A fine and rare faux-bois grisaille-decorated brushpot, mark and period of Yongzheng

Lot 207. A fine and rare faux-bois grisaille-decorated brushpot, Mark and period of Yongzheng (1723-1735); 18.3 cm., 7 1/4 in. Estimate 6,000,000 — 9,000,000 HKD. Lot sold 20,840,000 HKD. Photo: Sotheby's.

of slightly waisted cylindrical form, finely painted in grisaille on the exterior in a wide band resembling a handscroll with schollars in a landscape, one seated at his painting table inside a house nestled in a grove of trees, two others walking towards a rocky promontory, a fourth resting under the canopy of a boat with his attendant, all between 'faux-bois' borders  of various tones extending over the rim and covering the entire interior, the mark inscribed in underglaze-blue in three columns in a countersunk circle on the base. Quantity: 1.

Provenance: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2nd May 1995, lot 150.

LiteratureSotheby's Thirty Years in Hong Kong: 1973-2003, Hong Kong, 2003, cat.no. 164.

NoteIt was under the Yongzheng Emperor that decoration in black ink only, possibly influenced by European sepia wares, first appeared. It was also during this period that imitations of other materials in ceramics were first attempted. Yongzheng's edition of the Jiangxi tongzhi (General Description of the Province of Jiangxi) published in 1732 and compiled by Xie Min, governor of Jiangxi province between 1729 and 1734, lists the range of ceramic wares produced for the Imperial palace during Yongzheng's reign under the supervision of Superintendents Nian Xiyao and Tang Ying. No. 40 in Xie Min's list mentions the making of porcelain decorated in black ink. This new technique allowed the painter to closely follow the style of traditional Chinese landscape painting, with details of figures, flowering plants and birds all executed with shading, so as to reproduce the light and dark strokes of brush-and-ink drawing. This category of wares would have been among Yongzheng's favourites, with the simplicity of the design accurately reflecting his very fine taste. It also satisfied his great fondness for traditional Chinese ink painting.

Cai Hebi in her introduction to the Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, p. 12, quotes an edict from 1732 in which the emperor praises the making of sepia wares and says, 'For Grand Minister Hai Wang to transmit the following edict: The enamel paintings in sepia are all exceedingly fine. Employ the two painters Tai Heng and T'ang Chen-chi as enamel painters and remove the paintings brought as samples of their works. Also remove the sample paintings by T'ang Tai. The work of the others is all fine, and they may remain. By Imperial Command. Have the painters Tai and T'ang transferred to enamel painting.'  

The present decoration on the brushpot closely follows traditional handscroll paintings. The landscape on this piece appears to have been influenced by the Wumen School of Painting of the Ming dynasty which included Wen Zhengming. It shares the sense of perspective, use of bold black colouring and shading, and is painted in a similarly refined and elegantly meticulous style. For the possible inspiration of the painting on this brushpot see Wen Zhengming's, 'A Scholar's Cottage Beside a Mountain Stream; A Guest Approaching' illustrated in Osvald Siren, Chinese Painting. Leading Masters and Principles, Part II, London, 1958, pl. 204. Rosemary Scott in her article 'Some Influences on the Painting Styles of Qing Overglaze Enamel Wares', Imperial TasteChinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, London, 1989, pp. 115-118, notes the influence of handscrolls on porcelain painted in the new 'rich black or sepia enamel'  introduced in the early eighteenth century which have the effect 'akin to that of the slightly austere monochrome paintings in ink on paper or silk so favoured by Chinese connoisseurs'.

Two Yongzheng brushpots appear to be known with this combination of 'painterly' landscapes in sepia and simulated wood borders continuing into the interior. One brushpot is illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong, Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, 1989, p. 239, pl. 68; and the other was sold in these rooms, 4th November 1997, lot 1565, also illustrated in Sotheby's Thirty Years in Hong Kong: 1973-2003, Hong Kong, 2003, cat.no. 165. See three brushpots with faux-bois borders, but the landscape painted in famille-rose enamels, one illustrated in Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 433; one in the Victoria and Albert Museum included in Sekai toji zenshu, vol. 15, Tokyo, 1983, pl. 197; and the third sold in these rooms, 27th April 1993, lot 208, and now in the collection of Robert Chang.

Brush pot, mark and reign of Yongzheng (1723-1735)

Brush pot, mark and reign of Yongzheng (1723-1735), porcelain. Height: 14 cm. Julia C. Gulland Gift, 682-1907 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2017. 

Cf. my post: Brush pot, mark and reign of Yongzheng (1723-1735)

Compare also two brushpots lacking the faux-bois borders but painted in grisaille and sepia, one in the Shanghai Museum included in the exhibition Selected Ceramics from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Hu, Shanghai, 1989, cat.no. 50; and one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, published in Michel Beurdeley and Guy Raindre, Qing Porcelain, London, 1987, pl. 133, both with a Yongzheng reign mark and of the period. 

Porcelain copying wood, bronze or lacquer was a new technique developed during Yongzheng's reign and perfected by the Qianlong period. It was the Qianlong emperor who had a particular penchant  for material mimicry and visual tricks. The convincing imitation of wood on this brushpot is evidence of the high level of crafsmanship already achieved by Yongzheng period potters at Jingdezhen in this new technique of ceramic simulations.     

Sotheby's. A Quest for Perfection - Important Chinese Porcelain from a Distinguished Asian Family, Hong Kong, 23 Oct 2005