A highly important and superbly painted Beijing enamel falancai pouch-shaped glass vase, blue enamel mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); 18.2 cm. Estimate upon request. Lot sold 207,086,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

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Lot 1. A highly important and superbly painted Beijing enamel falancai pouch-shaped glass vase, blue enamel mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); 18.2 cm. Estimate upon request. Lot sold 207,086,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

masterfully conjured by the most dexterous craftsmen in the Imperial Workshops under the direct mandate from the Emperor, the immaculate glass charmingly modelled in the form of a ribbon-tied pouch, its ovoid body carved with vertical ribs simulating textile pleats, elegantly tapering to a fluted neck and ruffled rim, wreathed by a twisted soft-pink sash fastened into an off-centred knotted ribbon suspending two flowing tassels, exquisitely painted on each side depicting a phoenix gracefully swooping from cascading pink and lavender-blue clouds amid peonies, their bodies covered in flamboyant plumage individually picked out in shades of pink, green, yellow, blue and aubergine and gilding, their nimble wings outstretched to reveal the fluffy pinkish-white feathers on the underside of their bodies, extending to a trailing two-feathered tail in matching colours patterned with circular motifs, their crested heads supported on long necks with billowing plumes, curling backwards towards a cluster of frilly-edged peony blooms, the realistically painted flowers rendered in shades of rose-pink and aubergine, supported on stems with abundant foliage in two shades of green, the blue-enamelled four-character reign mark cleverly enclosed within a budding bloom, the fluted neck embellished with dianthus florets suspending jewelled pendants, all reserved on an imperial yellow ground save for the interior and base exposing the translucent vitreous material.

Provenance: Collection of Yixin, the first Prince Gong (1833-1898), by repute.
Collection of Abel W. Bahr (1877-1959), Shanghai.
Collection of Paul (1902-1987) and Helen Bernat, Brookline, Greater Boston, Mass.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th November 1988, lot 75.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 29th October 2000, lot 2.

ExhibitedQingwan Yaji nianzhou nianqing shouzang zhan/Ching Wan Society Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition. Works of Art, Taipei, 2012, cat. no. 73.

Literature: Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 430.
Sotheby’s. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 439.
Geng Baochang, ‘Ya qi tian cheng/Qingwan Yaji zhencang taociqi duoying [Refined works made in Heaven. Highlights of ceramics collected in the Ching Wan Society]’, Ching Wan Society Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition. Works of Art, Taipei, 2012, p. 15, no. 73 (detail).

A Brocade Pouch to Amuse the Emperor
Regina Krahl

Imperial works of art completely conceived and created inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, to the direct order and under the close scrutiny of the Emperor himself, are among China’s greatest treasures; and the present flask, with a ‘Peking glass’ body made by imperial artisans in the Glass House, and falangcai decoration applied by imperial painters in the Enamelling Workshops, is one of the most important examples preserved. It is a masterpiece in virtually every respect, in terms of its model and design, its execution and its size. The flask is unique, but there exists one companion piece, of the same form and colour scheme, but of different design, that was clearly made at the same time, and apparently shared the same imperial provenance and collecting history, before entering the collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art in the 1980s (fig. 1). 

Beijing enamelled falangcai pouch-shaped glass vase decorated with chilong, black enamel mark and period of Qianlong, two views Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 15th November 1988, lot 77, Collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong

 

fig. 1. Beijing enamelled falangcai pouch-shaped glass vase decorated with chilong, black enamel mark and period of Qianlong, two views Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 15th November 1988, lot 77. Collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong.

An imperial order from the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) to hand in a clear blue glass pouch-shaped bottle (baofu shi ping) and to produce some falangcai enamelled glass-bodied bottles modelled after it, is listed in the Zaobanchu records for the 22nd day of the first month in the third year of the Qianlong reign, 1738 (fig. 2). Only two pieces, the present bottle and its companion, seem to have resulted from this order. The complexity of creating such works that required the cooperation of different palace workshops is underlined by the fact that the companion bottle was sent to the palace, even though its enamels fired less well.

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fig. 2. Zaobanchu records for the 22nd day of the first month in the third year of the Qianlong reign, 1738.

The importance of these two vessels for the history both of Chinese glass and of falangcai enamelling can hardly be stressed enough. A workshop for enamelling was first set up in the Forbidden City by the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) in 1693 and a glass workshop followed in 1696, and we know that at least by 1705 enamelled glass items had been successfully completed and sent to the Emperor; but whereas the Beijing Enamelling Workshops supplied large numbers of exquisitely painted copper-bodied and porcelain-bodied falangcai wares to the court from the late Kangxi to the mid-Qianlong period – many of which are still extant – the number of glass vessels is extremely small. By far the largest proportion consists of snuff bottles, and the few other falangcai glass pieces known are miniature vases, miniature brush pots and other small vessels for the desk, rarely over 11 cm tall. In short, apart from the present bottle and its companion in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which seem to be the only large pieces in existence and the only ones of such complex shape, there appear to be no other vessels that could similarly document the true capability of the imperial craftsmen working in this medium.

No comparable pieces have been preserved in the Palace Museums, either in Taipei or Beijing. A recent exhibition of Chinese glass in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included 45 falangcai enamelled pieces, 38 of them snuff bottles (two without stopper called vases, but also of snuff bottle size and shape) and the other seven pieces comprising a pendant, a miniature spittoon and five small vases, only two of them slightly larger, at 13.1 cm and 16.3 cm, respectively (Zhang Xiangwen, ed., Ruo shui cheng hua. Yuan cang boli wenwu tezhan/Limpid Radiance. A Special Exhibition of Glass Artifacts from the National Palace Museum Collection, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2017, cat. nos 193-237). According to Zhang Rong, only 20 falangcai glass pieces are in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, all snuff bottles except two small vases, 9.8 cm and 8.5 cm tall (Zhang Rong, ed., Guangning qiushui. Qing Gong Zaobanchu boli qi/Lustre of Autumn Water. Glass of the Qing Imperial Workshops, Beijing, 2005, p. 20, and cat. nos 84-93).

The order of ‘brocade-bundle-shaped’ vases listed in the Zaobanchu records is also included in Peter Lam’s extensive ‘Selection of Archival Records of the Qianlong Period on Glass Objects’, which among its hundreds of glass items, contains references to only three further pieces of falangcai glass: a small water pot and two snuff bottles (Zhang Rong, op.cit., pp. 44-55 and 74-83). The rarity of falangcai glass is of course largely explained by the complexity of the production process. According to the National Palace Museum exhibition catalogue “each colour of enamel is applied separately and fired successively at the temperatures required for each colour, with a view to bond the enamel décor to the glass body. Because the melting point of glass is close to that of enamel, the glass vessel-body can easily melt and deform if firing temperature is too high, while enamel cannot take on the desired colour if firing temperature is too low” (Zhang Xiangwen, op.cit., p. 178).

The companion bottle, now in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, is decorated with twelve dragons diving through dense composite floral scrolls, and at first glance both pieces would seem to be complementary. Yet they were not necessarily meant as a pair. Both are enamelled in matching colours on a similar lemon-yellow ground onto the same, or very similar, white glass blanks, and both have the reign mark inscribed on one of the flowers. However, the companion bottle is painted with chi dragons rather than the long generally paired with the phoenix, has the mark inscribed in black, rather than in blue, and on the reverse side, rather than the front. Its design is also very different in concept, as a much denser layout was adopted to accommodate twelve dragons on the bottle. The two bottles certainly seem to have been painted by different hands (fig. 3).

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fig. 3. Enamel Qianlong marks of lot 1 (above) and the Hong Kong Museum of Art example (below)