Lot 133. A rare massive green jade recumbent horse, 18th century; 16 1/8 in. (41 cm.) wide. Estimate GBP 80,000 - GBP 120,000. Price realised GBP 118,750. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019.
The impressive horse is finely carved in a recumbent position with head slightly raised, with all four legs tucked underneath the body. The mane falls on both sides of the neck behind the forward-pricked ears, and the long tail is flicked over the haunch. The details of the mane are well incised and the muscular body and head are naturalistically and sympathetically modelled. The softly polished stone is of a rich, deep green tone with cloudy white flecked inclusions, carved zitan stand.
Provenance: By repute, Collection of Prince Kung (1833-98), according to Spink invoice.
With Spink & Son Ltd., London, 17 May 1956.
Private English Collection, acquired by the vendor's grandmother in 1956, and thence by descent within the family.
Nobility in Repose – A Majestic Jade Horse
Rosemary Scott, Senior, International Academic Consultant, Asia Art
This massive and naturalistic jade carving of a recumbent horse is remarkable on a number of levels. Firstly, the jade boulder required to provide the raw material from which this horse was carved would have been exceptionally large. Secondly, the lapidary who created the horse has successfully managed to convey that the animal is tranquilly in repose, while still capturing its essential power. The head of the animal in particular has been skilfully rendered to give the impression of both noble strength and quiet intelligence. Thirdly, by repute, this jade horse was formerly in the collection of Prince Gong (Kung), sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor, (r. 1821-1850). Given the magnificence of this horse and the rarity of jades of this size and quality, it seems entirely reasonable that the horse came from the collection of a senior member of the imperial family.
Horses long have had a long association with rank and privilege in China, and, from the Bronze Age onwards, there has been a spiritual and artistic fascination with them. Horses were valued, not only as animals which could be ridden for hunting, sport and for display but, perhaps most importantly, as creatures of war. The use of horses to draw war chariots and as steeds for cavalry proved crucial in China’s internal and external conflicts. During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the famed Ferghana horses were introduced into central China from the West. These revered horses were known for their speed, power and stamina, and were sometimes referred to as ‘blood-sweating’ horses, or ‘thousand li horses’, after the belief that they were able to cover a thousand li in a single day. In the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) horses were regarded as so essential to military capability and the defence of the realm, that their breeding was considered of national importance. At the beginning of the Tang dynasty China’s horse population was at a very low level but through an elaborate system of stud farms the number of horses was raised from 5,000 to 706,000 during the first fifty years of the dynasty. The stud farms were established in Gansu, Shanxi and Shaanxi, each ideally with 50,000 horses, which were assigned to herds of 120 animals. The horses were also carefully crossed with various breeds from different parts of central Asia in order to achieve the perfect blend of strength and agility. It is significant that in 703 the Tang court received several fine Arab horses. Virginia Bowers has noted that: ‘The most prized mounts for battle, hunting, and polo were quite large, perhaps sixteen hands. They had a heavier frame than today’s thoroughbreds yet their thin legs, agility, and lively manner made them different from present-day draft horses. A contemporary polo player was amazed that the ‘heavy’ horses depicted in the mural in Crown Prince Zhanghuai’s tomb could be so nimble. These Tang horses ... have the same heavy body and ‘Roman’ nose – quite different from today’s classic Arabian horses – as the horses ridden by the Sasanians, and many authorities speculate that they were all descendants of the famous ‘imperial’ Nisean breed of Achaemenid Persia, as pictured at Persepolis.’ (Virginia Bower, ‘Polo in Tang China – Sport and Art’, Asian Art, Winter 1991, pp. 27, 32.)
The large stone carvings of horses created for the tomb of the Tang emperor Taizong (AD 626-49) also emphasise their high value and prestige. Imperial concern with horse stock and pride in their ownership continued through the dynasties and horses were depicted in art in a range of media. Paintings of horses became popular, particularly in the Yuan dynasty and remained a favourite theme. In the reign of the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor (AD 1736-95) the importance accorded to horses by the sovereign can clearly be seen in depictions of horses sent as tribute, and by the sheer number of paintings of horses commissioned by the emperor from the Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining 1688-1766) alone. Some of these paintings were of individual horses from the imperial stud and their names are inscribed on the paintings.
There are very few extant large jade carvings of horses from the early periods – the large Han dynasty jade head and partial torso of a horse in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London being an exception – partly a function of the availability of large jade boulders. The vast majority of larger jade horses date to the late Ming and Qing dynasties, but even compared to most of these the current horse is unusually large. The authors of the exhibition catalogue Jade Throughout the Ages, London, 1975 suggest the possibility that all the fine jade figures of horses and buffaloes in the exhibition ‘... once had their place in the pavilions of the various palaces in Peking.’ The authors go on to say: ‘The horses in particular are remarkable for their intense observation and their powerful stylisation of artistic form, by means of which the artist has succeeded wonderfully in conveying the alert strength of the animal despite its fundamental attitude of repose.’ (Jade Throughout the Ages, op. cit. p. 118). This is especially interesting since the current jade horse has much in common with two of the exhibited horses (nos. 391 and 394) as well as being made from an impressively large and attractively colour piece of jade.
When this horse was sold in London in 1956, it was noted that it had previously belonged to Prince Kung (Gong). Prince Gong (1833-98), whose personal name was Yixin , was one of the most influential figures in China during the second half of the 19th century. It was he who, after the Convention of Beijing in 1860, proposed the establishment of the office of Zongli Yamen, which would be the office responsible for foreign relations during an especially turbulent period of Chinese history. As head of the Zongli Yamen and later as Prince Counsellor (yizhiwang) to Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) and Empress Dowager Ci’an (1835-1881) Prince Gong played an important role in China’s domestic and international affairs. However, he supported modernization and reform, which in time brought him into conflict with Empress Dowager Cixi, and in 1884 he was removed from office and spent the remainder of his life in retirement.
Following the death of their father the Daoguang Emperor in 1850, many had believed that Yixin, as the more able brother, would be named as successor, but instead his elder brother, Yizhu (1831-61, the Daoguang Emperor’s fourth son) was named, and it was he who ascended the throne as the Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1850-61) – the reign title meaning ‘prosperity for all’. Their father’s will, under which Yizhu became emperor, however, raised Yixin to the status of Qinwang , Imperial Prince of the First Rank, and thenceforth he had the title of Prince Gong – the name meaning ‘respectful’. Prince Gong therefore had all the privileges that went with his new status, and, in addition, in 1852 the Xianfeng Emperor rewarded his brother’s perceived loyalty by bestowing upon him one of the largest residential compounds in Beijing’s Inner City near Qianhai Lake. This palatial residence came to be known as Prince Gong’s Mansion. The mansion had been constructed by a favourite of the Qianlong Emperor, Heshen (1750-99), who became so powerful and arrogant that he had buildings in his compound built in such close resemblance to palaces in the Forbidden City that they were amongst the crimes listed when Heshen was indicted by the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796-1820). However, despite their contravention of court building regulations, the halls in the mansion were so exquisite that the structures remained intact long after Heshen’s own demise. When the mansion was gifted to Prince Gong, he furnished it in the most luxurious style and it became known as the most sumptuous residence in Beijing.
Prince Gong amassed a truly remarkable collection of art. He appears to have had very refined tastes and also the rank and means by which to acquire the finest objects. His grandson Pu Wei (1880-1936), who was also known as Xiao Gongwang (Prince Gong, Junior), inherited both the title and the mansion from his grandfather in 1898. In 1912, a year after the fall of the Qing dynasty, Pu Wei decided to sell the majority of the treasures in the mansion in order to raise funds to help restore the Qing. On the 17th January, 1912, Pu Wei wrote in his diary:
‘There will be severe regrets for this decision. A sacrifice of the family has to be made in order to extricate a troubled country. In this view, a dealer must be found for the antiques to be turned into funds.’
In the end the family entrusted their treasures to the Japanese dealer Yamanaka Sadajiro. In 1913 American Art Association in New York sold 536 lots on behalf of Yamanaka & Company between 27 February and 1 March, from a catalogue entitled: The Remarkable Collection of the Imperial Prince Kung of China: A Wonderful Treasury of Celestial Art, while a further 211 lots were sold in London on 5-6 March 1913. In the Preface to the New York catalogue there was an evocative description of Prince Gong’s mansion:
"His spacious Pekin mansion is at the northwest of the Imperial palace, surrounded by a lofty, solid wall, with a group of tall, aged and imposing trees within, and presents an impressive spectacle. It was sealed from the time of his departure until the visit of the purchasers of his art collection last summer, and there was great formality in procuring entrance. In the great dining-room everything remained, by his orders, precisely as when he left, even to a half-smoked cigarette.
Passing through one gate after another of this Imperial abode of Prince Kung, the visitor finds a straight row of buildings accommodating from three to four hundred of the Prince's followers, and the quarters of the household force. In a central location is a great building in the form of a temple pavilion, the reception-room for distinguished visitors. One passes along the veranda to the left to the great dining saloon, and across a central garden toward the right is a small library, with exhibition rooms.
In the rear section of this building, across the center of the garden, is the great library, where, besides the numerous books to left and right, mainly bronzes and jades were shown. Leaving this library at a short distance, one came to a large, solid-looking two-story building in the form a letter L, which might be called the Fine Arts Museum, containing a countless number of precious treasures.
Through the treasure house, and by the way of a stone arch, one entered a garden filled with trees and flowers of foreign lands, around the Tea House, the Waiting Pavilion, and the Moon View Arbor. In a place like this one might spend weeks in perfect contentment, enjoying nature and the great art collection."
One may easily imagine the current magnificent jade horse displayed either in the Prince’s library or in the building which housed more of his treasures. Given the tactile quality of this remarkable jade horse, perhaps he might have had it in his library, so that it was closer to hand.
Christie's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, London, 14 May 2019