Lot 881. A very rare Guan bottle vase, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279); 5 1/8 in. (13 cm.) high, cloth box. Price realised USD 2,580,000 (Estimate: USD 700,000 - USD 900,000). © Christie's Images Ltd 2023.
The small, pear-shaped vase has a tall, cylindrical neck and is covered overall with a thick glaze of pale-bluish-green tone suffused with a network of golden-brown crackles. The dark body is revealed where the glaze runs thin on the lipped mouth rim and on the wide ring foot wiped clean of glaze.
Provenance: Stephen D. Winkworth (d. 1938) Collection, London.
Sotheby's London, 26 April 1938, lot 32.
Dr. Carl Kempe (1884-1967) Collection, Ekolsund, Sweden.
J. J. Lally & Co., New York, no. 4445.
Literature: B. Gyllensvärd, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, p. 68, pl. 168.
Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, vol. 8, Tokyo, 1982, pl. 138.
An Exceptionally Rare Guan Ware Vase
Rosemary Scott, Independent Scholar
This elegant vase is a very rare Guan ware example of a form that is known in Chinese as a dan ping or danshi ping, literally meaning gallbladder vase. This name may be a simple reference to the shape of the vessel, but could equally carry with it the connotation of bravery or courage, which is also associated with the character dan. Essentially, it is a graceful pear-shaped vase with columnar neck raising from sloping shoulders and with a straight mouth, devoid of eversion. A shard from what appears to be a similar vase was found at the kiln site at Wuguishan, in the suburbs of modern-day Hangzhou, and is now in the Tokyo National Museum (illustrated by Koyama Fujio in Toji Taikei, volume 36, Tokyo, 1978, p. 113, fig. 44, upper right; and by Y. Mino and K.R. Tsiang in Ice and Green Clouds – Traditions of Chinese Celadon, Indianapolis, 1986, p. 168, fig. 66a). This shard is significant in respect of the current vase, since Wuguishan has been identified as the site of the Jiaotanxia kiln, which was one of the two kilns producing Guan (official) wares for the Southern Song imperial court, after its capital was established at Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou) following the fall of the Northern Song. Initially discovered in the 1930s, this site was thoroughly investigated by Chinese archaeologists between 1985 and 1986 (see Zhu Boqian, ‘A Pearl among Greenwares: Guan Ware of the Southern Song’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 56, 1991-1992, London, 1993, pp. 29-35). The Southern Song Dynasty Official Kiln Museum has been built at the Wuguishan site.
Guan wares made for the Southern Song court, although greatly inspired by the imperial Ru wares of the Northern Song, tend to have much darker body material. Where the glaze has either run thin on the mouth of the vessel or where there is no glaze on the edge of the foot rim, the dark colour of the body shows through. This aesthetically-appreciated feature of Guan wares is known in Chinese as zikou tiezu ‘purple mouth and iron foot’ and can clearly be seen on the current vase. Analyses carried out at the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, indicates that in general - ignoring trace elements - the clay used at the southern Guan kilns contained about 65% silica, 20-28% alumina, and 2-4.2% iron oxide (see Ts'ai Ho-pi, "An Overview of the Exhibition of Sung Kuan Ware", Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware, Taipei, 1989, p. 29). This high iron content is responsible for the rich, dark colour of the Guan body material.
The glaze on the current vase and other high quality Guan wares is bluish in tone, relatively thick and deliberately crackled. The texture and crackle of Guan wares is believed to have been created in deliberate emulation of jade. The glaze was applied in several - possibly as many as four - layers. This facilitated the achievement of a glaze with richness of texture and colour. The glaze contained a high percentage of calcia, in the region of 15% - compared, for example, to 5-12% in Longquan glazes. This makes the Guan ware glaze rather viscous and also promoted the crackle that is so admired by connoisseurs (see P.B. Vandiver and W.D. Kingery, "Celadons: The Technological Basis of Their Visual Appearance", Appendix A in Y. Mino and K.R. Tsiang, Ice and Green Clouds: Traditions of Chinese Celadon, Indianapolis, 1987, pp 221-3). In order to achieve the optimum colour, texture and crackle, the vase would first have been fired without glaze. Although the main firing of Guan wares was done in a large long ‘dragon’ kiln, small kilns have also been found at the Jiaotanxia site and at the other Guan ware site at Laohudong. It is likely that these smaller kilns would have been used for this so-called biscuit firing. Biscuit firing to a low temperature not only stabilised the body prior to glaze application, but the removal of water from the clay also aided the production of a bluish glaze colour. After each application of glaze, the vase would have been fired again at a low temperature, before the next glaze layer was added. Thus, some of the finest Guan wares, such as the current vase, may have been fired up to five times. At each firing there would have been some losses, making these ceramics extremely expensive to produce and additionally precious. The wares were fired in a reducing atmosphere using wood and brushwood as fuel in order to facilitate the achievement of a bluish-green glaze. It would have been very difficult for the potters to control precisely the atmosphere up the entire length of the dragon kilns, and the best pieces – such as the current example - would have been fired in the middle of the kiln. As the final firing was been at 1000-1100oC, both body and glaze are slightly underfired, but above this temperature the glaze becomes transparent, and would have lost its much-revered lustrous quality.
Although rare in the Song dynasty, extant examples of this vase form may be found among both Guan and Ge wares. Indeed, this was a form that was particularly well-suited to crackled glazes. On the one hand the smooth contours of the shape allowed even distribution of the crackles, while the throwing of the neck often set up stresses within the clay that resulted in visually pleasing spirals in the crackle rising from the shoulders to the mouth. This can be seen to particular advantage on the current vase. It can also be seen, although somewhat obscured by staining and other effects of burial, on a Guan ware vase of similar shape which was excavated in 1953 from one of the famous Ren family Yuan dynasty tombs at Gaojiatai, Qingpu district, Shanghai (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Ceramic Art unearthed in China, vol. 7, Jiangsu and Shanghai, Beijing, 2008, no. 230).
Another similarly-shaped Guan ware vase is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This was included in the 2016 exhibition Precious as the Morning Star: 12th-14th Century Celadons in the Qing Court Collection, and is illustrated in the catalogue on pages 164-5, exhibit number II-47. The authors of the catalogue compare the National Palace Museum vase to the Qingpu excavated example and date it to the Southern Song-Yuan dynasty. Two similar vases, also from the Qing court collection, but identified as Ge ware, have been preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 33 - Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 40-2, nos. 35 and 36. Both the Beijing vases have the more straw-coloured glaze with darker crackle associated with Ge ware.
The continued imperial appreciation of Song dynasty crackled ware vases of this form is further evidenced by the inclusion of such a piece in a long handscroll in the collection of Sir Percival David, which was painted in 1728 for the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-35) (see E. Rawski and J. Rawson (eds.), China – the Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, p. 253, middle row). The scroll, which is one of a series, is entitled Guwan tu Pictures of Ancient Playthings, and depicts a selection of antiques, crafted primarily in ceramic, jade and bronze, from the imperial collection. At the end of the scroll an empty imperial throne is depicted, as if awaiting the emperor’s appearance to peruse his treasures.
This vase has a prestigious provenance, having previously been owned by one of the great collectors from the golden age of Chinese art collection in Europe – the Swedish collector Carl Kempe (1884-1967), whose particular passion was for fine Tang and Song dynasty monochrome wares. Kempe was an industrialist and an active philanthropist, who was also a keen sportsman - in 1912 winning an Olympic silver medal in the indoor tennis doubles at the Stockholm Summer Olympics with his partner Gunnar Setterwall. (Fig. 3) Carl Kempe’s interest in Chinese art began in the early 1920s, and from the 1930s onwards he developed a particular interest in Chinese white-glazed and celadon-glazed wares, especially those from the Tang-Song period, including crackle-glazed vessels. It was probably HRH Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf (1882-1973, from 1950 HM King Gustaf VI Adolf), who was on the Committee of Honour for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art held at the Royal Academy in London in 1935-36, who suggested that Carl Kempe loan twelve items (primarily ceramics) to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art.
Made for the court of the Southern Song emperor, the current vase reflects the refined aesthetic traditions of the Northern Song court, while belonging to a group of wares so highly esteemed by successive generations of connoisseurs that it was to influence the ceramics made for the Chinese imperial court well into the Qing dynasty.
Lot 883. A Guan octogonal cup, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279); 3 1/2 in. (9 cm.) diam., Japanese wood box. Price realised USD 107,100 (Estimate: USD 15,000 – USD 20,000). © Christie's Images Ltd 2023.
The thinly potted faceted sides are slightly concave on the exterior and slightly convex on the interior. The cup is raised on a small ring foot and is covered overall with a crackled bluish grey-green glaze that continues on to the recessed base, and showing a Y-shaped gilt lacquer repair.
Provenance: J. J. Lally & Co., New York, no. 3313.
Note: The delicate, octagonal form of this cup, raised on a short foot, can be found in various wares of the Song dynasty. A Ge cup of very similar form in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 33 - Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), Hong Kong, 1996, no. 69, p. 76. See, also, a qingbai cup of this shape illustrated by J. Wirgin in Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, p. 164, no. 530, and the Longquan celadon cup of this form in the collection of the Shanghai Museum illustrated in Longquan yao yanjiu (The Research of Longquan Kiln), Beijing, 2011, p. 53, pl. 5.
The faceted shape of this cup suggests that it was based on a metal prototype, such as a Southern Song gilt-silver octagonal cup illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji (The Great Treasure of Chinese Fine Arts), vol. 10: Gongyi Meishu Bian (Works of Art and Craft), Beijing, 1987, no. 95, p. 45, with full description on p. 27.