silver, Later Bronze, Cloisonné, Cantonese Enamel, Lacquer, Furniture, Wood, Oxford, Revised Edition, 1980, pl. 49). A very rare example of a lacquered jade vessel of the Qianlong reign is included in the current sale, lot 1913. Nevertheless the lacquering of porcelain, especially the application of sufficient layers to allow the kind of fine carving seen on the current handsome vessel, must have been the most challenging of all.

Christie's. The Imperial Sale Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 31 May 2010, Hong Kong