Fish appeared as decoration on Chinese ceramics as early as the Neolithic period, and have remained a popular theme in Chinese art, especially ceramics and paintings, ever since. Vessels made in the form of fish, especially two confronted fishes, were popular during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) and again in the 18th century. Much of the popularity of fish as a decorative theme, especially in later dynasties, hinges on the fact that the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for the word for abundance, and the word for carp (li) a homophone for the word for profit. The Chinese potter and artist given the task of making these tureens was therefore quite familiar with the form, and has retained the naturalistic form depicted centuries earlier.
Animal-form tureens were made for export to Europe and appeared at a time when fashion for export animals happened to coincide with the trend for ceramic soup and vegetable tureens.
The most closely related European fish tureens, which may have been a source of inspiration for this model, are those made at Chelsea, circa 1755, albeit in very small quantities. The Chelsea tureens are somewhat smaller (approximately 40 cm. long), are similarly modelled, but are depicted without the opening at the mouth, and without the head and tail curling upwards; the cover is formed as the upper half of the entire fish.
During the period 1745-1770, sauceboats and stands modelled as plaice were made at Chelsea which, although very different in form, are modelled with curled up tails and open mouths; the mouths would have originally held the spoons (see the pair of plaice sauceboats and stands exhibited The Treasure Houses of Britain, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985, no. 423). It is interesting to note that all recorded examples of Chinese export carp tureens, both armorial and non-armorial, appear to be modelled facing the same way as those in the present lot.
The present lot is part of the non-armorial carp tureens. It is decorated with unusual and very refine palette. For similar examples, see the two lots from the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. J. Richardson Dilworth, sold in our New York Rooms, 26 January 2006: lot 38 decorated in iron-red and pale grey, with similar gilt speckling to that in the present lot; and lot 39 with very bright enamels in shades of yellowish-green, blue, and puce. A closest example is the pair from the Hastings Collection, with puce enamel bodies and iron-red and gilt heads, sold in at Sotheby's, 8 December 1958, lot 75.
Another one decorated in iron-red, gilt and sepia tones is in the East India Museum (Stadsmuseum), Gothenburg, and was bought for Niklas Sahlgren (1701-1776), a director of the East India Company. It is illustrated by J. A. Lloyd Hyde, Oriental Lowestoft, Newport, 1964, plate XII, fig.32, and by Stig Roth, Chinese Porcelain, imported by The Swedish East India Company, Gothenburg, 1965, front cover and fig. 36, p.27.
A single example, with iron-red and gilt body and puce enamel on the head, was sold at Sotheby's, 29 June 1976, lot 289; and another in Sotheby's Monaco, 29 February 1992, lot 536.
A large carp tureen and cover, which is interesting from a historical point of view, is the undecorated example in the Copeland Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, illustrated by W. Sargent, The Copeland Collection, Salem, 1991, no.102, pp.212-213. This tureen had formerly been sold at Sotheby's, 25 May 1971, lot 131; another undecorated carp of this large size, without cover, from the Collection of Mrs. Ellen M. F. Sainsbury, was sold at Sotheby's, 15 October 1968, lot 170.
For an example or Famille rose carp tureen and presentation dish bearing coat-of-arm, see lot 279 sold in these Rooms, 13 June 2007.