Lot 153. An exceptionally rare and large Imperial underglaze-blue and iron-red enamel 'nine dragon' dish (detail), Qianlong seal mark and of the period (1736-1795); 47.5cm (18 2/3in) diam. Estimate £ 400,000 - 600,000 (€ 450,000 - 680,000). © Bonhams
LONDON - The Fine Chinese Art sale to be held in New Bond Street, London on 8 November 2018, during Asian Art Week in London, will include fine and rare ceramics and works of art from many European private collections.
Amongst the highlights of the sale is an exceptionally rare and large Imperial underglaze-blue and iron-red enamel 'nine-dragon' dish, Qianlong seal mark and period (1736-1795), estimated at £400,000 – 600,000 (Lot 153). Only a handful of Qianlong seal mark and period examples of dishes of this impressive size and bold decoration are known to exist in either museum or private collections. This important dish lot encapsulates the exacting and refined taste of the Qianlong Emperor together with the high skill and artistry of the artisans as well as the innovation and imagination of the Imperial kiln supervisors such as Tang Ying (1682-1756) in charge of the Imperial porcelain manufactory in Jingdezhen. With bold and powerful dragons leaping through crashing waves and wispy clouds, the trio of emperor, artisan and official ensured that this impressively large dish would exude Imperial splendour, power and refinement at Imperial banquets or special Imperial celebratory occasions.
Lot 153. An exceptionally rare and large Imperial underglaze-blue and iron-red enamel 'nine dragon' dish, Qianlong seal mark and of the period (1736-1795); 47.5cm (18 2/3in) diam. Estimate £ 400,000 - 600,000 (€ 450,000 - 680,000). Sold for £536,750 (€ 615,800). © Bonhams
Exquisitely potted with rounded sides rising from a short tapered foot to a flat everted rim, the interior vibrantly painted with a central medallion enclosing a writhing iron-red five-clawed frontal dragon coiling around a flaming pearl, against a ground of underglaze-blue waves, surrounded on the cavetto with four iron-red dragons striding amidst ruyi-shaped clouds rendered in shaded tones of cobalt-blue, each dragon portrayed differently, two of them five-clawed, the other two three-clawed, one winged and detailed with a fish tail, all surrounded by a border of crashing waves on the rim, the exterior vibrantly decorated with four similar dragons striding through clouds.
Provenance: Sir David Newbigging, purchased in China in 1960, and brought from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in Spring 1984.
Note: The present lot encapsulates the exacting and refined taste of the Qianlong emperor together with the high skill and artistry of the artisans as well as the innovation and imagination of the Imperial kiln supervisors such as Tang Ying (1682-1756) in charge of the Imperial porcelain manufactory in Jingdezhen. With bold and powerful dragons leaping through crashing waves and wispy clouds, the trio of emperor, artisan and official ensured that this impressively large dish would exude Imperial splendour, power and refinement at Imperial banquets or special Imperial celebratory occasions.
Only a handful of Qianlong seal mark and period examples of dishes of this impressive size and bold decoration are known to exist in either public or private collections. See one example, however, in the Nanjing Museum, illustrated in Treasures in the Royalty: The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, p.275. See also another large dish decorated with iron-red dragon on an underglaze-blue background, Qianlong seal mark and of the period, illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pl.956; and a further example in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, illustrated in Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, no.53.
Dishes of this design first began during the Yongzheng period, which, in turn, were inspired by an early-Ming dynasty pattern. See for example, a blue and white dish, Xuande mark and period, painted with a side-facing five-clawed dragon in the centre among crashing waves, illustrated in Xuande Imperial Kiln Excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1998, no.87. The Yongzheng emperor applied himself to harnessing the artistic and material resources of his revamped workshop system to forge a new Imperial style bearing his personal imprint and no object could be made and released without his approval, often at every step of the design-make process. Indeed, he was known to have sent antiques from the palace to Jingdezhen both in order to set standards and as a model and inspiration for designs.
Given the Yongzheng emperor's attention to detail the craftsmen responded to the emperor's requests with creative ingenuity. This is evident from the use of space on the dish exhibiting the successful transfer of a pattern originally made for much smaller vessels. The different design elements of the dish are composed so as to avoid any sense of overcrowding or awkward spaces or gaps that would affect the overall harmony. The side-facing dragon of the Ming era has been replaced with a frontal dragon and the crashing waves no longer cover part of the dragon's body, with the effect of giving a greater sense of the creature's dominance and strength. The use of iron-red heightens the contrast between the dynamism of the background and that of the dragons while bestowing upon the scene a stronger sense of auspiciousness. The addition of a band of crashing waves encircling the rim of the dish further attests to the skill and design of the craftsmen and kiln supervisors who recognised the need for a large dish to have a band to frame and bring together the expansive design, an element not necessary for the smaller Ming dishes. See a similar blue and white plate with red dragon, Yongzheng mark and of the period, from the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, vol.3, Hong Kong, 2000, pl.223. Another example is illustrated by R.Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol.4, London, 2010, no.1723. Another similar underglaze-blue and iron-red enamel 'dragon' dish, Yongzheng mark and period, is in the Umezawa Gallery, Japan, illustrated in Mayuyama: Seventy Years, vol.1, Tokyo, 1976, p.352, no.1055.
Dishes of this type continued into the Qianlong emperor's reign. At first glance, they appear to be almost identical to the Yongzheng period ones, but on closer examination, there are some differences. In comparison to the Yongzheng decoration, the Qianlong rendering emphasises orderliness and precision, as evident in the uniformity of the clouds and waves. Moreover, the four dragons on the rim placed on the axis of the central dragon on the Yongzheng dish have been shifted 45 degrees anti-clockwise.
According to the Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang'an zonghui (General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop), on the 25th day in the sixth month of the third year of the Qianlong period, corresponding to 1738, a Xuanyao hong long qing yun haishui dapan ('large Xuande-kiln dish with red dragons amongst blue clouds and waves') was presented to the emperor together with other porcelains. For large vessels in this group, drawings were ordered to be produced and sent, together with the smaller vessels, to Tang Ying, the well-known supervisor of the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in Jingdezhen; see Zhang Faying, ed., Tang Ying du tao wendang, Beijing, 2012, pp.148-152. This entry is likely to refer to a Xuande-style dish, possibly produced in the Qing dynasty, rather than a Ming original. Terms such as Xuanyao or Jiayao ('Jiajing-kiln') were often used in Qing Court record to classify antique-inspired objects. Moreover, there are no known Xuande examples of matching decoration. According to the record, whether the dish mentioned in the record was a prototype or an imitation, due to its large size, a drawing of it had to be sent to Jingdezhen instead. The close resemblance in size, form and decoration between the Yongzheng and Qianlong dishes strongly suggests that such a drawing was likely to have been based on a Yongzheng interpretation of the Ming original.
Compare with a very similar underglaze-blue and iron-red enamel 'nine dragon' dish, Qianlong seal mark and of the period, which was sold at Sotheby's 5 October 2016, lot 3305. Another similar dish was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 28th October 2002, lot 709.
From the Collection of Rolf Nobel (1882-1947), likely to have received it from Emanuel Nobel (1859-1932), and thence by descent. A magnificent and rare underglaze-blue and iron-red decorated 'nine dragon' charger, Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-17395); .6 cm, 18 3/4 in. Sold for 19,280,000 HKD at Sotheby's HongKong, 5 October 2016, lot 3305. © Sotheby's.
A further Imperial vestige of the Qianlong reign period (1736-1795), is an extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu, estimated at £100,000 – 150,000 (Lot 224). This remarkable Imperial robe boasts important provenance having been acquired in Beijing in 1912 by Brigadier-General Offley Bohun Stovin Fairless Shore (1863-1922). Bohun S.F. Shore attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and entered the army in 1882. In 1884, he was transferred to join the Indian Army in Bengal and served in the 18th (Prince of Wales' Own) Tiwana Lancers Regiment during the First World War.
Blue-ground Imperial robes were only worn by the Emperor twice a year during the performance of ceremonies aimed at invoking rain and good harvest at the Altar of Heaven. The robe is decorated with dragons – symbolising the emperor. Dragons were empowered with extraordinary powers that compared with those of the emperors, embodying royalty and dominion, and when clutching the flaming pearl, expressed the visual metaphor of the good ruler who behaved wisely for the wellbeing of his subjects. It is also decorated with the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority, which further reinforced the Emperor's essence over all eloquence, articulation, forcefulness and vigour.
Lot 224. An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu, Qianlong period (1736-1795); 144.5cm (56 7/8in) long. Estimate £ 100,000 - 150,000 (€ 110,000 - 170,000). Sold for £ 464,750 (€ 533,196). © Bonhams.
The blue silk ground robe superbly embroidered with varying tones of gold and silver-wrapped threads with nine Imperial five-clawed dragons clutching or courting flaming pearls of wisdom interspersed with small petalled flowers arising from a scrolling foliage above rolling waves on the lishui. The Twelve Symbols of Imperial authority are arranged in three groups of four: the sun, moon, constellation and rock around the neck; the fusymbol, axe, paired dragons and golden pheasant around the body; the pair of temple cups, aquatic grass grains of millet and flames nestle on the froth of the waves. Deep blue and gold striped sleeve extensions extend the arm length and dark aubergine-grey silk bands decorate the collar and cuffs, edged with original buttons and brocade edgings, lined with yellow silk damask.
Provenance: Brigadier-General Offley Bohun Stovin Fairless Shore (1863-1922). Bohun S.F. Shore attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and entered the army in 1882. In 1884, he was transferred to join the Indian Army in Bengal and served in the 18th (Prince of Wales' Own) Tiwana Lancers Regiment during the Second World War.
Acquired by him during his and Mrs Shore's visit to Beijing between 5th-19th March 1912, and thence by descent.
Mrs Shore's letter of 24th September 1913 describes them attending a fancy dress ball in which "... Offley wore the beautiful Chinese coat of blue and gold and silver that we bought in Peking..."; see A.Jones, An Enchanted Journey: The Letters of the Philadelphia Wife of a British Officer of the Indian Army, Edinburgh, 1994, pp.167 and 196.
THE TALE OF A MAGNIFICENT TWELVE-SYMBOL DRAGON ROBE
Superbly embroidered in paralleled gold and silver couch threads with nine resplendent dragons swirling amidst a profusion of blossoming chrysanthemums, this magnificent robe embodies powerful symbolism associated with the figure of the emperor. Blue-ground robes decorated with the Twelve Symbols are exceptionally rare and were exclusively worn by the rulers on formal occasions. The superb quality of the embroidery and the painstaking attention to detail, noted in the overlapping scales of the dragons, the curling foamy tops of the turbulent waves and the animated faces of the mythical animals, suggest that this magnificent robe would have been tailored to be worn by the Qianlong emperor (1735-1795).
Blue-ground Imperial robes were only worn by the emperor twice a year during the performance of ceremonies aimed at invoking rain and good harvest at the Altar of Heaven. The midnight-blue ground of the coat matched the colour of all paraphernalia which the Huangchao liqi tushi 皇朝禮器圖式 ('Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court'), edited in 1759, prescribed for use at this location (see note 1). If lined with yellow silk, such as the present example, the robes were worn during the summer, otherwise they would have been lined with fur for winter use. The robes were also individually tailored to fit the wearer and often the sleeves and the seams of the under arm were extended, leaving a plain area of silk, to help easy movement when wearing the garment.
Although Imperial robes decorated with dragons appear to have been worn from at least the 10th century (see note 2), it was only at the turn of the eighteenth century that nine dragon designs were introduced and extended to cover the entire surface of the garment, symbolising infinity and emphasising a unified view of the universe over which the emperor held sway (see note 3). The size of the front-facing dragons was also reduced at this time to equal the dimension of their side-facing counterpart, so a greater space was obtained to accommodate further auspicious designs, such as the Eight Treasures, Babao 八寶, and the Eight Buddhist Emblems, Bajixiang 八吉祥, which this splendid robe so vividly represents.
Dragons were empowered with extraordinary powers that compared with those of the emperors, embodying royalty and dominion, and when clutching the flaming pearl, expressed the visual metaphor of the good ruler who behaved wisely for the wellbeing of his subjects.
The Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority further reinforced the emperor's essence over all eloquence, articulation, forcefulness and vigour. According to the 'Book of History', Shujing 書經, the legendary Emperor Shun, believed to have ruled during the third millennium BC, referred to these symbols as suitable decoration for Imperial formal attire (see note 4) and in 1766, the Qianlong emperor restricted the use of these motifs to Imperial robes (see note 5). A rigid scheme defined the position of the Twelve Symbols on the robes, so the sun, moon, stars, and mountain, symbolising the four main ceremonies which the emperor presided throughout the year at the Altars of Heaven, Earth, Sun and Moon, were placed in pairs at the shoulders, chest and mid-back area; the paired dragons, the golden pheasant, the confronted ji character and the hatchet, representing all things on earth and the ruler's ability to make decisions, decorated the chest level, while the sacrificial vessels, the aquatic grass, the grains of millet and the flames, representing the ancestor worship and four of the Five Elements, were placed at the mid-calf level of the coat.
The dense leafy meander enclosing blossoming chrysanthemum is a popular stylistic convention which was developed during the Yongle period (1403-1424), which is often encountered on Ming-style porcelain wares of the Qianlong period. Furthermore, the symbolic connotation conveyed by these flowers indicates that the present robe was probably worn by the Qianlong emperor during the later phases of his reign. Symbolic of longevity in China, chrysanthemums were also associated with a joyful retirement. They were the favourite flowers of Tao Qian, or Tao Yuanming (365-427), a poet living during a turbulent period in China who retired in midlife to a small estate to live out his days in rustic obscurity, drinking wine and writing poetry (see note 6). Private and quiet as his life was, his reputation grew steadily after his death, particularly for his associations with chrysanthemums, which he grew in a small patch by the eastern fence of his retirement estate.
Compare with a blue-ground, gold and silver embroidered Twelve-Symbol robe, Qianlong, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated in Textiles in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, vol.53, no.3, 1995-1996, p.77. Another blue-ground robe, Qianlong, decorated in gold embroidery but lacking the Twelve Symbols, is illustrated in Heavens' Embroidered Cloths: One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong, 1995, p.218, no.63.
Emperor’s twelve-symbol festival robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911)), Qianlong period (1736–95). Silk and gold and silver thread embroidery on silk twill, 56 5/8 x 63 1/2 in. (143.8 x 161.3 cm). Gift of Lewis Einstein, 1954, 54.14.2. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A related Imperial gold and silver embroidered blue-ground Twelve-Symbol robe, Qianlong, was sold at Christie's New York, 24 March 2004, lot 36.
1. M.Medley, The Illustrated Regulations for Ceremonial Parphernalia of the Ch'ing Dynasty, London, 1982; see also G.Dickinson and L.Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 2002, pp.14-30.
2. J.C.Y.Watt and A.E.Wardwell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, New York, 1997, pp.116-117.
3. J.E.Vollmer, 'Power in the Inner Court of the Qing Dynasty: The Emperor's Clothes,' Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Natural History, series 3, no.15, November 1998, pp.52-53.
4. Su Yu, Evidence on The Meaning of The Luxuriant Dews from the Spring and Autumn Annuals, Beijing, 1910, vols. 6, 7, 8. See also Qing Gaozong, Veritable Records of the Qing Emperor Qianlong and Empress Chun, Lunar Tenth Month 1748, Beijing, 1986, vol.327.
5. G.Dickinson and L.Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 1990, pp.75-95.
6. S.Nelson, 'Revisiting the Eastern Fence: Tao Qian's Chrysanthemums', The Art Bulletin, 2001, vol.83, no.3, pp.437-460.