A fine and exceedingly rare copper-red decorated ‘Three fish’ stem cup, Xuande six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435)

2019_HGK_16696_3005_001(a_fine_and_exceedingly_rare_copper-red_decorated_three_fish_stem_cup_x)

2019_HGK_16696_3005_002(a_fine_and_exceedingly_rare_copper-red_decorated_three_fish_stem_cup_x)

2019_HGK_16696_3005_003(a_fine_and_exceedingly_rare_copper-red_decorated_three_fish_stem_cup_x)

2019_HGK_16696_3005_004(a_fine_and_exceedingly_rare_copper-red_decorated_three_fish_stem_cup_x)

Lot 3005. A fine and exceedingly rare copper-red decorated ‘Three fish’ stem cup, Xuande six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435); 4 5/8 in. (11.7 cm.) diam. Estimate HKD 25,000,000 - HKD 30,000,000 (USD 3,206,982 - USD 3,848,379)Unsold. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019

The cup is delicately potted with deep rounded sides rising to a slightly flared rim, and is supported on a hollow splayed foot. The exterior is exquisitely decorated in copper red with three fish in silhouette, two of which are depicted facing each other, and the other shown swimming in opposite direction. The stem cup is covered overall with a smooth, clear glaze with the exception of the foot ring, revealing the fine, white body. The interior of the cup is inscribed with a six-character reign mark within a double circle, box.

Provenance: Sold at Sotheby's London, 9 November 1954, lot 71
Sold at Christie's London, 8 December 1975, lot 130
Collection of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980)
Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 25 November 1980, lot 45
Family Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999)
Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 18 November 1986, lot 30
Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 10 April 2006, lot 1661.

LiteratureSotheby's Hong Kong Twenty Years: 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 118, no. 115.

ExhibitedThe Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007-2013, on loan
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 2013-15, on loan.

Peerless Porcelain – A Superb Xuande Stem Cup

Rosemary Scott
Senior International Academic Consultant Asian Art

When the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95) wanted to bestow extravagant praise on Qing dynasty porcelains he compared them to the wares of the Ming dynasty Xuande and Chenghua reigns, since these were recognised as the twin pinnacles of achievement in imperial porcelain production. Indeed, even in the Ming dynasty itself the Chenghua reign was praised for its polychrome wares, while the Xuande reign was especially admired for its underglaze-decorated wares. Looking at the perfection of the current Xuande stem cup it is easy to see why this should be so. The potting of the vessel is faultless, producing a beautifully balanced profile. The well-refined materials from which the body, glaze and decoration are created allow the potter to contrast the rich red of the fish with the expanses of pure white porcelain to great effect. The decorative elements themselves are not only ideally positioned and applied, but have been skilfully fired to achieve an ideal depth of colour.

The extraordinary quality seen on Xuande imperial porcelains may, to a significant extent, be a reflection of the emperor’s own interest in the porcelain produced for his court. The consistent beauty of the porcelains from this reign was due in part to the fact that the Xuande Emperor insisted on strict quality control. Indeed, the reason that we have such rich archaeological finds from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, is because if a piece failed to satisfy the rigorous criteria for acceptance by court officials, it was deliberately smashed and the broken pieces were thrown into a waste pit. According to the Fuliang Xian Zhi (Fuliang County Gazetteer) it was in the Xuande Emperor’s reign that officials were first sent to Raozhou to supervise the production of imperial porcelains. Unusually, orders were issued for imperial porcelain from the first year of his reign. Traditionally a new emperor suspended building projects and the firing of imperial ceramics as part of the mourning rituals, but the Xuande emperor does not seem to have observed this custom, even though he was officially still in mourning for both his father, the Hongxi Emperor r. 1425, and his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor r. 1402-1424. The Ming Xuanzong Shilu (Veritable Records of the Emperor Xuanzong of the Ming Dynasty – Ming Xuanzong was the Xuande Emperor’s temple name) states that in the 9th month of the last year of his father’s reign (first year of his reign since his father died in the 5th month), the court issued an order for white sacrificial wares. Interestingly, between 1426 and 1430, it was mainly white wares that the emperor presented either to those of his subjects he wished to honour, or to foreign governments such as the Korean court. The Ming Xuanzong Shilu also makes clear that in certain instances officials were assigned responsibility for particular types of production. It notes, for example, that in the Xuande reign the official Chang Shan of Raozhou was given the task of supervising the production of white porcelain ritual vessels decorated with dragon and phoenix.

Both the Xuande emperor’s personal interest in porcelain production and his determination to stamp out official corruption can be seen in an incident related in the Ming Shilu. When, in 1427-8, the supervisor of the official factory at Raozhou (Jingdezhen), Zhang Shan, was found guilty of corruption and brutality to his subordinates, the emperor ordered his execution. Production at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen was very extensive in the Xuande reign. However, records state that in 1430 a request was made to increase production, but that this was then deemed too wasteful and production ceased in the 9th month, and did not resume until 1433. Thus, there appears to have been a two-year gap in production. Since the Xuande reign is only ten years long, this means that all the wares that have come down to us were produced in an eight-year period, which is quite remarkable. 

The more consistent use of reign marks on imperial wares is a feature of Xuande porcelain. While a small number of Yongle porcelains bear marks in an archaistic script, based on the style of the famous calligrapher Shen Du (1357-1434), the porcelains of the Xuande reign bear reign marks on a more regular basis and these are generally written in clerical script. Some scholars have suggested that the style of the reign marks on Xuande porcelains was based upon the emperor’s own calligraphy. This seems to be borne out by comparison of the calligraphy inscribed on a hanging scroll, painted in the first year of his reign, by the Xuande Emperor, entitled Dog in a Bamboo Grove (illustrated by Richard M. Barnhart in Painters of the Great Ming: Imperial Court and the Zhe School, Dallas, 1993, p. 55, no. 16), now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, (fig. 1) with the characters as they appear in reign marks on porcelain. The characters xuan and de on the painting are particularly close to the style of the same characters in the reign marks seen on imperial porcelains, such as the current stem cup. (fig. 2) The placement of reign marks on Xuande porcelains was very variable, and could be at the exterior or interior rim of the vessel, on the base, inside the foot, or in the centre of the interior of forms such as the current stem cup. The marks were sometimes written inside a double circle and sometimes written in either or single horizontal line or a single vertical line.

f4c55bd3c690a78a833a79621bdfee9c02df11b8_size141_w572_h1577-1

fig. 1 Zhu Zhanji, Emperor Xuanzong of the Ming dynasty (1399–1435), reigned 1426–1435. Dog and Bamboo, 1427. Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on paper, 79 x 28 3/8 inches (200.7 x 72 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 45-39. Photo: John Lamberton

2019_HGK_16696_3005_006(a_fine_and_exceedingly_rare_copper-red_decorated_three_fish_stem_cup_x)

fig. 2. The characters xuan and de on Dog and Bamboo inscribed by Emperor Xuanzong (top) and those inscribed on the present cup (bottom).

Although copper oxide was utilised to produce red decoration on high-fired ceramics as early as the Tang dynasty, from that time onwards it provided a formidable challenge to the potter. The production of fine copper red decoration was so sensitive that great care has to be taken with the preparation and density of copper oxide, the composition of the glaze, the temperature and degree of reduction in the firing, and the placement of the vessels within the kiln. The unusually successful copper red decoration on the current stem cup is a testament to both the decorator and the kiln master at the imperial kilns. The exceptional difficulties faced by the Chinese imperial kilns trying to produce underglaze red decoration on porcelains is well illustrated by various memorials sent to the imperial court by censors. Even as late as the 5th year of the Longqing emperor’s reign (AD 1571), a despairing censor called Xu Shi sent a memorial to the throne begging the emperor to reduce the burden placed on the workforce by excessive palace orders for Jingdezhen porcelain. One of the most significant parts of his request was that the order for underglaze red decorated porcelains should be replaced by those decorated with overglaze iron red. Bearing in mind not only that Chinese emperors did not usually accede gracefully to suggested curbing of their imperial demands, but also the fact that porcelains decorated in overglaze iron red would have to be fired twice – with concomitant losses, such a request would not have been made lightly. It provides, however, a good indication of the difficulty that the Ming potters experienced in producing porcelains using underglaze copper red and helps to explain the rarity of fine quality porcelains of this type. 

While the best-known technique for copper-red decoration involved painting linear designs in red on a white porcelain body, there were other techniques that resulted in solid areas of colour contrasting with the surrounding area – white decoration against red or red decoration against white. Such decorative schemes required good control of the material during firing, and in the Yuan dynasty those porcelains decorated with a white design reserved against red were not generally a success. On these vessels the design was incised into the body of the vessel, under the glaze, and copper red was applied in a band avoiding the area of the design. The decoration should have stood out in white against the red, but, unfortunately, in almost all cases the glaze, which was similar to that used on qingbai wares, tended to run, taking the red with it and obscuring parts of the design (as in the case of the pear-shaped vase in the collection of Sir Percival David illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration: Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, London, 1992, No. 16) (fig. 3). When underglaze copper red with reserved decoration was attempted in the Hongwu reign (1368-1398), it was in association with a different, less fluid, glaze and tended to be somewhat more stable, although the colour of the red was usually somewhat muted. By the early 15th century, in the Yongle and Xuande reigns, brighter red and more controlled outlines were achieved, and designs created using stencils could be applied to excellent effect, as on the current stem cup. Nevertheless these 15th century imperial porcelains were still susceptible to poor colour development, and the brilliance and precision of the decoration on the current vessel is rare. 

Collection of Sir Percival David, currently on loan to the British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum

fig. 3. Collection of Sir Percival David, currently on loan to the British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum

Stem cups with decoration of three copper red fish in a several profiles and foot types have been excavated from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen. A red fish stem cup with closed foot was excavated from the imperial kiln site in 1982 (illustrated by the Chang Foundation in Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1998, p. 50, no. 46-2) (fig. 4), while another with an open foot, similar to that on the current stem cup, was excavated in 1993 (illustrated ibid., p. 50, no. 46-1) (fig. 5) . These two excavated stem cups have different profiles and different diameters – the example numbered 46-2 being closest to the current stem cup. It is clear why these excavated stem cups were rejected; in both cases the troublesome copper red has faded to grey towards the edges of the fish motifs. The problem of successfully firing the copper red probably explains why stem cups with three red fish produced using iron red enamel have also been found at Zhushan. One such stem cup, excavated in 1988 is illustrated in Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 52, no. 48-1 (fig. 6). While it appears that the pigment for the copper red fish were applied by blowing the copper oxide through a tube and the stencil onto the surface of the vessel, the overglaze enamel used for the iron red fish was painted onto the surface of the glaze – the brush marks can clearly be seen. While this latter technique was perfectly adequate, it fails to achieve the smooth, subtle, elegance of the copper red fish. The excavations at the Xuande imperial kilns also revealed stem cups decorated with iron-brown fish, such as the example illustrated ibid., p. 51, no. 47-1. The effect of the dark brown is quite dramatic, but again the brush marks can clearly be seen.

A red fish stem cup excavated from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute

 

fig. 4. A red fish stem cup excavated in 1982 from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute. 

A red fish stem cup excavated in 1993 from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute

fig. 5. A red fish stem cup excavated in 1993 from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute.

A red fish stem cup excavated in 1988 from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute

 

fig. 6. A red fish stem cup excavated in 1988 from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute.

The stem cup shape with deep bowl and relatively smaller diameter, like the current example, is particularly rare among Xuande copper red decorated stem cups and the only other published example of similar size and fish decoration appears to be that in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, pp. 228-9, no. 87 (fig. 7). Interestingly, the National Palace Museum also has in its collection one of the Xuande three fish stem bowls decorated in overglaze iron red (illustrated ibid., pp 218-9)(fig. 8). A somewhat smaller stem bowl of similar profile to the current vessel, decorated with three copper red fish, which was formerly in the possession of the American collector Allen J. Mercher, entered the collection of the Chang Foundation, Taipei in 1983 and is illustrated in by James Spencer in Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Qing Dynasties, Taipei, 1990, pp. 218-219, no. 90.

 

copper-red decorated ‘Three fish’ stem cup, Xuande six-character mark and of the period (1426-1435)

fig. 7. A copper-red decorated ‘Three fish’ stem cup, Xuande mark and of the period (1426-1435) in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

 

A copper-red decorated ‘Three fish’ stem cup, Xuande mark and of the period (1426-1435) in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

fig. 8. A copper-red decorated ‘Three fish’ stem cup, Xuande mark and of the period (1426-1435) in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Xuande imperial stem cups decorated with three fish in copper red, such as the current vessel, would have been rare treasures even in the Xuande reign itself, and they continued to be revered throughout the Ming and into the Qing dynasty. It is significant that what is clearly a Xuande copper red fish stem cup – of the same deep-bowled shape as the current stem cup – is among the imperial treasures depicted on a long handscroll, dated by inscription to the 6th year of the Yongzheng reign (equivalent to AD 1728), entitled Guwan tu Pictures of Ancient Playthings, from the collection of Sir Percival David (illustrated in China  The Three Emperors 1662-1795, E.S. Rawski and J. Rawson eds., London, 2005, p. 252, no. 168, upper row, left-hand side). Interestingly, the stem cup is depicted in a stand which cradled its stem and prevented it being accidentally knocked over, or falling over in an earthquake – further evidence of the value placed upon it by its imperial owner. 

In addition to its original 15th century imperial owner – the Xuande Emperor – the current stem cup has an extremely well-documented and prestigious provenance in the 20th and 21st centuries. It was sold by Sotheby’s London in November 1954; sold again by Christie’s London in December 1975; entered the collection of the famous Shanghai collector E. T. Chow; was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in November 1980; entered the possession of another famous collector T. Y. Chao; and was subsequently sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in November 1986 and April 2006.

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Hong Kong, 27 November 2019