Lot 95. A rare set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi, Ming dynasty, 17th century; 58.7 by 46.5 by h. 97 cm, 23 by 18 by h. 38 ¼ in. Estimate: 3,500,000 - 4,500,000 HKD. Lot sold 4,410,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.
each with a gracefully curving crestrail terminating in outscrolled handgrips, supported by a gently curved S-shaped backsplat carved in low relief with a ruyi-shaped cartouche enclosing a pair of dragon flanking a stylised shou character, the hard-mat seat set within a moulded frame, the legs joined by a beaded arched apron and connected to a footrest and stretchers, the wood of a rich honey-brown tone with an attractive patina.
Note: Horseshoe back chairs, quanyi, with their elegant curving crest rail and sweeping armrests are strikingly modern in their balanced interplay between curvilinear and straight members. Inspired by chairs made of pliable lengths of bamboo, their seemingly simple continuous crest rail was achieved through an ingenious joinery technique. In order to recreate the continuous back in hardwood, members were fitted together with a cut-out to accommodate a tapered wood pin that would lock them firmly in place when inserted. With the application of a lacquer coating, the underlying joinery became virtually invisible.
These lightweight but sturdy armchairs were one of the most prestigious seats in Ming and Qing dynasty households. Frequently depicted in woodblock illustrations, these chairs were used in numerous contexts but were reserved for high-ranking individuals. During formal occasions, quanyi were draped in sumptuous textiles and provided with a footstool. Their wide seats, C-shaped splats and curved backs make them particularly comfortable and thus also suitable in informal settings. With the addition of two carrying poles, they were converted into sedan chairs, which the Ming dynasty carpenters’ manual Lu Ban jing [The classic of Lu Ban] calls yajiao, from the word yamen, or ‘magistrate office’, suggesting they were reserved for important government officials.
Horseshoe chairs were generally made in sets of two or four, although intact sets of four are rare. A set of four quanyi with plain splats was included in the exhibition Ming Furniture, Grace Wu Bruce Ltd., Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 23; another set with an openwork panel on the splat, from the collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, was sold at Christie’s New York, 17th March 2015, lot 41; and two sets were reputedly in the former Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture in California.
Chairs of this form are known either left undecorated or carved on the splats with raised motifs, as on these chairs. The design on these chairs of two chilong facing a shou (longevity) character is unusual, although a similar motif is found on a pair of chairs sold in our New York rooms, 25th September 1986, lot 556.
Sotheby's. Monochrome II, 9 October 2020, Hong Kong.