A Magnificent and Extremely Rare Famille Rose Vase
with Graviata Pink Ground
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director
This magnificent vase was formerly in the Fonthill Collection of Alfred Morrison, which is one of the most famous 19th century English collections of Chinese art. Alfred Morrison (1821-97) was the second son of the textile merchant James Morrison, who was believed to be the wealthiest commoner in 19th century England. On his father's death in 1857, Alfred Morrison inherited considerable wealth and the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire. The latter had previously belonged to another famous collector William Beckford (1759-1844) and indeed Morrison's house on the estate was the surviving wing of Beckford's Fonthill Splendens. Alfred Morrison devoted his time and his wealth to filling his homes in London and Wiltshire with rare works of art. In the early years much of his Chinese art was acquired from Henry Durlacher, the founder of the famous London dealers Durlacher Brothers. However a large proportion of his Chinese porcelains and enamels on metal were purchased in 1861 from Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900), who brought them to Britain following the storming of the Yuanming Yuan in Beijing in 1860. Morrison then commissioned the famous architect Owen Jones to design a room at Fonthill House 'in the Cinque-centro style' especially for the Chinese objects. The current vase was published by the British scholar Soame Jenyns in 1951.1 By that time the collection had passed to John Morrison, and, in discussing the porcelains with graviata enamelled grounds, Soame Jenyns notes: 'A superb range of these pieces is in the collection of Mr. John Morrison.'
Interestingly, the butterfly and flower design and the form of the vase must have particularly appealed to the Qianlong Emperor. In addition to the current vase, a further pair of Qianlong vases from the Alfred Morrison collection, very similar in design to the 'Ping Tai' vase but with slight variations in the ruyi band around the shoulder, a slightly more crowded design around the body and apparently lacking the graviata-ground found on the present piece, was sold in the first sale of Fonthill Heirlooms held at Christie's London, 31 May 1965, lot 107 (fig. 1). The 1965 catalogue entry erroneously states that one of the pair was illustrated by S. Jenyns, Later Chinese Porcelain as it is now apparent that the vase illustrated by Jenyns is in fact the current vase being offered in this sale.
It is highly likely that all three vases would have originally been kept in one location in the Yuanmingyuan and removed by Lord Loch on the same occasion. This would explain why all three of pieces of this extremely rare design found their way into the collection of Alfred Morrison. The pair of vases sold at Christie's in 1965 remains the only closely related example of this size and design to have been published. It is extremely rare to find a Qianlong vase of this large size decorated with such delicacy on a graviata ground (fig. 2). Most vases completely covered with graviata ground are smaller, while the larger vases usually employ graviata only in limited areas. The technique would have been very time-consuming as well as requiring a particularly skilled craftsman if it was to be executed to the extremely high standard seen on the current vase. These scrolls have been incised with a very fine point and are small in scale, delicate, and feather-like. It is also notable that the graviata scrolls incised into the pale pink enamel ground of this vase are especially dense and would have required the greatest care to ensure that they formed a coherent pattern and were evenly distributed.
The technique of cutting through slips, glazes and enamels, before they were fired, in order to produce decoration has a long history in China. The origins of the Qing technique probably lie in the Northern Song period (960-1127), when a related technique was used on stonewares belonging to the Cizhou group. On these Cizhou vessels a relatively fine point, or comb-like row of points, were used in one of two ways. The fine points either incised though an upper black slip layer to reveal decorative details in the contrasting white slip layer below, as seen on pieces such as the ruyi-shaped pillow with floral scrolls and wave border in the Palace Museum, Beijing, (fig. 3)2 or designs were incised through a white slip to reveal a darker body material beneath, as in the case of the bean-shaped pillow decorated with fish in water, also from the Palace Museum collection.3 Such stonewares were then covered with a thin, transparent glaze.
Another related decorative technique is that known as 'cut-glaze'. As with the enamel in the Qing graviata technique, the 'cut-glaze' method relied on the glaze staying in place, rather than flowing, when it was fired. 'Cut-glaze' was employed at northern Chinese kilns in the Jin (AD 1115-1234) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties on stonewares which bore thick, viscous, black or dark brown glazes. On these vessels areas of glaze were cut away before firing, leaving the background of the design in unglazed buff-coloured body material, while details were also cut through to the body using a fine point. Such vessels tend to be large vases or jars of globular form. A Jin dynasty jar is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 4)4 while a Yuan dynasty jar is in the British Museum, London.5 The same 'cut-glaze' technique was used to decorate stonewares made in the Xi Xia dynasty (1038-1227) kilns of north-western China on a much wider range of forms, including not only vases and jars but also shapes such as flasks and bowls.6
Several versions of this 'cut-glaze' technique were used on other ceramics, but it was rarely applied to early porcelain, except for a small number of Yuan dynasty white-glazed wares from the Jizhou kilns, most of which have simple prunus and moon decoration, where most of the glaze was removed using a stencil rather than a knife.7 This latter technique is, of course, related to the Ming dynasty use of wax-resist to produce areas of decoration which were free of glaze, such as those of the 'green dragon' group which appear at the imperial kilns as early as the Chenghua reign (1465-87).8 On these porcelains wax prevented the normal porcelain glaze from adhering to the body material in the areas reserved for dragon decoration, in order that green enamel could be applied to these biscuit fired areas in a second, lower temperature, firing.
None of these early techniques achieved anything like the delicacy possible when cutting a design through enamels applied over a fired porcelain glaze. Indeed the incising of decoration through overglaze enamels on porcelain was only possible on any scale once the more stable enamels of the famille rose palette were perfected in the Yongzheng reign (1723-35). The application of the graviata technique creating scrolling, leiwen and lattice patterns on enamels covering the background of porcelain vessels reached its peak of refinement on imperial porcelains of the Qianlong reign, when the current vase was made.
The colours of these graviata background enamels varied, but deep pink, mid-blue and yellow are among the most frequently seen. The pale pink of the current vase is very rare. An example of deep pink enamel with lattice graviata designs can be seen on a Qianlong vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum.9 Like the current vase, the Victoria and Albert Museum is decorated with flowers and butterflies against the pink ground, although the flowers on the latter vessel grow from the lower part of the band, rather than appearing as small sprays as on the current vase. Three very similar vases, one in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (fig. 5) and a pair in the Baur Collection are decorated with butterflies and floral sprays on a deep pink ground with graviata scrolls similar to those on the current vase.10 Another vase in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing has a blue enamel ground with graviata lattice design, which forms the background for a design of butterflies, floral sprays and flower heads (fig. 6).11
Although the pale opaque pink enamel ground with graviata scrolls seen on the current vase is quite rare, it is interesting to note that the style obviously appealed to Alfred Morrison, since a small Qianlong moon flask, with the same graviata pale pink enamel - in this case acting as a ground for formal polychrome floral scrolls - was among the porcelains from his collection sold in our London rooms on 9 November 2004 in the sale Chinese Porcelains and Enamels from The Alfred Morrison Collection, Fonthill House, Lot 47 (fig. 7). The same opaque pale pink enamel with a graviata design, in this case of leiwen, also appears on a Qianlong bowl in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (fig. 8).12 On the Taipei bowl the pink graviata provides the ground against which formal floral scrolls appear.
The shape of the current vase is also rare, and belongs to a group of vase shapes with especially sharp junctions at the shoulder, which appeared in the Yongzheng reign (1723-35) and gained popularity under the Qianlong emperor. It is probable that all the vase forms with this feature owe their original inspiration to metalwork. A similar sharp shoulder junction and the same unusual flared mouth with inverted rim can be seen on a Yongzheng white 'soft-paste' porcelain vase in the Baur Collection.13 Similar sharp shoulder junctions can also be seen on a Yongzheng flambé vase and a Qianlong pale celadon vase in the same collection.14
The combination of flowers and butterflies to decorate porcelain can be seen as early as the Yongle reign (1403-24) on blue and white vessels such as the pear-shaped vase in the Percival David Foundation,15 and the Chenghua reign (1465-87) on doucai wares, such as the globular jar also in the Percival David Foundation.16 However, the combination of butterflies and flower sprays painted in overglaze enamels on porcelain became particularly popular at the imperial court in the Yongzheng reign. A variant of this design can be seen in the famous 'butterfly bowls' of the Yongzheng reign on which the butterflies and flowers form roundels. An example of this type from the Yuen Family Collection was sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 30 April 2000, lot 588. In the same sale (lot 589) was a Qianlong vase which has even closer links with the current vase. Although the Yuen vase had no coloured background enamel, the butterflies and flower sprays which decorated it display many similarities with those on the current vase. Indeed a number of the same flowers and types of butterfly appear on both vases.
Butterflies are often included in Qing dynasty decoration in order to suggest a duplication of an auspicious wish, since the word for butterfly in Chinese die is homophonous with a word meaning to repeat. It also sounds like a word meaning eighty years of age, and thus expresses a wish for longevity. When combined with prunus the butterfly provides a rebus for beauty and longevity. Butterflies are also seen as symbols of happiness in marriage as well as everlasting romantic love. The latter interpretation is due to a number of traditional Chinese stories in which butterflies play a part. The most famous is the one by Feng Menglong (1574-1646) in which the star-crossed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai are transformed after death into butterflies. In Daoism butterflies are associated with dreamlike reflection and the freedom of the soul.
Not surprisingly, the combination of butterflies and flowers to provide decoration was not confined to porcelain, and examples can be found in a number of other materials. A comparable roundel to those seen on the Yuen Yongzheng bowl can be seen embroidered on a Qing dynasty silk robe.17 A Beijing enamel on metal vase decorated with butterflies and floral sprays is in the Palace Museum, Beijing,18 while a Yongzheng/Qianlong painted lacquer tray decorated with these motifs, also from the Palace Museum, is illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji, Gongyi Meishu bian 8 qiqi, Wang Shixiang (ed.), Beijing, 1989, p. 161, no. 161.
However, the soft pink ground on this vase from the Ping Y. Tai Foundation particularly enhances the butterfly and flower motifs, and rarely has the design been more effectively employed than on this spectacular porcelain vessel.
1 Soame Jenyns , Later Chinese Porcelain - The Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1912), Faber and Faber, London, 1951, plate CVI, fig. 2.
2 The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 32 Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (I), Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 182-3, no. 165.
3 ibid., p. 186, no. 168.
4 Illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu qinghua daquan- Taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 324, no. 524.
5 Illustrated by Tsugio Mikami in Sekai Toji Zenshu - 13- Liao, Jin, Yuan, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1981, p. 244, no. 282.
6 Illustrated in the excavation report Ningxia Lingwu yao fajue baozao, Beijing, 1995, pls. XXX and LX, respectively.
7 Examples from the Bristol City Art Gallery and the Bernat collection are illustrated by Margaret Medley in Yuan Porcelain and Stoneware, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, pls. 111A and 111B and C, respectively.
8 Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch'eng-hua Porcelain Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, pp. 124-5, nos. 110-111.
9 Illustrated by Rose Kerr in Chinese Ceramics - Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1986, p. 116, pl. 99.
10 Illustrated in Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 197, no. V-34; and by John Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in The Baur Collection, volume 2, Collections Baur, Genève, 1999, pp. 128-9, no. 236 and 237, respectively.
11 Illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 39 Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 37, no. 30.
12 Illustrated in Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 194, no. V-30
13 Illustrated by John Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in The Baur Collection, volume 2, Collections Baur, Genève, 1999, pp. 206-7, no. 307.
14 Illustrated ibid. p. 152, no. 259, and pp. 188-9, no. 290, respectively.
15 Illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, Percival David Foundation, London, 1992, p. 38, no. 25.
16 Illustrated ibid. p. 64, no. 61.
17 Illustrated by Rosemary Scott in 'Decorative Links between Porcelain and Silk in the Qing Period', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 58, 1994, p. 71, fig. 6.
18 Illustrated in Splendors of a Flourishing Age, Macau, 2000, no. 73.