Lot 3552. A Pair of Famille Rose ‘Chicken’ Cups, Marks and Period of Yongzheng (1723-1735). D 9.2cm. Sold for HKD 4,800,000 (Estimate HKD 2,500,000 - 3,500,000)© Poly Auction Hong Kong Limited 2022

This Yongzheng chicken pot cup is a rare example, inherited from Chenghua in the fifteenth century, but painted in a style that is new and innovative. The cups are in a pair, with open mouths, straight, sloping walls, and short feet. The core is slightly convex, and the interior and exterior are glazed in plain white. The outside of the cups are painted in famille-rose enamels with a pair of roosters. One of the cups depicts a rooster standing with his beak open, his colours bright and vivid, alongside a female with three chicks foraging in the wilderness, the young pecking at insects, and the female with brown wings gazing back at the rooster, the back decorated with small insects. The other cup is of similar subject matter, with the male as a young chick catching a small insect and the female with snowy white wings accompanying him. The colouring on this pair of cups is superb, with subtle brushstrokes on the feathers and other areas of the rooster, giving it the appearance of enamels, which is quite evocative. The foot inscribed in blue and white regular script, 'Made during the Yongzheng period of the Qing dynasty'. 

Provenance1. Sotheby's Hong Kong, 27 April 2003, no. 187
2. Eskenazi Ltd, London
3. Meiyintang Collection, Switzerland.

Note: The Chenghua cups were a popular 'antique' for generations to come, and later dynasties competed to copy them in order to be able to enjoy the richness of the artefact, making them the most sought-after porcelain collector's item for many years. This trend has been in vogue for a hundred years, and was already in full swing when the famous cups were first made. In the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, Cheng Zhe wrote the Rong Croucher Li Shuo, which listed the most important wares of all dynasties, but the Chenghua chicken jar cup was unrivalled in terms of price and charm. Cheng writes that the Wanli emperor (1573-1620) was particularly fond of these vessels, and that 'a pair of Chenghua cups in front of the imperial court was worth 100,000 yuan when Shen Zong was fashioning his food'. The Kangxi period imitations can be found in the collection of the National Palace Museum. The Qianlong emperor also sighed in a poem inscribed with the imperial title 'A Song on the Chicken Pot Cup': 'The Zhu Ming was not so far away, but the elegant ware of Xuancheng was still visible. Among the most treasured of all the cold and beautiful wares, the chicken jar is the most precious of all', suggesting that the Cheng kiln chicken jar cups were invaluable. In the Qianlong reign, the imitation of the Chenghua cups was an innovation, with a child playing with a chicken. In contrast, the Yongzheng cups were more faithful to the Chenghua prototype in terms of both painting and markings, and were deeply imbued with the essence of the Chenghua cups.

The use of roosters, hens and chicks as artistic subjects was a favourite of Emperor Xuande (1426-1435). A painting in the National Palace Museum from the Xuande period is inscribed with this title, and bears the Emperor's seal and an inscription in imperial script. Later, the Emperor Chenghua was so moved by the Song dynasty painting of a hen and her son that he wrote a poem to express his feelings on the subject and began to decorate the porcelain. The mother hen protecting her young and nurturing them was a source of great admiration for the emperor, and this became a major source of his affection for the hen and son motifs, which also touched both the Kang and Yong emperors later on. In the case of the Yongzheng emperor, the hen protecting her chicks is a metaphor for the way in which he governed his country, a metaphor for a monarch who loved his people as his son, and who encouraged himself to be diligent and compassionate to the people and to the widows and widowers. The two cups, Cheng and Yong, both vividly depict a male and female hen leading their young to forage for food. During the Yongzheng period, the technique of cellar firing reached its peak, and new types of coloured glazes were developed, especially the use of lustrous ink colours to depict the tails of chickens, creating a vivid contrast with other glazes and making the decoration more vivid and realistic. Although there are many different colours in the Chenghua style, they do not use ink colours, but only add green colours to cobalt blue to achieve the effect of ink colours. The Kangxi black colours are dull and lack stability, so light green or purple colours must be added to achieve the effect. The Yongzheng cups are mostly faithful to the Chenghua form, but are painted in a more naturalistic and sparse style. The rooster's tail is high, the eight chicks are scattered about, and the arrangement of flowers, plants, and rocks is different in proportion. However, this example also differs from the common Yongzheng imitation Chenghua cups in that it is decorated in pastel colours instead of doucai, and the colours on the body of the chickens are more layered and flexible. The colour of the material is so vivid and striking that it appears to be enamelled, an extremely rare innovation in the Yongzheng style.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version).

Poly Auction Hong Kong Limited. A Romance Among Blooming Roses: The Meiyintang Collection of Three Dynasties Imperial Ceramics, Hong Kong, 2 Dec 2021