01 avril 2019

Selected Imperial Ming Ceramics from the Tianminlou Collection at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 03 Apr 2019

Cho_Shih-chao

Antiques collector Ko Shih-Chao. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Ko Shih Chao and the Tianminlou Collection
Regina Krahl

It was with a distinct shock of pleasure that I realized the extent of his success in assembling what is unquestionably one of the finest groups of these wares to be seen anywhere in private hands today…

This is how in 1987 John Ayers characterised the collecting activity of Ko Shih Chao (1911-1992) and his Tianminlou Collection, when he wrote an introduction to the collection catalogue. Thirty years later, the collection once assembled by S.C. Ko can still be considered one of the most remarkable private assemblages of porcelains made at Jingdezhen during the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the period from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century that marked the kilns’ unchallenged position as the world’s foremost porcelain producers.

The Tianminlou Collection – part of which is offered in this sale – offers a very rare, astutely chosen overview of the technical and stylistic developments of the kilns’ production during this time. That the collection name may first of all evoke blue-and-white porcelain is not surprising, given that this section is particularly strong and representative, containing powerful Yuan pieces, exquisite examples of the early Ming period, one of the extremely rare Chenghua (1465-1487) ‘palace bowls’, bold vessels of the late Ming and the refined echoes of early Ming wares made in the first half of the Qing dynasty; yet the collection is equally remarkable in polychrome and monochrome porcelains, especially the wucai wares of the late Ming and a great variety of superb examples produced during the Kangxi (1662-1722) Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) reigns, including one of the most highly prized types, a Kangxi falangcai bowl. 

S.C. Ko was not only a discerning collector, but above all had himself an excellent understanding of the subject, without which the collection could not have achieved this high standard. He was chairman of the honourable Min Chiu Society of collectors and actively involved in the affairs of all the relevant Hong Kong museums, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Fung Ping Shan Museum of Hong Kong University, and was of course a generous lender to exhibitions. On the occasion of the special exhibition of his own collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1987, a superbly produced bi-lingual two-volume publication was produced, Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, which represents the collection catalogue. Besides John Ayers, Julian Thompson and Laurence C.S. Tam, S.C. Ko contributed an essay himself on ‘Polychrome Porcelain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties’, where he detailed the historical development of this group of wares in a neutral, unbiased manner rarely seen in a collector, without attempting to present his own pieces in a particularly favourable light.

With its rich illustrations, that included panoramic views for a majority of vessels, and the thorough research that went into it, the catalogue remains a standard reference work of Jingdezhen porcelain; and since S.C. Ko generously subsidised it, it could at the time be offered at an unusually low price, which assured its wide distribution. The educational aspect and the wish to share his collection with a large audience were clearly matters of importance to him. Thus he also made his pieces readily available to the scholarly community, to students as well as fellow collectors, to be physically handled, studied and discussed.

In line with the Chinese literati tradition, the hall name, Tianminlou, that was chosen for the collection, is deeply anchored in China’s classical literature. It can be traced to a short autobiographical piece by Tao Yuanming (365-427), one of China’s most revered poets, where he describes a ‘Mr Five Willow Trees’ as living the Daoist ideal of a poor but free life, keen to increase his knowledge, but uninterested in personal recognition, fame, or even just approval of society. In the last line of his story Tao asks ‘Is he perhaps one of Emperor Getian’s people?’ (‘Getian … min …’), Emperor Getian being a mythical ruler of a prehistoric past marked by simplicity and happiness. Ge is the modern transcription of the family name Ko and Tianminlou only makes sense in combination with this family name, lou denominates a lofty pavilion. ‘[S.C.] Ko Tianminlou’ (Getian min lou) may thus perhaps be understood as ‘The Pavilion of One of Getian’s People’.

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Lot 1. A Junyao moon-white glazed narcissus bowl, Early Ming dynasty; 22 cm, 8 5/8  in. Estimate: HK$2,500,000 — 3,500,000/ US$ 318,625 - 446,075Lot Sold 5,935,000 HKD (764,487 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

with shallow rounded sides curving down to a flat base supported on three gently flaring ruyi-shaped feet, the rim bordered with a band enclosing evenly spaced rounded studs between two narrow raised ribs, above a further band of studs above the feet, the well-proportioned body richly applied with an attractive milky-blue glaze thinning to a mushroom tone along the raised edges and extremities, the interior with characteristic 'earthworm tracks', the base incised with a character si (four), surrounded by a ring of spur marks revealing the pale buff stoneware body.

Provenance: Sotheby's London, 3rd December 1974, lot 412.

ExhibitedThe Radiant Ming 1368-1644 through the Min Chiu Society Collection, Hong Kong Museum of History, Hong Kong, 2015-2016, cat. no. 101.

Note: This form of this narcissus bowl, also known as ‘drum nail’ basins, belongs to a distinct group of flower receptacles known as ‘numbered Jun’ wares, mostly made in moulds and generally inscribed on the base with numerals from one to ten that seem to correspond to the size of the vessels. This type radiates the essence of Jun ware which derived its beauty from their robust forms which were coated in a contrasting luminous thick glaze of varied moon-white colouration that becomes almost transparent around the edges of the vessel where the glaze thins significantly. On the present bowl the glossy glaze is reminiscent of a hazy blue sky, infused with the characteristic markings that have become known as ‘earthworm tracks'. Highly prized throughout Chinese dynastic history since their production, these striking vessels were produced in a variety of proportions and glaze colours and are found in some of the most important museums and private collections of Chinese art. 

The dating of these wares has been long debated and continues to divide opinions between a Northern Song (960-1127), late Yuan (1279-1368) and early Ming (1368-1644) attribution. The Northern Song date, adhered to by many eminent Chinese scholars, was supported by a surface find near the kiln sites of a mould fragment for coins bearing the Xuanhe reign name (1119-1125), made of Jun ware clay. However, at scholarly conferences on the subject in Yuzhou in 2005 and in Shenzhen in 2006, the date of the coin mould itself came under scrutiny and was basically discredited, since it was shown not to be a mould for actual coins of that period and to bear a spurious reign mark of an even earlier period on the reverse. Scientific tests of sherds undertaken by the Shanghai Museum have pointed to a late Yuan or early Ming date. A newly discovered Jun ewer very similar in shape to a gold ewer from the tomb of King Zhuang of Liang, buried in 1441, has also been offered as evidence for a later dating.

Since a large body of such Junyao wares remains in the Chinese imperial collection both in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and the Palace Museum, Beijing, often inscribed after firing with the names of Palace halls, a Yuan date seems less likely, as virtually no Yuan ceramics formed part of the Qing court collection. The production of these flower vessels fits better into the early Ming dynasty, and they may well have been officially commissioned for the newly built imperial palace in Beijing in the Yongle period (1403-1424). Furthermore, these vessels do not appear in any pre-Ming text or painting, and their form is similar to early Ming celadon-glazed flower vessels, such as one included in the exhibition Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 39.

See similar bowls of this type, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Selection of Jun Ware. The Palace Museum's Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Beijing, 2013, pls 94-96, 113, 115 and 116, together with fragments excavated from the kiln site, pls 97-98 and one excavated in Yuzhou city (pl. 114 and p. 343, figs 12-1 and 12-2). The inscription on the base is also consistent with examples from the Qing court collection and now preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published in A Panorama of Ceramics in the Collection of the National Palace Museum: Chun Ware, Taipei, 1999, pls 32 and 34.

See another narcissus bowl inscribed with the numeral si (four) from the Dr W. Kilgenberg and Reach Family collections, included in the exhibition Chinese Art from the Reach Family Collection, Eskenazi Ltd, London, 1989, cat. no. 24, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th April 1997, lot 696, again in these rooms, 2nd May 2000, lot 590, and a third time in our London rooms, 11th November 2015, lot 81. See also a blue-glazed bowl from the collection of T.Y. Chao, sold in these rooms, 19th May 1987, lot 210.

A rare 'Jun' narcissus bowl, early Ming dynasty 1

 

From the Dr W. Kilgenberg and Reach Family collections. A rare 'Jun' narcissus bowl, early Ming dynasty; 21.6cm., 8 3/4 in. Sold for 365,000 GBP at Sotheby's London , 11th November 2015, lot 81. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: A rare 'Jun' narcissus bowl, early Ming dynasty

 

 

A finely painted blue and white 'floral' charger, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1425)

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Lot 2. A finely painted blue and white 'floral' charger, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1425); 38.5 cm, 14 7/8  in. Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000/ US$ 382,350 - 637,250. Lot Sold 5,215,000 HKD (671,744 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

with shallow rounded sides divided into twelve bracket foliations, rising from a short circular tapered foot to a barbed everted rim, exquisitely decorated in shades of cobalt blue with 'heaping and piling', the interior adorned with a central peony bloom wreathed by meandering scrolls of camellia, rose, lotus and hibiscus blossoms, the cavetto with detached sprays of peony, chrysanthemum, pomegranate, hibiscus, morning glory and lotus, each repeated twice and paired across the charger, all within a border of scrolling ruyi heads within double-line bands at the rim, the exterior with similar detached floral sprays within double-line borders, the base and bevelled footring left unglazed.

ExhibitedChinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 6.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 22.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 23.

NoteStriking for its delicate and exquisitely painted motif of five entwined floral scrolls, this charger displays the century-long interaction between potters in China and consumers in East Asia. Its large size, barbed rim and lobed form reflect the Yongle Emperor's interest in producing porcelain suitable for export, while the delicate rendering of flowers and leaves exhibits the Jingdezhen potters' own interpretation of foreign aesthetic taste. Its refined porcelain body and luminous cobalt testifies to the great technological advances made in this reign, perhaps the most experimental amongst Ming reigns. 

The Mongol invasion in the 1270s and the founding of the Yuan dynasty placed China within the wide network of territories controlled by the Mongols. Trade through the maritime Silk Route flourished in this period and porcelain was a luxurious commodity sought-after by Persian merchants. Such large dishes were made since the Yuan dynasty and were uniquely adapted to Middle Eastern dining customs. They would be placed in the centre of the table for communal eating. A miniature depicting their use at a feast held in Topkapi Saray, Istanbul, in the 17th century is illustrated by Julian Raby and Ünsal Yücel in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 1, p. 45

The Yongle Emperor was an outward looking monarch who sought to propagate China's supremacy internationally. In order to receive recognition of his power as the 'Son of Heaven' and ruler of the most powerful empire, Yongle directed the famous Muslim eunuch Zheng He (1371-1433) to undertake six maritime expeditions and establish diplomatic relations. Tribute gifts including exotic animals were brought back from these expeditions, while further gifts reached the court through foreign envoys who began travelling to China as a result of the expeditions. Trade was strictly regulated by the court through a tribute system, porcelain together with silk constituted a luxury commodity sought-after throughout Asia and beyond, and on porcelain China held a monopoly.

Porcelain chargers of this type are preserved in the royal collections of the Safavids in Iran and the Ottomans in Turkey. Three chargers of this design from the Ardabil Shrine in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran, are included in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington D.C., 1956, pls 29.101, 29.106 and 29.109; and two chargers painted with different blooms in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, are illustrated in Regina Krahl, op.cit., vol. 2, pls 601 and 602, the first with waves on the rim and the second with a floral scroll.

A charger of this design in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, cat. no. 37; one in the National Museum of China is published in Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu/Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan: Mingdai [Porcelain section: Ming dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 20; another in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics, London, 2001, pl. 3.35; and a fourth example, published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 2, London, 1994, pl. 663, was sold in these rooms, 8th April 2013, lot 20. A further dish of this type from the collection of Mr Lawrence W.T. Chan, was included in the Min Chiu Society exhibition The Radiant Ming 1368-1644 through the Min Chiu Society Collection, Hong Kong Museum of History, Hong Kong, 2015-2016, cat. no. 63.

A fine blue and white barbed dish, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1424)

A fine blue and white barbed dish, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1424); 38.3 cm., 15 1/8  in. Sold for 3,880,000 HKD (499,822 USD) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th April 2013, lot 20.  © Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: A fine blue and white barbed dish, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1424)

An Extremely Rare and Exceptional Blue and White Basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle Period (1403-1425)

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 Lot 3. An Extremely Rare and Exceptional Blue and White Basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle Period (1403-1425); 25.6 cm, 10 1/8 in. Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000/ US$ 1,020,000 - 1,530,000. Lot Sold 33,775,000 HKD (4,350,558 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

superbly potted with deep, slightly tapered sides rising to a wide flared rim, the flat interior beautifully and richly painted in cobalt-blue tones with a rosette centred by a double-line medallion enclosing a floret, surrounded by a radiating eight-pointed starburst of overlapping petals detailed with ruyi heads, all surrounded by a composite floral scroll adorning the straight sides, the wide rim decorated with an undulating scroll bearing flower-heads of pinks and little dotted blossoms, further enhanced with stylised foliage resembling gingko leaves, the exterior decorated with meandering scrolls bearing large lotus blooms and issuing scrolling tendrils and smaller blooms, below eight evenly spaced freely floating florets under the rim, the base unglazed.

Provenance: J.J. Lally, New York, 1986. 

ExhibitedChinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 13.
Selected Treasures of Chinese Art: Min Chiu Society Thirtieth Anniversary Exhibition, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1990-1991, cat. no. 129.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection
, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 29.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.
The Radiant Ming 1368-1644 through the Min Chiu Society Collection, Hong Kong Museum of History, Hong Kong, 2015-2016, cat. no. 61. 
Treasures of Hong Kong: The 20th Anniversary of Hong Kong's Handover, Capital Museum, Beijing, 2017, cat. no. 115.

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 30.

Exotic Design at the Yongle Court
Regina Krahl

This remarkable basin, with its distinctive angular shape and abstract central design, appears to be unique, but belongs to the phenomenal range of strikingly shaped and decorated vessels of Islamic inspiration developed by the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in the Yongle period (1403-1424). They represent one of the most important innovations of the kilns’ repertoire in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The unusual form with its straight sides, rising from a flat base and drawn in towards a wide everted rim, has clearly not been invented on the potter’s wheel, but – like many Yongle vessel shapes – developed by Middle Eastern metalsmiths.

The strong connections between the Yongle Emperor’s court and Middle Eastern, particularly the Timurid, rulers enabled a royal exchange of goods with Islamic countries in general and thus brought Chinese potters into contact with Middle Eastern metalwork. Brass basins of similar form, used together with ewers to wash hands before and after meals, were produced especially in Syria and Egypt in the 13th and 14th centuries. A famous Mamluk silver-inlaid basin in the Louvre, Paris, made around 1240 for the Sultan of Egypt, was included in the exhibition The Arts of Islam, the Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1976, cat. no. 198, together with a Syrian gilded and enamelled glass basin of the same form, made around 1325, cat. no. 137; an Egyptian brass basin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is illustrated in the Museum’s exhibition catalogue Defining Yongle. Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, New York, 2005, p. 29, fig. 10, together with a Chinese blue-and-white counterpart, pl. 2.

The blue-and-white porcelain versions made by the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen must have been highly exotic at the Chinese court, but appear to have been much in demand, since they were produced in different sizes and in various different designs, mostly in the Yongle period, but continuing into the Xuande reign (1426-1435). We do not know exactly for whom they were intended. Although they would seem to have made perfect imperial gifts to Middle Eastern potentates, fewer examples are preserved in royal collections abroad – one in the collection of the Ottoman Sultans (Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 611), none in the collection of the Safavid Shahs (the Ardabil Shrine collection) – than in the Chinese court collections (at least three in Taipei and two in Beijing, as listed below). One example of Xuande mark and period and copies of Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) marks and period equally suggest their use at the Chinese court. 

While the patterns around the sides and rim are Chinese in style, the centres are decorated with an abstract, geometrically divided, six- or eight-pointed rosette that evokes Middle Eastern ornament. Several different rosettes have been used on these porcelain basins. The present motif, which does not appear to have been noted otherwise, is made up of interlaced bands that form a star shape, with a second, smaller star at its centre. It is probably not directly copying a Middle Eastern model; rather, the porcelain painters are likely to have studied the general idea of such designs, which are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern art, appearing on silk, bronze, pottery, wood and other media (e.g. The Arts of Islamop.cit., cat. nos 9, 177, 393 and 440), and then endeavoured to come up with a version of their own. The ‘construction’ of such patterns in the Middle East with compass and ruler was, however, totally alien to the Chinese approach to ornamentation, which is based on free-hand drawing with a brush. Therefore, the outcome is rather different. At least four different complex rosettes were drawn up at the imperial kilns for these basins, besides the present one two hexafoil versions, one made up of curly, the other of pointed elements, plus a version where the painters took refuge at more familiar elements and composed a rosette from eight petal panels filled with emblems.

The present basin differs in most of its designs from comparable pieces. The inner and outer sides of these basins tend to be decorated with a composite flower scroll, which on the present piece has at least on the outside been replaced by a lotus scroll, the usual floral sprigs under the rim by different freely floating florets.

A majority of these Yongle basins show a rim decorated with undulating waves interspersed with swirling eddies. Borders of carnations, as seen here, seem to have been considered particularly suitable for pieces of Islamic shapes. They appear, for example, on the necks of tall ewers with angular spout (see Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pl. 92) and, together with asters, on the neck of ‘pilgrim flasks’, which are decorated on their sides with similar rosettes as here seen in the centre (see the flask from the Edward T. Chow collection and the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, sold in these rooms, 5th April 2017, lot 3608, fig. 1).

An exceptionally fine blue and white 'rosette' moonflask, bianhu, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1425)

fig. 1. From the collections of Edward T. Chow (1910-80) & the Idemitsu Museum of Art, Tokyo. An exceptionally fine blue and white 'rosette' moonflask, bianhu, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1425); 32.5 cm, 12 3/4  in. Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5th April 2017, lot 3608. Courtesy Sotheby's

The present carnation border also differs from other versions. While Chinese flower designs at this period are characterized by their naturalistic rendering, carefully matching blooms with the right fruits and leaves, the present border seems to have been deliberately stylized to a fanciful flower pattern, perhaps conceived of as being Islamic: small flower-heads of pinks are combined with little dotted blossoms, and leaves stylized to resemble ginkgo leaves. Borders with similar dotted florets appear also on other extraordinary vessels, for example, on the rim of Yongle holy water vessels such as the piece from the Pilkington collection (Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6th April 2016, lot 15); and on oblong writing boxes such as the example in the Sir Percival David collection (see Jessica Harrison-Hall, 'A New Concept for a Classic Collection. The Ming Ceramics in the Sir Percival David Collection at the British Museum', Arts of Asia, vol. 39, no. 3, May-June 2009, p. 101, pl. 10). These are not mainstream designs of the imperial kilns.

The closest comparisons to the present basin are two varieties with rim borders of pinks, which are both very differently treated, however, one in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, the other in the Palace Museum Beijing. The piece in Taiwan, with a more curly hexafoil rosette in the centre and a rim border of pinks and large serrated leaves, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2017, catalogue pp. 131-3 (fig. 2), together with two Yongle basins with wave rim borders, one with the same hexafoil rosette, pp. 128-30, the other with a more pointed rosette, pp 134-5, and two Qing copies with wave rim border, one of Yongzheng, the other of Qianlong mark and period, pp. 162-5. The basin in Beijing, with a rosette made up of petal panels and emblems, and a rim border of pinks among thin frilly leaf scrolls, is published in Geng, op.cit., 2002, vol. 1, pl. 27 (fig. 3), together with a version with wave border and a curly hexafoil rosette, pl. 28.

Blue and white ‘floral’ basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle period

Blue and white ‘floral’ basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle period

fig. 2. Blue and white ‘floral’ basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle period. © Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Blue and white ‘floral’ basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle period Qing court collection

002PxoLtgy6TpDVmRHL2d&690

Blue and white ‘floral’ basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle period Qing court collection

002PxoLtgy6TpDVixFI7e&690

002PxoLtgy6TpDVaJA995&690

fig. 3. Blue and white ‘floral’ basin, Ming dynasty, Yongle period Qing court collection. © Collection of Palace Museum, Beijing.

A basin of this form of Xuande mark and period, with the more pointed hexafoil rosette, has a rim border of quatrefoil panels with floral sprigs and scroll motifs; see Yamato Bunkakan shozōhin zuhan mokuroku 7. Chūgoku tōji/Chinese Ceramics from the Museum Yamato Bunkakan Collection, Illustrated Catalogue Series no. 7, Nara, 1977, no. 134.

An Exceptional and Extremely Rare Blue and White 'Winged Dragon' Jarlet, Ming Dynasty, Yongle–Early Xuande Period

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Lot 4. An Exceptional and Extremely Rare Blue and White 'Winged Dragon' Jarlet, Ming Dynasty, Yongle–Early Xuande Period; 11.4 cm, 4 1/2 in. Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000/ US$ 1,020,000 - 1,530,000. Lot Sold 26,575,000 HKD (3,423,126 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

potted with a compressed globular body resting on a countersunk base and surmounted by a short constricted neck, the exterior superbly painted in rich tones of cobalt blue with a pair of winged dragons riding on waves and soaring sinuously above crashing and breaking waves skirting the lower body, each mythical beast depicted retaining fins in the process of transformation from fish to dragon, all below a border of foliate scrollwork radiating from the short neck, the unglazed base with concentric stepped rings.

Provenance: Collection of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980).
Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999).
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 227.

ExhbitedExhibition of Chinese Blue and White Porcelain and Related Underglaze Red, The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, City Museum and Art Gallery, Hong Kong, 1975, cat. no. 16.
Ming and Ch'ing Porcelain from the Collection of the T.Y. Chao Family Foundation, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1978, cat. no. 13.
Chinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 18.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 34.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.

LiteratureGeng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 80.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 35.

A Jewel from the Ming Imperial Kilns
Regina Krahl

This little jewel of a jar encapsulates the understated beauty created at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the early Ming dynasty. With its softly painted dragon motif, it is not only endearing to look at, but with its well-rounded form also a pleasure to hold. It is of extreme rarity and may represent a unique example preserved from the Yongle period (1403-1424), of a design that continued to be produced at the imperial kilns during the Xuande (1426-1435) and Chenghua (1465-1487) reigns. The design remained extremely rare, however, in each of these periods and appears to have been discontinued thereafter.

The striking winged dragons riding on waves made their appearance in the Yongle period and were depicted in many different ways. The current form of the ‘fish dragon’, an animal in the process of transformation from fish to dragon – and thus symbolizing the transformation of an aspiring student to a graduate of the imperial examinations, i.e. success – is rather unusual, as it still retains fins, but has already grown impressive wings. Similar fanciful beasts, but differently rendered, can be seen on massive Xuande fish bowls, such as one in the Sir Percival David Collection, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, 1980-82, vol. 6, no. 95, or another sold in these rooms, 5th November 1997, lot 1403. Other winged dragons generally have no fins and either three-clawed front legs and a fanciful curled tail, as on a Yongle jar sold in these rooms, 16th May 1989, lot 112, and illustrated in Sotheby’s. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, no. 211; or four-clawed front legs, like on a Xuande stemcup from the Pilkington collection, sold in these rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 24. 

The present jar has traditionally been attributed to the Yongle reign, for example, by Julian Thompson in the 1978 T.Y. Chao exhibition catalogue and in the 1987 Tianminlou catalogue, but Geng Baochang has in 1993 published it as a Xuande example. A jar of this design, inscribed with the Xuande mark and thus undoubtedly of the Xuande period does exist; it was sold at Christie’s London, 14th-16th December 1983, lot 407, and twice in these rooms, 10th April 2006, lot 1663, and 11th April 2008, lot 2931 (fig. 1). This Xuande version shows, however, variations both in form and in design, differing in its silhouette, with the sides being less rounded, and differing in its painting style, with more white space left around the design and the waves being more stylized. While pieces from the same period tend to be quite similar in style, such subtle adjustations of a pattern are well known to have taken place between the Yongle and Xuande reigns, and these changes may well suggest an earlier date, in the Yongle reign, for the present piece. Although a Xuande date cannot be excluded, the lack of a reign mark would also make a Yongle dating more likely.

2931

fig. 1. An extremely rare small blue and white 'Dragon' jar, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435); 8.5 cm., 3 5/16 in. Sold for 5,927,500 HKD (761,032 USD) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, April 2008, lot 2931. Courtesy Sotheby's 

Cf.my post: An extremely rare small blue and white 'Dragon' jar, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435)

Two jars of this design are also known of Chenghua mark and period, with an even more pronounced shoulder, a more regular design layout and a more even cobalt blue, one formerly in the Sedgwick collection and now the collection of the Asia Society, New York, is illustrated in Denise Patry Leidy, Treasures of Asian Art: The Asia Society’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, New York, 1994, pl. 189 (fig. 2); the other was included in the Kau Chi Society exhibition Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Hong Kong, 1981, cat. no. 70. 

Blue and white ‘winged dragon’ jarlet, mark and period of Chenghua

 

fig. 2. Jar, China, Jiangxi Province; Ming period (1368–1644), Chenghua era, 1465–1487.Porcelain painted with underglaze cobalt blue (Jingdezhen ware). © Asia Society / Art Resource, NY 

What is particularly interesting about this group is that all these jars, no matter of what period, show the unusual ‘stepped’ rather than a flat base – a feature that half a century ago, when little excavated material of the Ming dynasty had been published, led to the now rejected proposal to date the whole group after the Xuande reign (Margaret Medley, ‘Re-Grouping 15th Century Blue and White’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 34, 1962-63, pp. 83-96). This attribution has not been borne out by archaeological discoveries since. While it remains puzzling that this unusual feature should suddenly appear, be retained over several reigns and then totally disappear again, it may well have been introduced for technical reasons, perhaps to reduce the thickness of part of the base. Such an intention is believed to have resulted in some Longquan celadon wares having a hole cut into the thick base that was closed again with a thin plaque.

No jar of this design, of any period, appears to be preserved in the Palace Museum collections today kept in Beijing and Taipei, and not only the design but also the form of this jar is altogether extremely rare among the repertoire of the imperial kilns in the early Ming dynasty.

Prior to the Tianminlou collection, this jar already belonged to another highly important Hong Kong collector of Chinese art: T.Y. Chao (1912-1999), shipping magnate and leading real estate developer of Hong Kong. Chao collected Chinese art for many decades, and besides porcelains also sought out classical paintings and calligraphies as well as jades. An exhibition of one hundred Ming and Qing porcelains from his collection was held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978, two sales of the collection at Sotheby’s in 1986 and 1987, where S.C. Ko acquired this jar.

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Lot 5. A Rare Blue and White Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435); 28 cm, 11 in. Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000/ US$ 382,350 - 637,250. Lot Sold 14,575,000 HKD (1,877,406 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

well potted with low rounded sides supported on a straight foot, brightly painted around the exterior in cobalt-blue tones with six detached flowering and fruiting sprays, including peach, pomegranate, loquat, grape, persimmon and longan, above a border of petal lappets and band of floral sprays encircling the lower body and foot respectively, the interior and the base left white, the footring unglazed, inscribed with a six-character horizontal reign mark below the rim.

ProvenanceChristie's Hong Kong, 1st October 1991, lot 745.

ExhibitedTianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.
The Radiant Ming 1368-1644 through the Min Chiu Society Collection
, Hong Kong Museum of History, Hong Kong, 2015-2016, cat. no. 121.

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 47.

NotePainted in vibrant tones of cobalt, the fruit motif on this bowl can be considered one of the most successful patterns of the early Ming dynasty and belongs to the central repertoire of the Xuande Imperial kilns. The present example is particularly remarkable for the delicate rendering of fruits with broad washes of cobalt and fine brushstrokes. Bowls with such elegant motifs display the newly awakened interest in fine blue and white porcelain at the Xuande court. It is in this period, that porcelain catered mostly for the imperial family, hence vessels reflect in both size and taste the aesthetic ideals of the period. 

Such high quality porcelain, inscribed with the Xuande reign mark, was made exclusively at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, which were under the strict supervision of palace eunuchs and local officials. The Imperial Porcelain Bureau was established in Jingdezhen in the second year of Hongwu (1369), although officials and eunuchs were not sent there to supervise production until the Xuande reign. The court would commission wares with decorations based on guanyang (official designs) or huaben (model drawings). Official records of porcelain production are limited and do not mention this particular mixed fruit design. Only three orders for porcelain are recorded: one in the first year of Hongxi, corresponding to 1424, and the second and third in the fifth and eighth year of Xuande, corresponding to 1430 and 1433 respectively. The large quantity of extant porcelains with Xuande marks and of the period, as well as the impressive number of shards recovered at the imperial kiln site at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, clearly show that a large quantity of wares made in the period did not enter into the official records. A fragmentary bowl of this pattern excavated from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns in Jingdezhen is illustrated in Lu Minghua, Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-121.

A bowl of this type painted with fruit, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the Museum’s Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 47; one from the collection of Sir Percival David, now in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, vol. 6, Tokyo, 1980, pl. 98; and another in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., was included in the exhibition Ming Porcelains in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1953, pl. 10. 

Bowl with flowering and fruiting branches, Ming dynasty, Six-character Xuande mark in underglaze blue written horizontally along the rim (1426-1435)

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Bowl with flowering and fruiting branches, Ming dynasty, Six-character Xuande mark in underglaze blue written horizontally along the rim (1426-1435). Height: 10 millimetres. Diameter: 280 millimetres. Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, PDF B658 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Shallow bowl with thick walls, Ming dynasty, Xuande reign, 1426-1435

Shallow bowl with thick walls, Ming dynasty, Xuande reign, 1426-1435. Porcelain with cobalt decoration under colorless glaze. H x W: 9.6 x 26.1 cm (3 3/4 x 10 1/4 in). Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1952.6 © 2016 Smithsonian Institution

A further bowl of this design from numerous notable private collections including the Meiyintang collection, and illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 4, London, 2010, pl. 1655, was sold three times in our London rooms, and most recently in these rooms, 5th October 2011, lot 13; another from the collection of Stephen Junkunc III, was sold in our New York rooms, 22nd March 1995, lot 234; and a third from the Toguri collection, illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [The art of Ming and Qing], Tokyo, 1982, pl. 6, was sold in our London rooms, 9th June 2004, lot 16.

From the Meiyintang collection, A rare large blue and white 'fruit spray' bowl, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435)2

 

From the Meiyintang collection, A rare large blue and white 'fruit spray' bowl, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435)

From the Meiyintang collection, A rare large blue and white 'fruit spray' bowl, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435)

From the Meiyintang collection, A rare large blue and white 'fruit spray' bowl, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435); 29.5 cm., 11 5/8 in. Sold for 10,740,000 HKD (1,379,875 USD) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5th October 2011, lot 13. Courtesy Sotheby's.

heavily potted with thick rounded sides supported on a slightly tapering foot, strikingly painted in vivid cobalt blue with six branches bearing blossoms and fruits, naturalistically depicting pomegranate, peach, loquat, persimmon, grape, and crab apple, the six-character reign mark inscribed in a horizontal line below double lines at the rim, all above a band of petal lappets around the base and formal blossom sprays skirting the foot, the rounded interior left undecorated.

Provenance: Collection of Wu Lai Hsi (until 1937).
Sotheby's London, 26th May 1937, lot 49.
Messrs John Sparks, London.
Collection of Major L.F. Hay (until 1939).
Sotheby's London, 16th June 1939, lot 77.
Collection of Peter Boode.
Collection of Lord Cunliffe (1899-1963) (label PM89).
Bluett & Sons, London, 14th June 1971.
Collection of F. Gordon Morrill.
Doyle, New York, 16th September 2003, lot 91.
Eskenazi Ltd, London.

ExhibitedChinese Blue and White Porcelain: 14th to 19th Centuries, The Oriental Ceramic Society at The Arts Council Gallery, London, 1953-4, cat. no. 79.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (on loan, 1971).

Literature: Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, Ming Porcelain, London, 1978, pl. 54.
Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1655.

Note: Bowls of this shape, whose deliberately sturdy construction with almost 1 cm thick walls is most peculiar, are remarkable for their even potting and successful firing. They were made for only a short period of time in the Yongle and Xuande reigns, and were not revived in the Qing dynasty, like most other early Ming shapes. Their purpose has not yet been definitely determined.

A bowl of this design in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, is published in the Museum's Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 47; one from the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, London, in Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1980-82, vol. 6, no. 98; a similar bowl in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., was included in the exhibition Ming Porcelains in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1953, cat. no. 10; another from the collection of Stephen Junkunc III, exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1949, is published in 'Ming Blue-and-White. An Exhibition of Blue-Decorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty', Philadelphia Museum Bulletin, vol. XLIV, no. 223, Autumn 1949, cat. no. 61, and was sold in our New York rooms 22nd March 1995, lot 234. A fragmentary piece from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns is illustrated in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections. A Series of Monographs: Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-121; and one from the Toguri collection, illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [The art of Ming and Qing], Tokyo, 1982, pl. 6, was sold in our London rooms, 9th June 2004, lot 16.

Bowls of this form are also known painted with a lotus scroll, such as lot 7 in this sale, with a peony scroll, lot 11, or with a mixed floral scroll, lot 9. The original function of these bowls, which are particularly sturdy and are undecorated on the interior, is a matter of debate. For a discussion on their function see lot 11.

 

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Lot 6. A Fine and Extremely Rare Blue and White 'Flower' bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435); 19.5 cm, 7 5/8  in. Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000/ US$ 509,800 - 764,700Lot Sold 10,975,000 HKD (1,413,690 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

well potted with deep rounded sides rising from a short foot to flaring rim, the exterior decorated with a leafy composite floral scroll bearing various blooms of lotus, peony, pomegranate, camellia and chrysanthemum, between a key-fret border and an upright lappet band, the interior centred with a medallion enclosing a lotus bloom wreathed by scrolling foliage, surrounded by a further composite floral scroll around the cavetto, all within a frieze of florets borne on scrolling foliage, the base inscribed with a six-character reign mark within a double circle.

Provenance: Collection of Mrs Alfred Clark (c.1890-1976).
Collection of Yeung Wing Tak.
Acquired from the above, 1983.

Exhibited: Blue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Mrs Alfred Clark, Spink & Son, London, 1974, cat. no. 19.
Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Ceramics from the Collection of the Kau Chi Society of Chinese Art, Hong Kong, 1981, cat. no. 66.
Chinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 21 (interior view incorrectly illustrated as cat. no. 22).
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, no. 37.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 39.

Note: Vigorously painted in vibrant shades of blue, this elegantly shaped bowl carries the essence of Xuande period aesthetics. Bold, yet finely detailed, the remarkable decoration splendidly contrasts with the perfect, lustrous glaze. Using the xieyi (‘sketching thoughts’) style of painting, the artist let his brush freely run over the bowl’s surface; the naturalistic blooms seem to surge from their background, as if in relief.

This exceptional quality of painting, characteristic of the best of the Xuande period, was later emulated, but never equalled. Post-Xuande depictions of similar flower scrolls became more stylized and lost the intensity of the blue.

The flowers depicted around this bowl each represent different times of the year and are synonymous with connotations of abundance and prosperity. Although flower scrolls as a decorative scheme on ceramics have been popular since the Song dynasty (960-1279), this particular combination of lotus, peony, pomegranate, camellia and chrysanthemum appears to have been an invention of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) potter. The compositional arrangement of the various flowers may have been borrowed from Middle Eastern textiles and metalwork. While the representation of different flowers is sometimes stylized, on the present piece they have been rendered in a fairly naturalistic way.

The design of these bowls was inspired by Hongwu and Yongle examples. Two Hongwu pieces, painted with a somewhat simpler flower scroll between key-fret borders, one in blue and white, excavated at Dongmentou, Zhushan, was included in the exhibition Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 14; the other in underglaze red in the Palace Museum in Beijing is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 222. A larger bowl, excavated from the late Yongle stratum of the waste heaps of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, was included in the exhibition catalogue Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, cat. no. 44.

Similar bowls, with a lotus design, are portrayed on the Guwan tu (‘Scroll of antiquities’) made during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35) and dated equivalent to 1728. The scroll, depicting various artworks in the imperial collection, is now in the Percival David Foundation in London.

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Guwan tu ‘Pictures of Ancient Playthings’, Scene 5, Yongzheng reign, 1728. On loan from Sir Percival David Foundation, PDF X01© Trustees of the British Museum.

Two bowls identical to the present piece are in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and in the Palace Museum in Beijing, one included in the exhibition catalogue Mingdai Xuande guanyao jingcui tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 135, together with a slightly smaller bowl painted with lotus scrolls on the exterior, cat. no. 134; the other, somewhat smaller, illustrated in Geng Baochang, Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu Qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum],  Beijing, 2002, vol. 2, pl. 149, together with an example with lotus scroll, pl. 148.

Another bowl is in the Ardabil Shrine in Teheran, illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Smithsonian Institution, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, 1956, pl. 47, no. 29.321 and another is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, included in Suzanne G. Valenstein, Ming Porcelains. A Retrospective, New York, China House Gallery. China Institute in America, New York, 1970cat. no. 6.

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Former Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Herzman Collection & Deaccessionned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana. A blue and white bowl, Xuande six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435); 6 5/8 in. (17.1 cm.) diam. Sold for 21,250 USD at Christie's New York, 17 March 2017, lot 1228. 

Two similar bowls were sold in our London rooms, one from the Eumorfopoulos collection on 29th May 1940, lot 209; the other from the collection of J.F.M. Braithwaite on 5th July 1977, lot 204 and again in these rooms on 30th April 1991, lot 12. Another from the collection of Kochukyo Co., Tokyo was also sold in these rooms on 8th October 2014, lot 3694. 

Unmarked bowls of this type, painted with lotus on the outside, were also manufactured during the Xuande period, one example in the National Palace Museum in Taipei was included in the Museum’s exhibition Mingdai chunian ciqi tezhan mulu [Catalogue of the special exhibition of early Ming period porcelain], Taipei, 1982, cat. no. 27, and another is illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994, vol. 2, no. 668. 

An Outstanding and Large Blue and White 'Indian Lotus' Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)

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Lot 7. An Outstanding and Large Blue and White 'Indian Lotus' Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)29.8 cm, 11 3/4 in. Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000/ US$ 1,020,000 - 1,530,000Lot Sold 24,175,000 HKD (3,113,982 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

sturdily potted with deep rounded sides resting on a short foot, the exterior superbly rendered with eight lotus blooms borne on an undulating scroll bearing furled leaves above a border of upright lappets, all between two bands enclosing detached scrollwork encircling the rim and foot, the interior and base left white, the footring unglazed, inscribed with a six-character horizontal reign mark below the rim.

Provenance: Collection of Frederick T. Fuller.
Christie’s London, 28th/29th June 1965, lot 146.
Collection of Robert Chang.
Sotheby’s London, 10th June 1986, lot 222.
 

ExhibitedChinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 25.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei 1992, cat. no. 41.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.

LiteratureLiu Liang-yu, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, vol. 4: Ming Official Wares, Taipei, 1991, p. 104.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation
, Shanghai, 1996, no. 42.

NoteVigorous yet elegant, solid yet refined, this bowl exemplifies the taste in blue-and-white porcelain of the Xuande period (1426-35).

Short, barely ten years, the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1426-35) was stable and prosperous. He was an able, wise ruler and successfully maintained peace within his realm. It was, however, for his scholarly pursuits that he is particularly known. An accomplished poet and skillful painter, he has left a collection of poems, Ming Xuanzong Huangdi yuzhiji [Collection of poems by Ming Emperor Xuanzong], and paintings, some of which are preserved in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Due to the Emperor’s enthusiastic interest in the arts, imperial patronage of the porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province, was particularly strong. Many technical and artistic developments took place, raising the level of blue-and-white porcelain to new heights. The quality of the porcelain attained near perfection on account of the famous Gaoling clay.  While earlier designs were newly interpreted into blue-and-white, many new shapes and patterns were created. Blue-and-white porcelain became an imperial ware with for the first time, the reign mark of the emperor standardized in kaishu (‘regular script’), as written in six-characters Daming Xuande nianzhi (‘made in the Xuande period of the Great Ming dynasty’) on the present bowl.

The vibrant, yet refined painting on the present bowl was conceived thanks to the imported sumali cobalt. It produced a rich blue, sometimes even inky paint, allowing for the famous ‘heaped and piled’ effect, celebrated and extensively imitated on later blue-and-white porcelain. The cobalt may have been first brought to China during the Yongle period (1403-24), from the Middle East. The name was possibly derived from the Arabic word sumawi  meaning ‘sky-coloured’ or ‘azure’. Rich in iron oxide, it was previously blended with local manganese cobalts, but in the Xuande period probably used in a purer form or in a higher percentage in the mixture. It gave extraordinary depth to the painting, with the different blooms and leaves emerging into a range of blue tones.

The artist who painted the present bowl had probably used a fine brush to apply the colour directly onto the porcelain body, in overlapping, yet continuous strokes, thereby preserving a dynamic and vibrant flow. This sophisticated freestyle painting, xieyi (‘sketching thoughts’) as opposed to gongbi (‘brush craftmanship’), is skilfully executed. He created an admirably balanced composition, by painting the vessel’s area without leaving any space vacant nor crowded. The overall impression is one of elegance and lightness, despite the sturdy potting of the vessel itself.

Xuande porcelains typically assume a wide range of shapes and decorative motifs. From plant and flower patterns to classic dragon and various figure and landscape scenes. Among these many pictorial elements, the flower motifs were particularly popular and they came in a variety of renderings, some naturalistic, others more stylized.

The lotus on this bowl is probably intended to represent the pink lotus, nelumbo nucifera, also known as Indian lotus. Connected with Buddhism and Buddha himself, it is considered a sacred flower with mystical qualities.  As a plant growing in muddy ponds, but with its flower remaining clean and with a recurrent cycle of opening in the morning and closing in the evening, the lotus is associated with purity and rebirth. The different stages of bloom are synonymous with the various levels of spirituality attained. Fully opened lotus blooms, as seen on this piece would be a symbol of pure enlightenment.

While the lotus bloom is rendered in a nearly naturalistic manner, the undulating tendrils and pointed leaves do not bear any resemblance to those of the natural plant at all. Scrolling flowers and leaves as an ornamental pattern, appear to have come from the West. The idea had traveled from the Mediterranean countries to India, Central Asia and China. First used in architectural stone ornaments, seen on plinths of temples and on religious sculpture, it was gradually introduced on silver ware for secular use and was finally exploited on porcelain, as a standard decorative pattern, see Jessica Rawson, Chinese Ornament. The Lotus and the Dragon, London, 1990.

On account of the bowl’s solid potting, several ideas have been put forward regarding its use. Dice playing has been suggested since some bowls show unusual wear on the interior. The bowl’s thick walls, plain white inside, would have been a perfect battleground for cricket fighting, traditionally a popular pastime in China. They may also have served as brush washers or as fruit bowls or simply have been multifunctional.

Bowls of this shape were popular in their time and were manufactured with a variety of designs, including composite flower scrolls, fruiting sprigs, lingzhi, lotus with Buddhist emblems and the ‘three friends of winter’. Although mostly known from the Xuande period, they were already produced earlier, in the Yongle period. For a precursor of this type of bowl, compare an unmarked example painted with a beautiful rose design, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1654.

While blue-and-white porcelain production was abundant, quality control was extremely strict. Tons of shards of smashed pieces, deemed unsatisfactory, have been uncovered at the imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, see Jingdezhen Zhushan chutu Yongle Xuande guanyao ciqi zhanlan/Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989.

Not surprisingly, Xuande porcelains became desirable collector’s items. Particularly during the late Ming period, they were regarded as status symbols, and were valuable commodities in the contemporary art market. Literature on connoisseurship invariably placed Xuande blue-and-white porcelain on top, before Chenghua, Jiajing and Wanli, see Clarence F. Shangraw, ‘Fifteenth Century Blue-and-White Porcelain in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’, Chinese Ceramics. Selected articles from Orientations 1982-1998, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 102-115, p. 106. 

An identical bowl is in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Mingdai Xuande guanyao jingcui tezhan tulu/ Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 43; another bowl is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, illustrated in Stuart Young, ‘An Analysis of Chinese Blue and White’, Oriental Art, Summer 1956, New Series volume II, number 2, pl. 47, fig. 11, no. 36; a third example from the collection of C.T. Loo was included in the exhibition Ming Blue-and-White, Philadelphia Museum Bulletin, 1949, no. 64, probably the same bowl which was included in Chinese Ceramics from the Prehistoric Period through Ch’ien Lung’, Los Angeles Museum, Los Angeles 1952, no. 281; and a fourth piece is illustrated in Sekai tōji zenshū: Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14: Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, pl. 150. At auction, a bowl from the collection of J.M. Hu, was sold in our New York rooms, 4th of June 1985, lot 6; another was sold in these rooms, 14th November 1989, lot 19.

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Blue-and-white bowl with lotus scrolls, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period (1426 - 1435), porcelain, with underglaze painting in cobalt-blue, 9.5 cm (height) 28 cm (diameter) at foot 11.2 cm (diameter). Bequeathed by J. Francis Mallett, 1947, EAX.1389© University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum

Two smaller bowls of the same pattern are in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, one included in Illustrated Catalogue of Ming Dynasty Porcelain, Taipei, 1977, no. 60; the other in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum: Blue-and-White Ware of the Ming Dynasty, book II (part 2), Hong Kong, 1983, no. 46. A closely related bowl is also found in the Palace Museum in Beijing, with a differently painted lotus scroll, and florets at the foot and rim, illustrated in Geng Baochang, Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 2, pl. 141, together with a bowl decorated with lingzhi, pl. 140.

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Lot 8. An Extremely Rare Blue and White 'Dragon' Dish, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435); 19.5 cm, 7 5/8 in. Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000/ US$ 383,000 - 640,000Lot Sold 9,535,000 HKD (1,228,203 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

 with shallow rounded sides rising from a short foot to a flared rim, superbly decorated in rich cobalt-blue tones on the exterior with a pair of five-clawed dragons soaring sinuously amidst peony scrolls and flaming wisps, above a key-fret border skirting the foot, the cavetto of the interior similarly rendered with a pair of dragons, encircling a central medallion enclosing a further five-clawed dragon depicted coiling amidst flaming wisps and meandering scrolls issuing lotus blooms and a bud, the base inscribed with a six-character reign mark within a double circle.

ProvenanceCollection of Yeung Wing Tak.
Acquired from the above, 1983.

ExhibitedExhibition of Ancient Chinese Ceramics from the Collection of the Kau Chi Society of Chinese Art, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1981, cat. no. 65.
Anthology of Chinese Art: Min Chiu Society Silver Jubilee Exhibition, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1985-1986, cat. no. 150.
Chinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 19.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 35.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.
The Grandeur of Chinese Art Treasures: Min Chiu Society Golden Jubilee Exhibition, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2010-11, cat. no. 130. 

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 36. 

Dragons Waterborne and Airborne
Regina Krahl

At first glance this exquisitely painted dish with its design of five imperial dragons would seem like an absolute classic of the Ming imperial kilns; yet it is not only extremely rare, it is also most unusual in its choice of flowers accompanying the dragons. Five-clawed dragons are typically shown to be waterborne, surrounded by flowering lotus, floating in the imaginary waters of a pond, like in the centre of this dish. It is most surprising, however, to see the other four dragons, depicted around the sides of this dish, to be shown without wings, yet airborne, hovering among flowering peonies. Peonies with their lush fluffy blooms were among the most highly admired flowers in Ming China, probably also at court, because they are ubiquitous in the decoration of porcelain, lacquer, textiles and other media of the period. This combination of imperial dragons with flowering peonies, however, is very seldom seen. This takes much of the formality away from a design that otherwise appears very official, and introduces an unexpected amiable note, as it evokes the imperial creatures disporting themselves in the congenial environment of flower-filled gardens – a most appropriate habitat, it would seem, for animals revered as guardians of the water supply.

This design appears to be unique to the Xuande period, while the more conventional, corresponding pattern, with all five dragons depicted among lotus, continued from the Yongle (1403-1424) over the Xuande (1426-1435) and Chenghua (1465-1487) reign to the Zhengde (1506-1521) period and beyond, becoming particularly popular in the latter reign not only for dishes but also for many other vessel forms.

Two ‘five dragon’ dishes of the present design, with lotuses and peonies and of Xuande mark and period, are recorded in the complete list of porcelains in the National Palace Museum, Gugong ciqi lu [Record of porcelains from the Old Palace], Taipei, 1961-6, vol. 2, part 1, p.177, one of which was included in the exhibition Ming Xuande ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1980, cat. no. 57, and again in Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 188 (fig. 1).

Blue and white ‘dragon’ dish, mark and period of Xuande © Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

fig. 1. Blue and white ‘dragon’ dish, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435) © Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

A broken dish of this design has also been recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, and is illustrated in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan cangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-119.

A dish with the more conventional design of five dragons among scrolling lotus, but with the dragon plunging, with its tail raised high above its head, was sold in these rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 3156 (fig. 2), where companion pieces from other periods are illustrated: an unmarked early Ming dish in the Shanghai Museum, after Lu Minghua, op.cit., pl. 3-38; another example of Xuande mark and period in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the 1998 catalogue, op.cit., cat. no. 189; a dish of Chenghua mark and period in the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, published in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, 1980–82, vol. 6, col. pl. 32; and a dish of Zhengde mark and period from the collection of Mrs Alfred Clark, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1679, and sold in these rooms, 9th October 2012, lot 19.

Blue and white ‘dragon’ dish, mark and period of Xuande Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4th April 2012, lot 3156

fig. 2. A magnificent blue and white ‘dragon’ dish, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435); ; 25 cm., 9 7/8 in. Sold for 18,580,000 HKD (466,184 USD) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4th April 2012, lot 3156. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: A magnificent blue and white 'dragon' dish. Mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435)

Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Dish, Early Ming Dynasty, Shanghai Museum

Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Dish, Early Ming Dynasty, Shanghai Museum

Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Dish, Early Ming Dynasty, Shanghai Museum.

Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Dish, Mark and Period Of Xuande, National Palace Museum, Taipei

Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Dish, Mark and Period Of Xuande (1426-1435), National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Dish with dragons amid lotus scrolls, Ming dynasty, Chenghua mark and period, AD1465–87

Dish with dragons amid lotus scrolls, Ming dynasty, Chenghua mark and period, AD1465–87. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. On loan from Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, PDF,B.680, The British Museum, London © The Trustees of The British Museum.

A Rare Blue and White 'Floral' Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)

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Lot 9. A Rare Blue and White 'Floral' Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)27.5 cm, 10 7/8  in. Estimate: HK$2,500,000 — 3,500,000/ US$ 318,625 - 446,075Lot Sold 4,975,000 HKD (640,830 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

well potted with low rounded sides supported on a slightly tapered foot, the thick walls brightly decorated around the exterior in deep tones of cobalt with a composite flowering scroll issuing eight different blooms loosely referencing the four seasons, including lotus, chrysanthemum, rose, tree peony, pomegranate, hibiscus, camellia and herbaceous peony, each flower depicted with its corresponding leaves, above a border of petal lappets and a classic scroll encircling the lower body and foot respectively, the interior and base left white, the footring unglazed, inscribed with a six-character horizontal reign mark below the rim.

ProvenanceAcquired from Tai Sing, Hong Kong, 1985.

ExhibitedChinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 26.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 42.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 43.

Note: The elegance and harmony of this bowl captures the strength of Xuande reign porcelain, which is considered to be one of the most celebrated periods of porcelain production in China. The vivacity of the floral scroll with lush blooms and tendrils reveals a high degree of confidence in the use of cobalt. The exceptional quality and great variety of designs that were either created or perfected during the Xuande reign could hardly be better illustrated by the four ‘fruit’ bowls in this collection, including the present piece and lots 5, 7 and 11. The Imperial Porcelain Factory at Jingdezhen had been set up in the Hongwu reign and came under the control of the imperial administration in Beijing during the Yongle period. However, it was only during the Xuande reign that court officials and eunuchs began to be sent to Jingdezhen to supervise production. Under their close scrutiny, the Imperial Porcelain Factory was able to vastly increase its capacity while improving the standard of workmanship and control distribution. Refinement of body and glaze materials seems to have been stipulated, while forms and patterns were pre-designed.

The floral blooms on this bowl loosely reference the changing seasons; the lotus is followed by chrysanthemum, rose, tree peony, pomegranate, hibiscus and camellia. Flowers that came to symbolise the seasonal cycles in nature became a popular porcelain pattern during the Yuan dynasty. It is also in this period that the poet Yu Ji (1272-1348) first associated celebrated scholars with seasonal flowers: chrysanthemum, lotus, plum blossom and orchid came to represent Tao Yuanming (365-427), Zhou Maoshu (1017-1073), Lin Hejing (967-1028), and Huang Shangu (1045-1105) respectively. Auspicious flowers and birds were also a popular painting genre among professional court painters active in the early Ming dynasty. On porcelain, flower designs evolved from their Yuan dynasty origins, with a wider variety depicted in a naturalistic and identifiable manner.

The cobalt used for this piece was fired to a bright sapphire tone, and features the characteristic ‘heaping and piling’ effect. While imported sumali cobalt, which is believed to have originated in the area of Kashan in Iran, was favoured in the early 15th century, local cobalt high in manganese was sometimes mixed in. Imported cobalt, which arrived in China through the tribute system, was highly valued as exemplified by an entry from 1431 in the Ming shi lu [Veritable Records of the Ming dynasty] which recounts the arrival at court of a Samarkand envoy with 10,000 catties of foreign cobalt as gift to the Xuande Emperor. On this occasion the Emperor declared: ‘We should show our appreciation of their having travelled such a long distance by sending them away with lavish gifts’ (Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 70).

A closely related bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in A Panorama of Ceramics in the Collection of the National Palace Museum. Hsüan-te Ware I, Taipei, 2000, pl. 52; one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [The complete works of Chinese ceramics], vol. 12: Ming (I), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 64; another from the collection of Mr and Mrs Eugene Bernat, included in the Exhibition of Blue-Decorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1949, cat. no. 62, was sold twice in these rooms, 31st October 1974, lot 61, and 21st May 1984, lot 59; a fourth bowl from the collection of Major Lindsay F. Hay, was sold in our London rooms, 25th June 1946, lot 29, in our New York rooms, 25th October 1975, lot 177, and again at Christie’s London, 7th June 1993, lot 47; and a further example from the Palmer collection illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Oriental Blue and White, London, 1973, pl. 26a, was sold twice at Christie’s Hong Kong, 17th January 1989, lot 573, and 1st-3rd May 1994, lot 632.

Bowls of this form, all featuring a Xuande reign mark under the rim, are known with a variety of motifs, including dragons amongst clouds, lotus, peony, rose and lingzhi scrolls, the Eight Buddhist Emblems, the Three Friends of Winter, and clusters of fruits. Eight bowls painted with different patterns, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, were included in the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos 42-49.

A Fine and Rare Blue and White 'Lotus' bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)

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Lot 10. A Fine and Rare Blue and White 'Lotus' bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435); 17.3 cm, 6 3/4  inEstimate: HK$3,000,000 — 5,000,000/ US$ 383,000 - 640,000Lot Sold 8,575,000 HKD (1,104,546 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

well potted with deep rounded sides rising from a slightly tapered foot to a flared rim, the exterior painted with shaded tones of cobalt tones with characteristic 'heaping and piling' with five large lotus blooms borne on a leafy scroll meandering around the bowl, all between a key-fret band and petal lappets, the foot skirted with a classic scroll band, the interior similarly rendered with a central medallion enclosing a lotus bloom wreathed in leafy scrolls, surrounded by a composite floral scroll around the cavetto, the inner rim bordered with a meandering scroll bearing florets, the base inscribed with a six-character reign mark within a double circle.

ProvenanceCollection of Henry M. Knight (d. 1971), The Hague, Holland.
Bluett & Sons, London (label).
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 20th May 1986, lot 18. 

ExhibitedChinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 22 (interior view incorrectly illustrated as cat. no. 21). 
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 38.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996. 

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 38.

Note: Expertly painted on both the interior and exterior, this bowl epitomises the refinement of the early Ming aesthetic and embodies the ideals of harmony and precision. Its finely potted body, translucent glaze and delicate floral scroll that flows seamlessly around the vessel, are remarkable. Painting with cobalt on the cavetto was particularly difficult and the fine and vivid rendering of the floral scroll on this bowl testifies to the remarkable talent of the potters.

The form of this bowl and its delicate motif of lotus blooms appear to have enjoyed immediate success in the Yongle period and continued to be painted on imperial bowls through the succeeding reign. The remarkable technical and artistic advances made during the Xuande period are evident in the vividness and clarity of the design and consistent application of cobalt. The instability and fuzziness of the imported cobalt prevalent on the earlier Yongle wares demanded a revised formula of the pigment. With the inclusion of manganese native to China, the cobalt pigment used in the Xuande period enabled greater precision of the brushwork, which in turn conveyed a stronger sense of confidence on the part of the painter.

A devoted patron of the arts and himself a painter, the Xuande Emperor took a great interest in the production of porcelain at the Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. Literary and archaeological evidence reveal an increased demand for imperial porcelain for both secular and religious use, resulting in the number of official kilns to increase from 32 to 58. Indeed the staggering number of shards unearthed from the Xuande stratum at the imperial kiln site in Zhushan, Jingdezhen, and the large collection of extant Xuande wares in the Qing Court collection and now in Beijing and Taipei, suggest a dramatic increase in production. Porcelain wares were made as gifts that signified imperial favour, but also for consumption at court and among members of the aristocracy. The Emperor himself reputedly ate three meals a day, each of which would have required a large number of utensils (Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p.119).

Bowls painted with this motif of lotus on the exterior and a composite floral scroll on the interior include one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 2, pl. 148; another in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 134; and a third in the Jingdezhen Ceramic Museum, Jingdezhen, illustrated in Keitokuchin jiki [Jingdezhen porcelain], Kyoto, 1982, pl. 40 (top). See also two in the British Museum, London, the first from the Sir Percival David collection, illustrated in R.L. Hobson, A Catalogue of Chinese Pottery and Porcelain in the Collection of Sir Percival David Bt., FSA, London, 1934, pl. CXXXIV (d), and the other from the collection of Mrs B.Z. Seligman, published in Jessica Harrison-Hall, op.cit., pl. 4:25; one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, illustrated in Mary Tregear, Guide to Chinese Ceramics in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1966, p. 30; and another in the Indianapolis Museum included in the exhibition Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and its Impact on the Western World, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1985, cat. no. 19.

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Bowl with underglaze blue lotus flowers, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, AD 1426–35, Porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, Height: 8 cm, Diameter: 17,1 cm. On loan from Sir Percival David Foundation, PDF.682. © Trustees of the British Museum

1973,0726

Bowl with underglaze blue lotus flowers, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, AD 1426–35, Porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, Height: 8 cm, Diameter: 17,3 cm. The Seligman Collection of Oriental Art, 1973,0726.360. © Trustees of the British Museum.

e-and-white bowl with lotus scrolls, Ming dynasty, Xuande period (1426–1435)

Blue-and-white bowl with lotus scrolls, Ming dynasty, Xuande period (1426–1435), porcelain, with underglaze painting in cobalt-blue, 7.6 cm (height), 17.4 cm (diameter), at foot 8 cm (diameter). Bequeathed by J. Francis Mallett, 1947, EAX.1409. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

A slightly larger bowl of this pattern was excavated from the Yongle stratum at the site of the imperial kiln complex in Zhushan, Jingdezhen, and included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi/Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 123, together with a larger bowl recovered from the Hongwu stratum, painted in copper red with a scrolling lotus on the exterior, cat. no. 7.

Bowls of this design were treasured heirlooms, as attested by the depiction of ten bowls of this form and design in the handscroll of the imperial collection of the Yongzheng Emperor dated 1728. From the Moorhead and Sir Percival David collections, the scroll was sold in our London rooms, 19th May 1939, lot 62, and is now in the British Museum, London, published on the Museum’s website, accession no. PDF X01, 16th view.

A Large and Brilliantly Painted Blue and White 'Peony' Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)

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Lot 11. A Large and Brilliantly Painted Blue and White 'Peony' Fruit Bowl, Mark and Period of Xuande (1426-1435)29.9 cm, 11 3/4  in. Estimate: HK$3,000,000 — 5,000,000/ US$ 383,000 - 640,000Lot Sold 7,975,000 HKD (1,027,260 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

sturdily potted with deep rounded sides resting on a short foot, the exterior superbly painted in rich cobalt-blue tones with eight peony blooms borne on a meandering leafy scroll issuing further peony buds, above a band of upright lappets encircling the lower body, the foot skirted with a densely rendered undulating floral scroll, all between two double-line bands bordering the rim and foot, inscribed with a horizontal six-character reign mark below the rim.

ProvenanceSotheby's London, 3rd July 1956, lot 62.
Collection of Raymond F.A. Riesco (1877-1964).
Sotheby's London, 11th December 1984, lot 321.
Christie's Hong Kong, 13th January 1987, lot 562.

ExhibitedChinese Porcelain in the S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 27.
Blue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 43.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 44.

NoteThis piece is a rare version of an important and interesting type of blue and white bowls made during the Xuande reign. Bowls of this group are remarkable for their expert potting and sturdy construction, with walls measuring almost 1cm in thickness, balanced by elegant and graceful decorations. Made only for a short period of time in the Xuande reign, bowls of this group are known with a variety of designs.

The original function of these bowls has not yet been definitely determined. While they are often referred to as 'dice bowls' and may have been used as such, some scholars believe they were used as brush washers, as fruit bowls or for the popular game of cricket fights. The latter appears to have been a favourite pastime of the Xuande Emperor. Shen Defu (1578-1642) in his Wanli yehuo bian (Miscellaneous compilation of the Wanli period), recounts that Xuande 'was most adept in [cricket] play. He sent a secret edict to the magistrate of Suzhou prefecture, Kuang Zhong, to provide one thousand crickets as tribute' (Liu Xinyuan, 'Amusing the Emperor: The Discovery of Xuande Period Cricket Jars from the Ming Imperial Kilns, Orientations,  September 1995, p. 62). The Emperor's enthusiasm for this activity is further displayed by the relatively large quantity of extant and excavated porcelain cricket jars of the period.

A bowl of this design from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 145; one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the Museum's Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 48; another from the Avery Brundage collection, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is illustrated in René-Yvon Lefebvre d'Argencé, Chinese Ceramics in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco 1967, pl. LI B; and a fourth bowl in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, is published in The Panoramic View of Chinese Patterns, Tokyo, 1985, pl. 106.

ArgusEZ000Z00057Z0005727

Bowl, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Reign of the Xuande emperor (1426-1435), Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration. H. 9.5 cm x Diam. 28.9 cm. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P1662. © Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture

Two further bowls of this pattern were sold in these rooms, 7th May 2002, lot 565, and 5th October 2016, lot 3631, the latter from the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology, Durham, previously sold at Christie's London, 9th November 2004, lot 132.

An exceptional and brilliantly painted large blue and white 'peony' bowl, mark and period of Xuande

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From the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology, Durham. An exceptional and brilliantly paintedlarge blue and white 'peony' bowl, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435); 26.3 cm, 10 3/8  in. Sold at Christie's London, 9th November 2004, lot 132.  Photo Sotheby's.

These sturdy and shallow bowls are also known painted with Indian lotuses, such as lot 7 in this sale, clusters of fruits, lot 5, and composite floral scrolls, lot 9. Designs of roses and lingzhi are also found on bowls of this type. A bowl painted with roses from the Sir Percival David collection, now in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Margaret Medley, 'Regrouping 15th Century Blue and White', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 34, 1962-63, pl. 3a.

A fine yellow-ground blue and white 'Gardenia' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

A fine yellow-ground blue and white 'Gardenia' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

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Lot 12. A fine yellow-ground blue and white 'Gardenia' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521); 19.8 cm, 7 3/4  in. Estimate: HK$1,500,000 — 2,500,000/ US$ 191,175 - 318,625Lot Sold 6,775,000 HKD (872,688 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

potted with shallow rounded sides supported on a slightly tapered foot, freely painted on the interior with a central medallion enclosing a leafy branch bearing two five-petalled gardenia blooms flanking a bud, encircled on the cavetto by fruiting branches of pomegranates, grapes and peaches, as well as a beribboned lotus bouquet, all within double-line borders, the exterior with a continuous floral scroll of six blooming roses borne on a foliate stem between two double-line borders at the rim and foot, the design rendered in shaded tones of cobalt against a yellow enamel ground, save for a white base inscribed with a six-character reign mark within a double circle.

ProvenanceCollection of Leung Yee.
Acquired from the above, 1982.  

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 67.

NoteThis gardenia design, which is known from examples ranging from the Xuande (1426-1435) to the Jiajing (1522-1566) period and was executed in blue-against-yellow, blue-and-white, and brown-and-white, underwent a distinct style change in the Zhengde reign (1506-1521). Dishes of this pattern were then produced also in smaller sizes than before, the central design was tightened, the arrangement of the surrounding branches altered, with the lotus bouquet placed straight above the gardenia branch, the crab apple replaced by the peach, and the mark often reduced from a six- to a four-character version – the prevalent imperial mark of the time. While the design generally remained similar, on Zhengde versions the fruit and flower sprays can also be differently distributed around the central motif.

Two Zhengde dishes of this design with marks of four and six characters in the British Museum are published in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pls 8:23 and 24. A similar dish with a six-character mark in the Shanghai Museum is illustrated in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan cangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 1-41. Another example with a six-character reign mark from the Meiyintang collection is illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 2, no. 683 and was later sold in these rooms, 9th October 2012, lot 43. Compare also an example from the collection of the Toguri Museum of Art, Tokyo, illustrated in Fujioka Ryoichi & Hasebe Gakuji, eds, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. XIV: Min/Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 171, sold twice in our London rooms, and again in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lot 213.

Dish with gardenia, Ming dynasty, Zhengde six-character mark in a double circle in underglaze blue on the base and period, PDF

Dish with gardenia, Ming dynasty, Zhengde six-character mark in a double circle in underglaze blue on the base and period, AD 1506–1521, Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration and yellow glaze, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. On loan from Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, PDF A743 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Dish with gardenia, Ming dynasty, Underglaze blue six-character Zhengde reign mark in a double ring and period, AD 1506–1521

Dish with gardenia, Ming dynasty, Underglaze blue six-character Zhengde reign mark in a double ring and period, AD 1506–1521, Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration and yellow glaze, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Bequeathed by Henry Blackwell Harris, 1929,0722.11 © Trustees of the British Museum.

An underglaze-blue and yellow-enamel 'Gardenia' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde

An underglaze-blue and yellow-enamel 'Gardenia' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde, Collection of the Toguri Museum of Art, Tokyo. Sold 937,500 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 october 2013, lot 213. Photo: Sotheby's.

(Cf.my post: An underglaze-blue and yellow-enamel 'Gardenia' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde)

For dishes with four-character marks, see one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, vol. 2, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 233, together with Chenghua and Hongzhi prototypes, pls 230 and 231. A slightly larger dish with a four-character reign mark, formerly in the collections of Mr and Mrs R.H.R. Palmer, Roger Pilkington and Maureen Pilkington, was sold in these rooms, 5th April 2017, lot 4. On the Pilkington dish, the positions of the peach and pomegranate sprays are interchanged.

A rare Yellow-Ground Blue And White 'Gardenia' Dish, Mark and Period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

Formerly in the collections of Mr and Mrs R.H.R. Palmer, Roger Pilkington and Maureen Pilkington. A rare Yellow-Ground Blue And White 'Gardenia' Dish, Mark and Period of Zhengde (1506-1521); 21.6 cm, 8 1/2  in. Sold for 2,980,000 HKD (383,496 USD) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5th April 2017, lot 4Photo: Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: A rare Yellow-Ground Blue And White 'Gardenia' Dish, Mark and Period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

 

A Rare Blue and White 'Dragon' Zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

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 Lot 13. A Rare Blue and White 'Dragon' Zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521); w. 15.5 cm, 6 1/8  inEstimate: HK$3,000,000 — 5,000,000/ US$ 383,000 - 640,000Lot Sold 3,000,000 HKD (386,430 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

with a bulbous body rising from a splayed foot to a wide trumpet-shaped neck, painted with three pairs of five-clawed dragons soaring sinuously amongst lotus scrolls, distributed over the interior and exterior of the neck and the bulbous lower body, all above a ruyi band skirting the foot, the base inscribed with a four-character reign mark within a double circle.

ProvenanceSotheby’s Parke Bernet Los Angeles, 14th June 1979 (sale 252), lot 1102.
Christie’s New York, 10th December 1987, lot 226.
Christie’s Hong Kong, 19th March 1991, lot 523.  

ExhibitedBlue and White Porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 52.
Tianminlou qinghua ci tezhan [Special exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Tianminlou collection], Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996.

LiteratureBlue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, Shanghai, 1996, no. 57.

NoteThis jar is striking for its delicate yet lively painting of dragons amidst a luscious floral scroll, a motif that originated in the early Ming dynasty and was particularly favoured at the Zhengde court. The writhing movement of the creature, which captures its auspicious and positive essence, the unctuous glaze and well-proportioned body of the vessel are all characteristic of this period.

The Zhengde reign marks a transition from the refined porcelain vessels of the preceding Chenghua reign to the bold designs of the Jiajing period. Stylistic changes resulted from the political and social instability created by the excessive power and increasing number of corrupt eunuchs at court. While the Zhengde Emperor was encouraged to live a life of luxury and extravagance away from official duties, eunuchs took control of court administration. This had a profound effect on porcelain production at the Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen: the standard of quality for imperial porcelain remained exceptionally high and the variety of forms and designs increased, however production shrank as testified by the small amount of excavated material. The subtle hue of the cobalt blue of these wares as seen on this jar is also noticeably different from the preceding and succeeding reigns, as the material most probably came from local mines. The Ruizhou fuzhi (Annals of Ruizhou prefecture) from 1515 mentions that ‘At Tianzi Hill in Shanggao County [Jiangxi province] there is a nameless stone which is used at Jingdezhen as a painting medium on porcelain’, which suggests that Jiangxi was one source of cobalt pigment (Wang Qingzheng, Qinghua youlihong/ Underglaze Blue and Red, Hong Kong, 1987, p. 11).

Both the form and decoration of this jar follow early Ming prototypes. The globular shape with its wide everted rim originated from archaic bronze zun, but was made in porcelain from the early 15th century. Over the centuries the rim evolved to become wider and the body more compact. Although jars of this form are often referred to as ‘spittoons’, they were probably used as general waste jars at table. A Yuan scholar observed that ‘During Song times, when prominent families held banquets, jinping (receptacle for chopsticks) and zhadou (spittoon) would certainly be placed on the tables (The Radiant Ming 1368-1644 through the Min Chiu Society Collection, Hong Kong Museum of History, Hong Kong, 2015-2016, p. 37).

Three closely related zhadou in the Palace Museum, Beijing, were included in the Museum’s exhibition Imperial Porcelains from the Reign of Hongzhi and Zhengde in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2017, vol. 2, cat. nos 180-182, together with a reconstructed example excavated at the imperial kiln site in Zhushan, cat. no. 418; one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in Radiating Hues of Blue and White, Taipei, 2016, pl. 76; another from the Sir Percival David collection now in the British Museum, London, is published in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, 1980, vol. 6, pl. 124; and  a further example from the Lauritzen collection in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, is illustrated ibid., vol. 8, pl. 228.   

Aucune description de photo disponible.

Zhadou jar with dragons amid lotus scrolls, Ming dynasty, Zhengde mark and period AD 1506–21. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, 12,2 x 15,5 cm. Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, PDF A682 © Trustees of the British Museum.

OM-1964-0136

Blue and white 'Dragon' zhadou, Ming dynasty, Zhengde mark and period (1506–1521) Lauritzen collection, OM-1964-0136, Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm. ©2019 Östasiatiska Museet 

Zhadou of this type from important private collections have also been sold at auction; a jar from the collections of L.F. Hay, H.M. Knight and Frederick Knight, included in the exhibition Oosterse Schatten. 4000 Jaar Aziatische Kunst, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1954, cat. no. 247, was sold in our London rooms, 16th June 1939, lot 99, in these rooms, 18th May 1982, lot 30, and in our New York rooms, 15th June 1983, lot 278; one from the Meiyintang collection was sold in these rooms, 7th April 2011, lot 60; and another from the collection of Ira and Nancy Koger, was sold at Christie’s New York, 19th September 2006, lot 245, and again in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lot 212.

Aucune description de photo disponible.

From the Meiyintang Collection. A blue and white 'Dragon' zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521); 15.5 cm., 6 1/8 in. Sold for 2,660,000 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th April 2011, lot 60. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: A blue and white 'Dragon' zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

A blue and white 'Dragon' zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde

From the collection of Ira and Nancy Koger. A blue and white 'Dragon' zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521); diameter 14.6 cm., 5 3/4  in. Sold for 750,000  HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th October 2013, lot 212. Photo: Sotheby's.

Cf.my post: A blue and white 'Dragon' zhadou, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521)

It is interesting to note that this jar belongs to a group of blue and white wares from the Zhengde reign that feature a reign mark with the ‘nian’ character written with four horizontal strokes and a slightly elongated ‘de’ character. The mark on all these wares appears to have been written by the same hand, and is also found on the excavated zhadou mentioned above.


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