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Lot 275. An exceptionally rare Imperial embroidered chestnut-ground silk 'dragon' robe, Yongzheng period (1723-1735); 205.3cm (80 6/8in) wide x 138.5cm (54 1/2in) long. Sold for £ 75,250 (€ 88,006). (Estimate £ 60,000 - £80,000). © Bonhams 2001-2021

Meticulously worked on the front and back in couched gold thread, satin stitch tiny detail of seed stitch with nine powerful, five-clawed dragons clutching or pursuing flaming pearls amidst a profusion of hovering cranes vividly depicted in different poses, some holding a tally in their beaks, all on a densely deep blue-patterned ground of stylised wan emblems and above a lishu hem beneath a sea of tumultuous waves interspersed with elaborate pavilions, with original sleeve extension and midnight-blue cuffs and collar decorated with further dragons and clouds.

ProvenanceLinda Wrigglesworth Ltd., London, 1994
An Australian private collection.

NoteThis remarkable robe, notable for its exquisite and complex embroidery, vivid depictions of cranes and most unusual terrestrial diagram, made of elegant pavilions floating above rolling waves, was probably made for a First Rank Prince, one of the sons of the Emperor.

A closely-related embroidered chestnut-ground robe, dated to 1738, excavated from the tomb of Prince Guo (1797-1738), seventeenth son of the Kangxi Emperor, is similarly embroidered with vivid designs of five-clawed dragons, cranes carrying tallies in their beaks and pavilions on lattice ground, illustrated by J.Vollmer, Imperial Silks. Ch'ing Dynasty Textiles in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Chicago, 2000, p.143, no.42.

According to the 'Illustrated Regulations for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court 'Huangchao liqi tushi 皇朝禮器圖式, edited in 1759, the brown colour for garments, qiuxiangse, was one of the five Imperial shades of yellow which could only be used by the innermost family circle of the Emperor; see J.Vollmer, Ruling from the Dragon Throne: Costumes of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Berlekey, CA, 2002, pp.85.

This exceptional robe may have been worn by the Imperial family member during birthday celebrations. The auspicious combination of the sea hai, the pavilions wu and the tallies chou carried by the cranes underscore the auspicious wish for long life, forming the rebus Haiwu Tianchou 海屋添籌, which can be translated as 'Adding tallies to the Immortal's abode above the sea'. The literary origin of the scene originated in 'Conversations of Three Old Men', from the 'Collected Writings by Su Dongpo' Dongpo zhilin 海屋添籌, by the Northern Song scholar Su Shi (1037-1101 AD). During one chance meeting of three Immortals, the topic of age was broached. Each one of the sages tried their best to exaggerate their own great age. The second sage famously boasted, 'After every cycle of the sea drying up and becoming mulberry fields, I put a strip of bamboo in my house as a counter and now the tallies have already filled ten houses'.

By the Qing dynasty, when pun rebus design became increasingly popular and the character chou 筹 for bamboo strip counter acquired a pun on shou 寿 meaning longevity, the Haiwu Tianchou 海屋添籌 phrase became a popular allusion conveying the birthday wish 'May the length of your life be eternally prolonged 'Hai wu tian shou 海屋添寿'.

The term 'sea house', haiwu, probably referred to Kunlun, the fabled fairyland of the Immortals, rising from the Oceans of Eternity which is often represented by a pavilion or mansion built atop an isle, with refined caves and lavish gardens full of propitious flowers and plants, ponds made of gold and trees made of gemstones. Imperishable and magnificent in its loftiness, this land was the perfect goal of the adept's quest for Immortality; see Wu Hung, 'Mapping Early Daoist Art: The Visual Culture of Wudoumi Dao', in S.Little, Taoism and the Arts of China, Berkeley, 2000, p.85. Cranes were also considered important constituents of Kunlun. As birds with a long life span, they were deemed celestial beings, symbolising longevity, wisdom and divine grace; see M.Wan, 'Emperor Jiajing and His Auspicious Words', in Archives of Asian Art, vol.57, pp.95-120 and P.Sturman, Cranes above Kaifeng: The Auspicious Image at the Court of Huizong, in Ars Orientalis, 1990, p.33-68.

Reinforcing the wish for extended happiness to last for eternity, the blue fret ground, so finely embroidered on the present robe, is an endless pattern incorporating the leiwen designs, meaning ten-thousand, thus forming the pun for 'May ten-thousand generations be granted happiness'.

The combination of cranes carrying tallies, pavilions and Immortal figures became a popular subject decorating objects destined for use by the Qing Court during the Yongzheng reign. See a doucai bowl, Yongzheng mark and period, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated by R.Kerr, Chinese Art and Design, London, 1997, p.57; see also a blue and white dish, Chenghua mark but Yongzheng period, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, acc.no.1989.315. See also an 18th century kesi silk panel, Ming dynasty, embroidered with cranes carrying tallies, hovering above pavilions floating in waters, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, acc.no.GU-SI-000068-00000.

'Dragon robes' were supreme significant social markers representing access to power. The right to wear such garments depended on rank and status. The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty were keen on projecting an evocative and powerful image of themselves, and their Court costumes conveyed legitimacy and heritage. Despite their initial reluctance to wear the same type of robes as their Ming predecessors, by the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, the Manchu elites were keen wearers of richly-ornamented 'dragon' robes on semi-formal Court occasions and official duties.

In Han Chinese thought, the five-clawed dragon was the quintessential symbol of Imperial power, embodying royalty, dominion and expressing the visual metaphor of the good ruler who behaved wisely for the wellbeing of his subjects. Capable of flying high in the sky and diving back into the sea, dragons were regarded as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth and credited with extraordinary powers that compared to those of the Emperor. Even the number nine, for the dragons depicted on the present robe, is highly evocative and likened to the power of Heaven. The multiple of three threes, nine has a long association with the Emperor. In addition, the 'Records of the Grand Historian' Shiji, completed during the first century BC, recounts that, having tamed the floods that once engulfed the land, the mythical Emperor Yu divided the territory into the Nine Provinces and collected bronze in tribute from each one. Thereafter he cast the metal into nine large tripod cauldrons. These vessels thus were at the heart of ruler's possessions and symbolic conveyers of power.

Stylistically, the five-clawed front-facing dragons and trailing wispy clouds of the present robe closely compare with their counterpart woven on an Imperial yellow-ground kesi robe, Yongzheng, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, acc.no.42.8.11.

Bonhams. Fine Chinese Art: Including Imperial and Court Textiles Curated by Linda Wrigglesworth, London, 2 november 2021