Fabergé emphasised the Chinese origin of this European model through the medium he selected, adding minimal adornments in the technique and style which had been perfected in his workshops in St. Petersburg. The melding of Europe and Asia is a significant theme in Russian art and culture reflecting, of course, the location of the largest country in the world.
Chinese and European porcelain origins
Models of nodding head figures originated in China and were exported from there in the late 17th or early 18th century. These figures appear to have been standing, rather than seated, and without heads but with internal fittings. Once in Europe they were completed there with what were considered to be Asian features. [fig. 1]. European models of seated examples with nodding heads and moveable hands, were developed by Johann Joachim Kandler at the Meissen factory from the 1730's [fig. 2] and an example can be seen in Francois Boucher's painting of 1739, The Breakfast, now in the Musée du Louvre. The French artist is known to have owned no less than seven such nodding figures.
These European figures were loosely derived from the Chinese figure of budai, ["promise this"], who is always represented smiling, thus giving rise to the nickname 'laughing Buddha'. An attribute of budai is the sack which is always full and, traditionally, he brings enduring wealth and happiness [fig. 3]. European representations of budai with fixed heads and hands were among the earliest Böttger stoneware figures produced from circa 1712. These presumably, along with the Chinese export nodding head figures, were the inspiration for Kandler's budai of the 1730's. The development of the nodding head buddai figure was not limited to Meissen alone as Chantilly produced at least two such figures, circa 1735 [fig. 4] (see Christie's, New York, 21 May 1997, lot 64). The sack on the Chantilly figures has become indistinguishable from the folds of the figures' robes. In the present representation, as in many of the 19th and early 20th century porcelain figures, the sack has been simplified to a tuck of cloth at the girdle.
The term magot was used from as early as the mid 17th century to describe the European heavy set or bizarre representations in clay, plaster, copper or porcelain of Chinese or Indian figures. Whilst the term usually used to describle the European porcelain figures similar to the present example; "pagoda figure", comes from the term pagode or religious figures housed in pagoda shrines, which by politically correct standards is inaccurate. (Kisluk-Grosheide, 'The Reign of Magots and Pagods', Metropolitan Museum Journal 73, 2002, pp. 177, 181, 182, 184).
Inspiration from Dresden
Fabergé undoubtedly studied the earlier Meissen figures in Dresden in the largest and most important porcelain collection in Europe, that acquired by Augustus the Strong. It was in storage for over 100 years from 1763 until 1876, when it was given a new home in the former royal picture gallery, the Johanneum. It was to Dresden that Fabergé's father retired in 1860, when Carl was 14, where frequent visits to the Grünen Gewöelbe were also to inspire his young mind. Certainly one such object he would have seen there, the early 18TH century jewelled and enamelled mounted chalcedony casket by Leroy was to become the model for the Fabergé Imperial Easter egg, the so-called Renaissance Egg given by the Emperor Alexander III to his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna in 1894.
It has been suggested that the re-kindling of interest in and prolific production of such porcelain "pagoda-figures" at the end of the 19TH and beginning of the 20TH century by Meissen, Samson and others may be attributed to the knowledge of Fabergé's study and production of these figures in hardstone. (U. Pietsch, et al, China. Japan. Meissen The Dresden Porcelain Collection, Dresden 2006, A. K. Snowman, The Art of Karl Faberge, London, 1968, p. 133).
Lady de Grey (1859-1917)
This magot was formerly in the collection of the famed beauty, Constance Gladys, née Herbert Countess de Grey, [fig. 5], whose radiance and standing in society was aptly described by Bainbridge:
"If beauty plus a pose naturally aristocratic plus an ability to appreciate all the arts, plus an attraction which drew Queen Alexandra to her from her earliest years as Princess of Wales and which equally drew the King and culminated in those happy parties at Coombe Court [Surrey].... then for many Lady de Grey must be given first place. ... Now a great number of these [Fabergé] objects were given to Lady de Grey by Mr. Poklewski-Koziell, [Councillor of the Russian Embassy] and he of all people not only recognized personality when he saw it and respected it, but paid homage to it by way of the finest Fabergé pieces which he could persuade the Craftsman to make especially for him." (H. C. Bainbridge, Peter Carl Fabergé his life and work, London, 1949, p.87).
Among the leading society figures in Britain who encouraged an interest in Fabergé works of art was Lady de Grey. Following her second marriage in 1885 to Frederick, Earl de Grey, later 2ND Marquis of Ripon (1852-1923) she became the daughter-in-law of the eminent politician, Lord Ripon (1827-1909) and was a great patron of the arts especially of the Ballets Russes. As Marchioness of Ripon, she is sometimes credited with having brought Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to London with Nijinsky in 1911 for the coronation of George V. (Hans Nadelhoffer, Cartier, p. 93; Serge Lifar, Serge Diaghilev his life his work his legend An Intimate Biography, London, 1940, p. 198 and other sources)
In 1949 when Bainbridge first published his book on Fabergé, the illustration shows the present lot to be in the collection of Dr. James Hasson, with an inserted erratum '...(formerly in the Collection of Lady De Grey) Now in the possession of Messrs. Tessiers', but by 1966 was recorded as in a "private collection". As with so many facts regarding the enigmatic Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975), the exact date on which he acquired the "Buddha" is unknown. His wealth and loves are legendary and have been the subject of many books and much conjecture. The facts are that he was generous to his family, friends and country, a great listener, not only to the women in his life, as Churchill knew, and a great raconteur. Down to earth and strong willed, he was an astute businessman and also peripatetic. His yacht, Christina, wisely named after his only daughter, was finally christened in 1954 after a transforming refit at vast expense to provide the most luxurious yacht, on which Onassis was to spend much of his remaining life. With her magnificent state rooms and Ari's Bar, Onassis had a stage on which to entertain. Royalty, politicians and stars of the era were among those welcomed aboard as friends and guests at lavish parties, but Christina also served as a private refuge from the public gaze. With her brother, Alexander (1948-1973), Christina spent her early holidays sailing on her father's yacht, where the nursery was a significant feature, decorated and furnished for his children, in the father's taste. The pilot deck was his domain, with bedroom, bathroom, dressing room and office used for meetings. It was in this latter room that the "Buddha" took centre stage, the possession of a notorious collector of all that was beautiful and highly prized.
After the death of Aristotle Onassis in 1975, Jaqueline Onassis returned to the Christina:
"the last thing she put aside was the jade statue of the Buddha, the god of the Chinese, accented with rubies, that Aristo had treasured. J. Paul Getty, one of the richest men in the world and Aristo's good friend, owned a similar statue, but Aristo's Buddha had always been the more exquisite one."
Onassis never tired of the little figure with calmly waving hands, nodding agreement and wagging tongue. Who knows what thoughts it evoked in him, but the "Buddha" was always proudly brought to the attention of his visitors. (K. Feroudi Moutsatsos, The Onassis Women: an eyewitness account, New York, 1998, p.351; N. Fraser, et al, Aristotle Onassis, London, 1977; "From Camelot to Elysium (via Olympic Airways)" Time Magazine, 25th Ocotober 1968; with thanks to Vickers; and from other sources).
Two other Fabergé magots in bowenite exist. The nearest in decorative terms to the present figure is a large "female" version in bowenite with oyster guilloché enamel girdle and set with rose-diamonds and rubies, with the workmaster's mark of Michael Perchin [fig. 6], formerly in the collection of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the figure can clearly be seen in images of the von Dervis mansion Exhibition of 1902, (exhibited New York, A La Vieille Russie, Fabergé, 1949, no. 222, p. 23-24 illustrated; and A. K. Snowman, The Art of Karl Fabergé, 1953, pl. 246) which was sold at Parke-Bernet, New York, 1966 as lot 216.(T. Muntyan, Fabergé, the Great Jewellery of Russia, Moscow, 2000, illustrations p.71). The model for this version is taken from a Meissen figure (see Königliche Sächsische Porzellan-manufacture, Meissen, 1710-1910, Dresden, 1911, S. 12 Fig. 7) which was also copied in the 1820's by the S. Ya. Poskotchin faience factory (1817-1842) with the model now in the Hermitage [fig. 6] (exhibition catalogue, L.G. Kheifets and N. N. Antonova, The Far-Eastern Porcelain in Russia, St. Petersburg, 1994, pp. 11, 63, no. 131).
The second figure, smaller than the present one, was sold in Geneva by Habsburg, Feldman SA, 10 May 1989, lot 117, and was recently with Messrs Wartski. The model is almost identical to the present figure in form, but differs in the over-abundant use of rose-diamonds, with red enamel at the collar, cuffs and girdle. The latter curves slightly downwards at the ends, without the fold of material symbolising the sack of wealth. However this example and the present figure are similarly constructed. In his book, Bainbridge refers to two figures including this present one: "so far as I know Fabergé made only two pieces like this".
Bainbridge refers to the second figure as the rose quartz and chalcedony figure, now in the Queen's Collection. This is no longer accepted as being by Fabergé but is now attributed to Cartier (1900 -1920), based on the use of different stones typical of Cartier and never used as such by Fabergé workshops for such creations. (C. de Guitaut, Fabergé in the The Royal Collection, London, 2003, p.252, no. 351). In addition, the carving and the smooth polishing of the hardstone of the Fabergé "Buddhas" is very distinctive and of a far higher order than that of the Cartier examples. Nonetheless, Cartier clearly looked to the Fabergé "Buddhas" as prototypes for his own distictive creations.