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.
Exhibited: Qingwan 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
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).
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.
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).
fig. 3. Enamel Qianlong marks of lot 1 (above) and the Hong Kong Museum of Art example (below)
To create a vessel, which evokes a bottle of oval section wrapped in a cloth pouch tied with a ribbon, was a complicated task to undertake in glass. The trompe-l’oeil effect was superbly achieved, as it realistically renders the different qualities of the silk fabrics it tries to evoke: the supple folds in the gathered brocade pouch as well as the soft fluffiness of the knotted gauze ribbon.
The wrapping of vessels in cloth pouches and squares is today best known from the Japanese use of the furoshiki wrapping cloth, but valuable objects were of course similarly wrapped in China. In one of the paintings depicting the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) reading, for example, a pile of scrolls can be seen in a cabinet, enclosed in a mat and tied with an ornate fabric sash, and in another painting, we see him sitting on a log raft with a pile of books next to him as well as an object still wrapped in a cloth (Yongzheng. Qing Shizong wenwu dazhan/Harmony and Integrity. The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2009, cat. nos I-58 and I-76).
The illusion of an object wrapped in cloth was frequently evoked in Japanese lacquer, of which the Yongzheng Emperor appears to have been particularly fond. Among the many Japanese lacquer objects in his collection were several pieces modelled in relief with the folds of gathered or knotted cloths, sometimes tied with a cord, or even shaped in form of pouches tied with ribbons (Qing gong shi hui. Yuan cang Riben qiqi tezhan/Japanese Lacquerware from the Ch’ing Imperial Collection, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, cat. nos 01, 50, 51, 61 and 64). Imperial workshops were engaged in recreating this trompe-l’oeil wrapping effect in various media, for example, in lacquer (fig. 4) and sandalwood (Qingdai gongting baozhuang yishu/The Imperial Packing Art of the Qing Dynasty, Palace Museum, Beijing, 1999, cat. nos 64 and 65).
fig. 4. Gilt-decorated polychrome lacquer box, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period, Qing court collection © Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.
The Beijing Enamelling Workshops also created copper-bodied vessels with this design, for example, a small covered jar (fig. 5) and a snuff bottle of Yongzheng mark and period (Taipei 2009, op.cit., cat. nos II-90 and II-91); as well as porcelains, such as the striking falangcai vase in the Musée Guimet, Paris (Xavier Besse, La Chine des porcelaines, Paris, 2004, pl. 54) (fig. 6). The Jingdezhen imperial kilns similarly produced porcelains with this motif, such as the pair of fencai covered jars sold in these rooms, 5th October 2016, lot 3611. On none of these vessels is the trompe-l’œil effect as evocative as on the present glass vessel and its companion, however, since it is two-dimensional, with the knotted sashes being painted flat onto the surface, rather than modelled in three-dimensional relief.
fig. 5. Painted copper enamel jar and cover decorated with a sash, mark and period of Yongzheng. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
fig. 6. Falangcai vase with ribbon, Blue-enamel mark and period of Qianlong. Collection of Musée Guimet - Musée national des Arts asiatiques, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (MNAAG, Paris) / Thierry Ollivier.
The remarkable richness and variety of the enamel colours used for the birds’ plumage, further highlighted in gilding, which required complex mixing of the many individual enamels, would seem to derive from the exacting representations of the feathers of birds introduced by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) and practised by various Jesuit painters working at the court. Yet, the present bottle is totally Chinese in concept and style of execution, even though Europeans held prominent positions and were highly influential both in the Glass House and the Enamelling Workshops, and the Yongzheng Emperor, some years prior, had complained about works that although excellent, were too Western in his eyes.
The representation of the peonies, and in particular the subtle pink and purple colour scheme, are indebted to the innovative style of flower painting developed by Yun Shouping (1633-1690), one of the Six Masters of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); but a decoration such as devised for this bottle had become possible only through the new pastel enamels that had been introduced some decades earlier by the Jesuits, which also included the intense opaque lemon yellow.
The incorporation of the reign mark into the design, appearing on a bloom as if it had grown there naturally, is reminiscent of the imperial reign marks grown in imperial orchards into gourds that had been encased in moulds. It does not seem to occur on vessels other than these two glass pouches, although it is reminiscent of Yongzheng reign marks inscribed onto fruits or other items on the base of some enamel-painted copper vessels, or on a lingzhi on the base of an enamelled glass snuff bottle (Taipei, 2009, op.cit., cat. no. II-23). It also recalls calligraphies written onto painted fruits or objects in an imperial album of assorted paintings and calligraphies assembled in the same year our bottle was ordered, 1738 (Taipei, 2009, op.cit., cat. no. II-101).
Some calligraphies in this album, inscribed on square sheets of paper, include small sprigs of flowers, such as the small asters at the side of our bottle (ibid.). Such minor clusters of flowers, independent of the main design, are details that Western painters had introduced to fill ground on some of their nature scenes, for example, Castiglione in his paintings of dogs (Lang Shining zuopin zhuanji/Collected Works of Giuseppe Castiglione, Taipei, 1983, pls 022-031).
The strikingly conceived and executed design of the present bottle is a pure product of the artistic climate of the ateliers inside the Forbidden City, where artists and artisans proficient in many different media worked side by side and influenced each other. Having been created very early in the Qianlong period, it is not surprising that it contains many features better known from the Yongzheng reign, including the convention of the fully enamelled background required for enamelling on copper and still retained into the Yongzheng reign on porcelain, but otherwise rarely seen in the Qianlong period. The design is not only ravishingly beautiful, but also highly auspicious, both on account of its shape and its decoration. As Geng Baochang has remarked (op.cit., p. 15), the term baofu (‘wrapping cloth’) is a rebus for ‘wrapping up good luck’. Phoenix and peonies are revered as general harbingers of blessings and prosperity, and rainbow-coloured clouds are particularly lucky omens on account of their rarity.
Having been created for the Qianlong Emperor, this bottle and its companion piece apparently remained in the Imperial House until the end of the Qing dynasty, ending up with Yixin, the first Prince Gong (1833-1898, fig. 7), sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850) and half-brother of the Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1851-1861). In 1850, he was awarded the title Prince Gong of the First Rank by his father, one of two princely peerages within the Aisin Gioro clan. In 1852, he was given a magnificent palace once owned by a close advisor of the Qianlong Emperor and later inhabited by one the Emperor’s sons. In 1860, the Xianfeng Emperor entrusted him with the negotiations with the British and French, as well as with Russians, with all of whom he signed treaties. With the Emperor having fled Beijing, he held important powers in the Empire. He initiated the establishment of the Zongli Yamen, which under his leadership became an important office in charge of foreign affairs. He remained highly influential as Minister of the highest rank for foreign affairs and joint Regent together with the Dowager Empresses, when the Tongzhi Emperor (r. 1862-1874) ascended the throne at the age of five. In 1872, the Emperor conferred ‘iron-cap’ status on his princedom, which made the title fully hereditary. His influence lasted even into the Guangxu period (1875-1908), when another under-age heir to the throne became Emperor.
fig. 7. Portrait of Prince Gong (1833-1898). © National Portrait Gallery, London.
At the end of the Qing dynasty, Abel William Bahr (1877-1959, fig. 8) was able to acquire many works of art from members of the extended imperial family. Of Chinese/German origin, Bahr was born and brought up in China and until 1910 lived and worked as a merchant in Shanghai, where he also acted as Secretary of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (of Great Britain and Ireland). He is said to have become interested in Chinese art in 1905 and became an avid collector and later, dealer. He was instrumental in organising an exhibition of some 3000 pieces of Chinese porcelain and other works of art in Shanghai in 1908, of which he published a catalogue in 1911. In 1922, the American Art Galleries in New York organised a large sale of antiques he had collected, another sale was organised in 1926 by Anderson Galleries of New York, and further sales followed in later years. He lent several paintings to the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition in London 1935-6. Chinese paintings and other works of art in many different media from his collection have entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, the British Museum, London, and many other museums, either through purchase or donation.
fig. 8. Portrait of Abel William Bahr (1877-1959) © A.W. Bahr Papers. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Penelope Jane Bahr, November 12th, 2001, FSA_A2001.14.
Paul Bernat (1902-1987, fig. 9) was a textile manufacturer living in the Boston area, who, together with his wife Helen, – and in parallel with his brother Eugene, who collected Ming and earlier ceramics – assembled an outstanding collection of Qing imperial porcelains. As his collection included several falangcai porcelains also decorated in the Beijing Enamelling Workshops, this piece and its companion perfectly complemented his ceramics. The couple donated many pieces to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and after Paul Bernat’s death, a large part of his collection, including this vase and its counterpart, was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
The companion bottle, now in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which apparently shares the same provenance from Prince Gong Yixin over A.W. Bahr to Paul and Helen Bernat, was sold in these rooms 15th November 1988, lot 77; it has also been much published, for example, by Hugh Moss, By Imperial Command. An Introduction to Ch’ing Imperial Painted Enamels, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 41.
The Golden Feathers of a Magnificent Phoenix: A Beijing-Enamelled Pouch-Shaped Glass Vase
Falang, the Chinese word for enamel ware, is a transliteration of several related foreign words. A silicate, with properties similar to ceramic and glass, enamel consists primarily of quartz, feldspar, borax, and fluoride. According to the respective manufacture processes, enamelware can be divided into five main types: cloisonné, basse-taille, champlevé, painted enamel, and translucent enamel. Among these, painted enamel emerged during the Kangxi period (1662-1722), when the Imperial Household Workshops at the palace and other imperial workshops in Guangdong and Beijing all produced it. In the Palace Museum’s terminology, “painted enamel” (huafalang) refers specifically to enamelled copper, yintai to enamelled silver, and falangcai to enamelled porcelain and glass. In Qing palace records, painted enamel is categorised into: enamel painting on gold, enamelled silver, enamel painting on copper, enamel painting on Yixing stoneware, enamel painting on porcelain, and enamel painting on glass. This essay focuses on enamel painting on glass, but excludes snuff bottles.
The Imperial Household Workshops (Zaobanchu) of the Qing dynasty specialised in producing wares for the imperial family. They were established in the Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) during the Kangxi reign and are also known as the Hall of Mental Cultivation workshops. The Glass Workshop was founded in 1696.1 The Zaobanchu gezuocheng zao huoji qingdang or Records of the Various Imperial Household Workshops (hereafter Workshop Records) preserved at the China First Archive are direct and reliable documents for the study of Qing craft and cultural artefacts. Begun in 1723 and sustained through 1911, the Workshop Records faithfully record the names, places of origin, times of creation, formats, materials, expenses, manufacture processes, uses of imperial wares, as well as the edicts associated with them. Enamelled glass was the joint innovation by the glass and enamel Imperial Household Workshops. The Workshop Records and extant artefacts indicate that enamelled glass was created at the Qing court only during the Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735), and Qianlong reigns (1735-1796).
Almost every surviving example of Qing enamelled glassware is preserved in museum and private collections in China and abroad. A partial list includes two examples in the Palace Museum, Beijing; seven in the National Palace Museum, Taipei; nine in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (currently on view in exhibition hall 95 at the British Museum); one in the Hong Kong Museum of Art (p. 14, fig. 1); two in the Corning Museum of Glass; one in the Municipal Museum, The Hague; and one in the collection of the Hong Kong collector Andrew Lee. Two Qianlong period enamelled glass brushpots have appeared at auction.
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.
There are only three known extant examples of Kangxi period enamelled glass: the first is the blue-ground enamelled glass vase with peony motifs at the National Palace Museum (fig. 10), 2 measuring 12.7 cm in height; the second is the yellow-ground enamelled glass box with peony motifs at the Municipal Museum of The Hague (fig. 11); 3 and the third is the enamelled glass cup with cartouches and motifs of the flowers of the four seasons in the collection of Andrew Lee (fig. 12).4 Dated to the 11th day of the seventh month of the 15th year of the Daoguang reign, Furnishing Archives of Qing Palace in the Collection of the Palace Museum (fig. 13) 5 documents “a blue-ground enamelled glass vase with peony motifs and a Kangxi reign mark”, the only Kangxi-period example in the Furnishing Archives. The vase is housed in a nanmu box consisting of a top cover and a base and measuring 16.5 cm in height. Created by order of the Qianlong Emperor, this luxurious box is incised in regular script with the inscription “a blue-ground enamelled glass vase with peony motifs created during the Kangxi reign”. This title is from the Qianlong period and, although it lacks a reign mark, indicates the emperor’s identification of the vase as a product of the Kangxi period. Indeed, enamelled glass was an innovation of the Kangxi reign. The Kangxi Emperor himself did not only enjoy these wares himself but also bestowed them on officials and foreign dignitaries as honours and tokens of his appreciation. In 1706, the Emperor gave the Papal Legate “a painted enamelled glass vase”. 6 In 1716, he bestowed an “imperially-commissioned enamelled glass snuff bottle with colourful designs on a coral-red ground” on Chen Yuanlong, Inspector-General of Guangxi. 7 The above three examples demonstrate that enamelled glass achieved a high level of sophistication during the Kangxi reign and was representative of the period’s culture in its formal types, decorative patterns, and inscriptions.
fig. 10. Blue-ground enamelled glass vase with peony motifs, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, Qing court collection. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei
fig. 11. Yellow-ground enamelled glass box with peony motifs mark and period of Kangxi. Collection of Municipal Museum of The Hague, The Hague.
fig. 12. Enamelled glass cup with cartouches and motifs of the flowers of the four seasons, Yuzhi mark and period of Kangxi Collection of Andrew Lee, Hong Kong
fig. 13. Furnishing Archives of Qing Palace in the Collection of the Palace Museum, dated to the 11th day of the 7th month of the 15th year of the Daoguang reign.
The only known example of Yongzheng-period enamelled glass is the snuff bottle in the form of a bamboo stalk segment (fig. 14), bearing a Yongzheng reign mark. Currently in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, this work is documented in the Workshop Records as having been completed on the 15th day of the second month of the sixth year of the Yongzheng reign by the “miscellaneous workshop”. 8 Another five examples of enamelled glass are recorded in the Yongzheng period entries of the Workshop Records, but unfortunately these have not resurfaced.
fig. 14. Enamelled glass snuff bottle in the form of a bamboo stalk segment, mark and period of Yongzheng, Qing court collection Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
“In the second year of the Yongzheng reign (1724). Enamelling Workshop. On the fourth day of the second month, Prince Yi presented a yellow glass vase. It was a fine and exquisite vase, as such enamelled glass vases hereafter shall all be created after this model. So it was decreed.” 9
“In the third year of the Yongzheng reign (1725). Enamelling Workshop. On the 10th day of the ninth month, Director Haiwang presented a glass enamelled chicken ewer, along with an ivory-inlaid red stand” 10
“In the fifth year of the Yongzheng reign (1727). On the 22nd day of the 12th month, Director Haiwang conveyed the decree (to the Enamelling Workshop) to create a pouch-shaped flower vase with gilt and enamelled western flowers over ‘clear skies after rain.’ So it was recorded.” 11
“In the seventh year of the Yongzheng reign (1729). On the 17th day of the fourth month, according to a notice from Yuanmingyuan, Director Haiwang presented a white-ground glass vase on the third day of the month. The colour of the vase is outstanding, the base is distinctive, the body is enamelled with green bamboo and inscribed with black enamel, and the mark inscribed with deliberation; the style and shape were approved before firing. Such vase should be modelled on glassware. Vases of this colour scheme but slight variations were also commissioned; their subject matter can range from green bamboo to red flowers, with coordinated placement of the imperial marks. So it was decreed.” 12
“In the 13th year of the Yongzheng reign (1735), an enamelled glass bowl was recorded in the Zaobanchu archival records at the Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation).” 13
According to the Workshop Records, the Qianlong period produced more enamelled glassware than the Yongzheng period. Qianlong period examples survive in greater quantity than Kangxi period ones. The Daoguang period Furnishing Archives records three Qianlong period works of enamelled glass. All three are in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is home to another two important works: an octagonal vase painted with motifs of five bats (symbols of good fortune) surrounding the character for “longevity” and a zhadou painted with Western ladies. 15 Important examples of Qianlong period enamelled glass in the Percival David Foundation collection are two goblets, one brushpot decorated with figures, and a small jar decorated with a shepherdess. The Corning Museum of Glass houses two enamelled glass jars decorated with floral motifs and inscribed with poetic lines.
The rarity and preciousness of enamelled glass is inextricable from the difficulty of its production. Indeed, it is the most technically demanding of the six aforementioned types of enamelware. A contemporary maker of enamelled glass snuff bottles said to me, “Enamelled glass is generally fired to approximately 850 degrees, which is very close to the melting points of both the glass vessel and the enamel. This is necessary for the harmonious fusion of the two. But the temperature is difficult to control. If it drops only slightly, the colours will not be thoroughly integrated, and the end result will not be ideal. However, if the temperature is too high, the vessel will melt and lose its shape, ruining the entire effort. Moreover, each vessel requires at least five such high-temperature firings, each of which is a challenge. During the firing, one must also manage the layered and gradated application of coloured enamels like one would colour wash in fine-brush painting, with each layer requiring another firing. In this painstaking process, a work of art is born. It is a lovely fairy, embodying the creator’s ambitions for the world to see”. Because each enamel is forged at a different temperature, four or five firings are required for each work, beginning with the highest temperature and ending with the lowest. During imperial times, craftsmen used charcoal as fuel and, without the benefit of thermometers, relied on nothing but experience to gauge the temperature. The larger a work was, the more difficult it was to make. Consequently, extant examples of Qing enamelled glassware are predominantly snuff bottles, and larger works are exceeding rare. The Workshop Records also contain entries on failed firings.
The focus of this essay is an exceptional Qianlong period Beijing-enamelled pouch-shaped glass vase with motifs of dancing phoenix and peonies. Measuring 18.2 cm in height, the vase is in the shape of a pouch, with elegant and regular fold patterns running along the rim of its mouth. Around its neck is a pink strap sculpted in high relief. Made from a base of translucent milky-white glass, the vessel was first fired with a coating of yellow enamel. On its two sides are paintings of two stooping phoenix with parrot-like beaks, oblong eyes, narrow necks, and stretched wings. With its large, feathered tails pointing upwards and its long and narrow feet outstretched, the phoenix strike dynamic poses as if dancing in the sky. Their bodies are finely outlined in gold. Below them are branches of blossoming peonies and chrysanthemums, and above them are colourful flowing clouds. Amidst the green leaves is a peach-shaped cartouche bearing a blue-enamel reign mark Qianlong nianzhi. The warm milky-white glass is visible on the uncoated base of the vase. Its floral decorative patterns are painted in various shades of green, red, pinkish purple, and blue. These colours create a powerful contrast with the yellow background, which symbolises prosperity and good fortune. The Hong Kong Museum of Art houses an almost identical pouch-shaped glass vase of the same form, base enamel colour, and reign mark, although it is decorated with motifs of chi dragons and flowers. This pair of vases was created at the same time and are the largest examples of their type known to date. Creating their basic form was already a considerable challenge; their lobes required mould-blowing, while the folds around their mouths had to be shaped by hand quickly and precisely before the glass hardens. An aesthetically perfect vase such as the pair in question necessitated repeated attempts.
The Workshop Records contain the following entries relevant to the Qianlong pouch-shaped glass vase in question:
“In the fifth year of the Yongzheng reign (1727). On the 22nd day of the 12th month, Director Haiwang conveyed the decree (to the Enamelling Workshop) to create a pouch-shaped flower vase with gilt and enamelled western flowers over ‘clear skies after rain.’ So it was recorded.” 16
“In the third year of the Qianlong reign (1737). Glass Workshop. On the 22nd day of the first month, Chief Supervisor Bai Shixiu came and said that the eunuchs Mao Tuan, Hu Shijie, and Gao Yu presented a bright-blue enamelled pouch-shaped vase, and announced the decree that several additional enamelled vases should be created after it. So it was decreed. On the 24th day of the same month, Deputy Treasurer took the original bright-blue enamelled pouch-shaped vase to have it copied.” 17
“In the fifth year of the Qianlong reign (1739), it was recorded that on the third day of the third month, Botang and Ashengde came and said that the eunuch Wei Zhu and Chief Supervisor Deng Bage received the decree to order the Glass Workshop to present the six small glass vessels that it created. So it was decreed. On the second day of the fifth month of this year, Leader Wu Shu presented a pair of enamelled glass flower vases to the eunuch Gao Yu, and two enamelled glass peach-shaped waterpots, and one enamelled glass double gourd to present to the palace.” 18
These are the relevant entries that have been found. Despite their brevity, we learn from them that by 1727 the Qing court workshops had begun producing enamelled pouch-shaped flower vases. The phrase 'clear skies after rain', which appears several times in the records, refers to an enamel that imitates the outer glaze of wood-fired (chaiyao) wares. The 1737 entry does not specify the number of vases attempted or whether they were successfully produced. The 1739 entry states explicitly that “a pair of enamelled glass flower vases” was successfully produced. These may well be the vases ordered in 1737. The terms ping (vase) and huacha (flower vase) appear often in the Workshop Records. It is unclear whether these referred to different vessel types and whether they were displayed on their own or used to contain flowers. Nonetheless, we may reasonably surmise that the same craftsman or craftsmen worked during and after Yongzheng’s relatively brief, 13-year reign, such that they may have been responsible also for the pouch-shaped vases ordered by the Qianlong Emperor in his third and fifth year on the throne. Regardless, the enamelled glass pouch-shaped vase in question, dating from the early-Qianlong period, shows clear stylistic continuity with the Yongzheng period, particularly in the pictorial rendition of the flowing clouds and in the peach-shaped cartouche.
The Daoguang-period Furnishing Archives records only four enamelled glass vessels, one dating from the Kangxi reign and three from the Qianlong reign. Currently in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, the latter three consist of a meiping vase with flowers and the “three auspicious symbols”; a double gourd vase; and an eight-lobed vase.19 Why is the pouch-shaped vase in question, undoubtedly also a masterpiece of Qianlong enamelware, absent in the Furnishing Archives? The Furnishing Archives recorded only vessels present within the Forbidden City in the 15 year of the Daoguang reign, omitting the considerable furnishings in other gardens and palaces such as the Shenyang Palace and the Bishu Shanzhuang. Published furnishing archives of the Yiheyuan and the Jingmingyuan also do not mention pouch-shaped vases. Another consideration is that many vessels were given to imperial relatives. The peony and phoenix patterns on the vase in question indicate that only Qianlong’s mother and consorts had sufficient status to use it, suggesting that it was possibly Qianlong’s gift to his birth mother Empress Xiaoshengxian for her 50th birthday. 20 The information provided by Sotheby’s indicates that the vase was first recorded in the collection of Prince Gong.
Baofu, Chinese for “pouch”, is an auspicious homophone of “containing good fortune”. As a decorative motif, the pouch became popular during the Yongzheng reign, as evidenced by a pouch-shaped black lacquer box with gold outline painting currently at the Palace Museum, Beijing (p. 16, fig. 4). Although this work bears no reign mark, it can be dated to the Yongzheng reign by court records. There are pouch-shaped vases bearing Yongzheng reign marks. The Qianlong period also produced pouch-shaped vases and boxes. The Palace Museum contains zitan pouch-shaped boxes. Pouches more often appear in the form of decorative motifs, as in the yangcai pouch-shaped vase with sash in the Guimet Museum; and the white porcelain, enamelled copper, and translucent enamel pouch-shaped vases with sashes in the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 15), as well as the cloisonné double-vase in the same collection. It is clear from the above examples that the pouch, as both a vessel form and as a decorative motif, was much beloved by the Qing imperial family for its auspicious symbolism. Likewise, the dancing phoenix and the peony were motifs with beloved auspicious meanings. A symbol of femininity, the phoenix appeared in Chinese artefacts throughout history and, as suggested by the Chinese saying “the dragon soars and the phoenix dances”, was commonly paired with the dragon, a symbol of the emperor. Other examples of the pairing of the phoenix and the peony in the Palace Museum collection include a chrysanthemum-shaped lacquer basin carved and filled with gold design and with a Jiajing reign mark; a carved red lacquer bowl with a Qianlong reign mark (fig. 16); and an embroidered cotton woman’s robe dating to the Qianlong period (fig. 17). The vivid depictions of phoenix on all these precious artefacts are aesthetically pleasing and visually striking.
fig. 15. Painted enamel pouch-shaped vase with gold applique, mark and period of Qianlong. © Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.
fig. 16. Carved red lacquer bowl, mark and period of Qianlong. © Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.
fig. 17. Embroidered cotton woman’s robe (detail), Qing dynasty, Qianlong period. © Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.
The 'Yi and Ji' chapter of the ancient classic Shang shu [Classic of History] contains the line, “When the nine parts of the service, as arranged by the Di, have all been performed, the male and female phoenix come with their measured gamboling (into the court).” The mythical empress of all birds, the phoenix bestows good fortune upon us as we admire her grace and beauty.
1 Zhang Rong, 'Imperial Glassware of the Kangxi Period', Ming Qing luncong/ A Collection of Essays on the Ming and Qing Dynasties, vol. 2, Beijing, 2001.
2 Chi Jo-Hsin, 'The Perfect Fusion of Glass and Enamel Crafts of the Kangxi Period: A Blue Enamelled Dan Vase with Peony Motifs', Palace Museum Bulletin, 2011, no. 11, pp. 32-38.
3 This information has been provided by Associate Professor Xue Lü of the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art.
4 Peter Y.K. Lam and Humphrey K.F. Hui, Lai Suk Yee (ed.), Elegance and Radiance: Grandeur in Qing Glass, The Andrew K. F. Lee Collection, The Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2000.
5 Gugong bowuyuan cang qinggong chenshe dang'an [Furnishing archives of Qing Palace], Beijing, 2013.
6 Emily B. Curtis, 'Qing Glassmaking – The Jesuit Workshop on Canchikou', Bulletin of the Palace Museum, no. 1, 2003, pp. 62-71.
7 Zhang Linsheng, Snuff Bottles of the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1991; Gongzhong dang Kangxi chao zouzhe [Palace memorials from the Kangxi period], vol. 6, Taipei, 1976, pp. 602-603.
8 China First Archive and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005, vol. 3, p. 357.
9 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 358.
10 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 672.
11 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 574.
12 Ibid., vol. 3, p. 521.
13 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 762.
14 See the exhibition catalogue Limpid Radiance: A Special Exhibition of Glass Artifacts from the National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei, 2017.
15 Exhibition hall 95 of the British Museum.
16 See note 8, vol. 2, p. 574.
17 Ibid., vol. 8, p. 147.
18 Ibid., vol. 9, p. 521.
19 See note 2. In the aforementioned article, Professor Ji suggested that two of the vases are at the National Palace Museum, Taipei. However, I believe that the Qianlong mark and period painted enamel ‘boys’ double gourd glass vase in the National Palace Museum, Taipei refers to the double gourd vase recorded in the Furnishing Archives of Qing Palace. Hence, all three painted enamel glass vessels recorded in the Furnishing Archives are preserved in the collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei.
20 Empress Xiaoshengxian, 5th November 1962 – 2nd March 1777.
Sotheby's. An Enamelled Jewel The Le Cong Tang Collection, Hong Kong, 08 October 2019