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Lot 110. A superbly carved cinnabar lacquer 'pomegranate' box and cover, Mark and period of Yongle (1403-1425); 31.5 cm, 12 3/8  inEstimate 16,000,000 — 18,000,000 HKDLot sold 15,055,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

of circular form, the cover masterfully carved in deep relief through the thick layers of red lacquer to the ochre-yellow ground with a large blooming pomegranate flower in the centre surrounded by further blossoms and buds in various stages of maturity amidst dense leaves, the sides of the cover and box each decorated with a meandering scroll of composite flowers consisting of camellias, roses, chrysanthemums, peonies and lotus blooms, the interior and base lacquered dark brown, the inner left side of the footrim incised with a six-character reign mark, Japanese wood box.

Provenance: A European private collection.
Christie’s London, 5th June 1995, lot 16, illustrated on the catalogue cover.
Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art, New York, 2008.

Red Pomegranate Blossoms to Ward off Evil
Regina Krahl

A lacquer box of this striking beauty, dazzling perfection and massive size does not need any words to commend it. It would have been an object of awe and admiration even in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when imperial patronage had spurred on China’s artisans to peak performance. As the country’s best workshops in a range of media were recruited to produce wares for the imperial house, the bold, exuberant, but often somewhat harsh style of decoration of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) – noticeable not only in carved lacquer ware but equally in other media, such as blue-and-white porcelain, gilt-bronze sculptures, or decorated silks – gave way to unprecedented elegance and refinement. As all rough edges were polished off, both literally and metaphorically, and compositions methodically fine-tuned, lacquer wares of the Yongle period (1403-1424) set a standard in this medium that was never again equalled, let alone surpassed, in later reigns. A by-product of this search for the ultimate was the rejection of all black lacquer in favour of the more appealing bright cinnabar red.

Unlike porcelain, carved lacquer ware with its extremely labour-intensive production process, did not lend itself to series production. Lacquer decoration therefore tends to be quite varied. Yet, like the imperial porcelain painters at Jingdezhen, imperial lacquer craftsmen appear in the Yongle reign to have been given pre-designed patterns to work from. It is most interesting to compare a lacquer dish in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, one of the extremely rare pieces also carved with branches of flowering pomegranate, to this box (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 28; and Gugong jingdian. Ming Yongle Xuande wenwu tudian/Classics of the Forbidden City. Splendours from the Yongle and Xuande Reigns of China’s Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2012, pl. 65) (fig. 1). While the representation of the flowers is quite different in style and strongly suggests the hand of a different master carver, the layout of the blooms, buds and leaves is identical to that on the top of our box, and the sizes of the two pieces are similar. We may therefore assume that different lacquer craftsmen worked in the imperial workshops to given models, but were able to interpret them in their own individual manner. On the Palace Museum dish, like on the present box, the needle-engraved Yongle reign mark has not been obliterated by a superimposed Xuande mark (1426-1435), as is often the case with Yongle lacquer wares. 

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fig. 1 A carved cinnabar lacquer ‘pomegranate’ charger, mark and period of Yongle © Palace Museum, Beijing.

Hardly any plant is as well suited to be represented in cinnabar lacquer as the vivid red-flowering pomegranate, that here is most effectively set off against the contrasting ochre-yellow ground. Yet, while pomegranate blossoms are often included in seasonal flower groups, we rarely see them on early Ming carved lacquer wares as a main design. The lush blooms with delicate, frilly petals are most distinctive due to their spiky calyx, which later turns into the crown that also identifies the fruit. While the fruit that tends to burst open, revealing its densely packed seeds, is a popular theme for works of art as an auspicious fruit symbolising many children, the blossoms’ “fiery red color was believed to ward off evil” according to Terese Tse Bartholomew (Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 76).

Boxes are perhaps the best format to showcase the quality of the carving work. The flat circular top is unforgiving in show-casing the complex layout of this horror-vacui design of prolific blossoms cushioned among greenery. It reveals how clearly the network of stems has been structured, how well the criss-crossing layers of leaves with their differently veined upper- and undersides have been balanced across the circular space, and how rhythmically the blossoms, in their different stages of maturity, from fluffy, fully opened blooms to tiny closed buds, have been embedded amongst all this.

The larger the space, naturally, the more difficult was the planning of the design: while small boxes often feature only a single bloom surrounded by leaves, larger pieces demanded more and more intricate compositions of three, five or more flowers. The present design represents one of the most complex floral designs recorded: while on larger boxes and dishes, flower patterns often are somewhat rigidly composed, with a single bloom surrounded by four others, spaced out at regular intervals, with buds in between, on this box we see a more irregularly interwoven composition of flowers of various aspects, naturalistically grouped around a prime specimen in the centre, as if arranged in a bouquet.

The present box is one of the largest Yongle carved lacquer boxes preserved. A Yongle-marked box of similar size and design, but carved with peonies was included in the exhibition Chōshitsu/Carved Lacquer, The Tokugawa Art Museum and Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Nagoya and Tokyo, 1984, cat. no. 88, where it is stated that the red lacquer above the black guideline consists of fifteen layers; another Yongle-marked box of similar size, similarly densely carved but with only three main blooms, perhaps roses, on the cover, from the collection of the Nanzen-ji, Kyoto, was included in the exhibition Tōyō no shikkōgei/Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1977, cat. no. 504, together with three of the more typical flower-decorated boxes of smaller size, two with Yongle reign marks from the Nezu Art Museum, Tokyo, and one with Yongle and Xuande marks, from the Fujita Art Museum, Osaka, cat. nos 505-507.

Two further boxes of similar size are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, one decorated with a landscape, the other with Buddhist motifs, both illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasuresop.cit., pls 44 and 45, together with smaller flower-decorated examples with and without reign marks, pls 29, 30, 63, 71, 73. No other box of comparable size appears to have been offered at auction, but a smaller box (26.5 cm) from the Le Cong Tang collection, also of Yongle mark and period, but carved on top with peonies, previously sold in these rooms 7th May 2002, lot 623, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th November 2017, lot 8009.

Only few larger boxes are recorded, among them a piece carved with phoenixes among composite flowers on a diaper ground, presented by Sir Percival David to H.M. The King of Sweden upon the King’s 80th birthday (John Figgess, ‘Ming and Pre-Ming Lacquer in the Japanese Tea Ceremony’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 37, 1967-69, pl. 52). This box has later, however, been attributed to the Hongwu reign (1368-1398) by Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang.

Lee and Hu, both noted lacquer scholars and collectors, made a strong case for the production of this superlative carved lacquer to have begun in the Hongwu rather than the Yongle period. (‘Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’ and ‘Further Observations on Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. XLVII, no. 1, 2001, pp. 10-20, and vol. LV, no. 3, 2005-6, pp. 41-47, both reprinted in Layered Beauty. The Baoyizhai Collection of Chinese Lacquer, Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 171-190). Although a Yongle carved lacquer style seemed firmly identified through pieces with reign marks, they undertook ground-breaking research on the identity of Hongwu lacquer ware. An important Ming document that records gifts from the court of the Yongle Emperor to the Ashikaga Shogun of Japan, shows that between 1403 and 1407 the Chinese court sent 203 pieces of carved red lacquer to the Japanese ruler, with the most important gift of fifty-eight pieces occurring in the first year of the Yongle reign. Since the carving of lacquer wares is a laborious, time-consuming process that can stretch over years, they argued that the gifts of this first year, 1403, could not have been completed within a matter of months and can therefore only be of Hongwu date.

Since many pieces in this list are clearly described, Lee and Hu tried to identify distinguishing features for Hongwu and Yongle wares and proposed that on Yongle flower-decorated pieces the main decoration consists of only a single species of flower, while Hongwu pieces typically show flowers of the Four Seasons, and that the Yongle mark, when later inscribed onto Hongwu pieces, appears there on the right-hand side, rather than on the left, as on the present piece. With this proposition, and with no Xuande inscription covering the delicate Yongle reign mark on its base, the dating of this remarkable box is not open to discussion.

Sotheby's. Monochrome, Hong Kong, 11 July 2020