‘Nothing can really prepare you for when you look close-up with your own eyes at pieces which have been handled as long ago as 1500 BC,’ says Christie’s Chinese Works of Art specialist Kate Hunt. ‘The more you look, the more you see.’
Hunt is touring the superb collection of Chinese art at Compton Verney, an 18th-century house in Warwickshire, England. At the core of the collection, which spans more than 3,000 years, are Chinese archaic bronzes, dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC) all the way up to the Han Dynasty, which lasted from around 200 BC to 220 AD. ‘They have a magnificent presence, they’re very imposing,’ says Hunt. Some of these pieces will be displayed at King Street in London alongside works from the Michael Michaels Collection of Early Chinese Art, offered in our Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art sale on 7 November.
‘Chinese bronzes are absolutely central to Chinese civilization,’ the specialist continues. ‘Bronzes were made for the very wealthy elite and were associated with power.’ The vessels, which were made to serve grain and wine, also played an important role in the ritual banquets that took place in family temples or over ceremonial tombs. The Chinese believed in the afterlife and ancestral worship, and wanted their deceased relatives to have food and wine to sustain them on their onward journeys.
The lavishness of a bronze was often dependent on the status of the individual who owned it, explains Hunt. One of the most iconic forms is the Ding vessel — Chinese cauldrons standing upon legs with a lid and two facing handles. These vessels started out as humble cooking utensils in ceramic before the form was copied in bronze. Hunt explains how they became ‘a very important symbol of power for rulers and nobility in China’.
In our 7 November sale in London we have a number of archaic bronzes from the Shang Dynasty, including two bronze ritual wine vessels (above) — in Jue and Gu forms. Both feature taotie masks, the most well-known motif of the period. Another bronze (below), a stout, oval-bodied ritual wine vessel and cover (You ), from the late Shang dynasty, has a large taotie mask cast to each side.
‘What you see popping out on the vessel are two eyes,’ Hunt says of one of Compton Verney’s finest vessels decorated with a taotie mask. ‘If you centre your focus on the eyes you will then see the horns, and then a snout, and then fangs, and then the decoration spreads out to the head and the tail. Suddenly, these extraordinary animals come into focus.’
Two further bronzes in our upcoming London sale come from the Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BC). A bronze ritual tripod food vessel and cover (Gui ) is cast with horizontal grooves between a band of stylised scrolls to the rim and foot, and is applied with two animal-head C-form handles. The other (below), a bronze ritual wine vessel (Zun ), is boldly cast to the bulbous mid-section and lower body with taotie masks interspersed with vertical flanges.
‘Over time these objects become even more beautiful because they develop a patina,’ concludes the specialist. Collectors look for patina, as well as at the surface, the colour and the encrustation, which are all integral to the appreciation of Chinese bronzes — archaic vessels which, says Hunt, ‘take your imagination to another place’.