A pair of 'huanghuali' horseshoe-back armchairs (Quanyi), Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century

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Lot 609. A pair of 'huanghuali' horseshoe-back armchairs (Quanyi), Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century. Height 41 in., 104 cm; Width 24 in., 61.cm; Depth 19 1/2  in., 49.5 cm. Estimate $500,000 — 800,000. Sold for $675,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

each with an expansive U-form five-segment crestrail terminating in gracefully outscrolled handgrips above shaped spandrels, the slightly bowed splat finely carved with a ruyi-form medallion enclosing further ruyi and delicate foliate scrollwork, the hard mat seat supported underneath by two transverse stretchers, set into the rectangular molded edge frame, above vigorously shaped and beaded spandreled aprons  carved on the front and sides with archaistic angular scrollwork, the half-round legs joined by brass-mounted footrail and stretchers, the footrest and side stretchers above plain aprons (2)

Provenance: Sotheby's New York, 22nd March 1995, lot 431.

Note: Frequently depicted in Ming and Qing dynasty woodblock illustrations, chairs of this elegant silhouette were commonly produced in sets of two or four and used while dining, painting or receiving guests. With the addition of two carrying poles, they were converted into sedan chairs reserved for officials of high rank, and as mentioned in Craig Clunas, Chinese Furniture, London, 1988, p. 24, they were considered ‘markers of high status, seats of honour’.

The inviting capacious arched crestrails were inspired by chairs of nearly identical shape but made of pliable lengths of bamboo, bent into a ‘U’-shape and bound together using natural fibers. Highly popular for their lightweight, sturdy and strong appearance, cabinetmakers cleverly adapted this design to the rarer, more costly hardwood furniture by creating ingenious joinery techniques. In order to create the continuous back, members were fitted together with a cut-out to accommodate a tapered wood pin that would lock them firmly in place when inserted. The complexity of the design required utmost precision, as a slight error in the tilt of any of the joins would be magnified by the adjoining members. Once the lacquered coat was applied to the surface crestrail, the underlying joinery was not visible and virtually impossible to wrest apart.

The present pair of armchairs is distinguished by its generous arching crestrails ending in pronounced scrolling hand grips, the vigorous outline of the shaped aprons, as well as the fine quality of the carving of the splat medallions and aprons. The crisp, angular scrollwork is inspired by motifs found on archaic bronzes and reflects the interest in antiquarianism that found favor among the literati in the late 17th century. These motifs are discussed in Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Chinese Furniture. Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties, New York, 1971, p. 86, who notes that they are an innovation attributable to the late Ming and Kangxi period. He further observes the similarities between the curvilinear apron on chairs of this type and that found on Tang period tables, such as the example in the Shōsōin Treasure House, Nara, illustrated in Sarah Handler, Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture, Berkeley, 2001, pl. 12.6.

Chairs of the same form and with similarly shaped and beaded aprons and ruyi-form splat medallions include two pairs sold in our New York rooms, the first, 25th April 1987, lot 567, and the second, 9th-10th October 1987, lot 440; a few sold at Christie’s New York, one chair from the collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, illustrated op. cit., pl. 18, and sold, 18th March 2015, lot 139, and another pair, 21st March 2013, lot 927; and a slightly larger pair in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, illustrated in Robert D. Jacobson and Nicholas Grindley, Classic Chinese Furniture, Minneapolis, 1999, pl. 12. For a related pair from the Hung collection see Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Nicholas Grindley and Anita Christy, Chinese Furniture, One Hundred Examples from the Collection of Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection, New York, 1999, pl. 15.

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, New York, 21 March 2018