• For the Enjoyment of Scholars: auction at Christies

    Sale 2391

    For the Enjoyment of Scholars: Selections from the Robert H. Blumenfield Collection

    25 March 2010, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 954

    A VERY RARE MOTHER-OF-PEARL-INLAID BLACK LACQUERED PORCELAIN BRUSH POT

    KANGXI PERIOD (1662-1722)

    Price Realised  

    A VERY RARE MOTHER-OF-PEARL-INLAID BLACK LACQUERED PORCELAIN BRUSH POT
    KANGXI PERIOD (1662-1722)
    Finely inlaid with a scene of two scholars standing near a pavilion on the shore of a lake as a boat sails towards them below an inscription, the center of the base with a lotus medallion
    5 3/8 in. (13.5 cm.) high, cloth pouch, box


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    The inscription may be translated as:
    'On the mirror-clear lake, the floating reflection stirs clear ripples, An unbridled traveller steers his boat and escapes to the dark sea'.

    The use of lacquer on porcelain has been much admired, but is very rare since the application of the lacquer to the surface of the porcelain requires great skill and would have added considerably to the original cost of the item so adorned. It is also rather fragile, and it is likely that of the few examples of this type made, even fewer have survived into the present day.
    Adding to the rarity of the object, and the difficulty of production, is the fact that tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl have been inlaid into the lacquer to form a landscape design. As early as the Bronze Age lacquer was used not only to give a glossy and protective covering to carved wood, but was also used to allow specially-shaped pieces of shell and bone to be inlaid into the design. The remains of this type of inlay have been excavated at the royal Shang dynasty tombs at Xibeigang, Anyang, dating to the 12th-11th century BC; see Sir Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pls. 2-4. In the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) so-called luotian lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay was particularly associated with luxury items such as mirrors, sutra boxes, and musical instruments. The mother-of-pearl used for Tang dynasty lacquer wares comes from the shell of the marine gastropods turbo cornutus (commonly known as horned turban) or turbo marmoratus (commonly known as marbled turban), and the pieces tended to be relatively thick and white.

    At some time during the Song dynasty a new style of mother-of-pearl inlay was adopted, which moved away from the use of large, thick, white, pieces of shell and employed tiny, thin pieces of multi-colored shell to build up detailed designs. This shell came from the inner layer of the haliotis (abalone) shell and is thinner and more iridescently colorful than the Tang mother-of-pearl. The technique employing this more delicate style of inlay is usually referred to in the West as lacque burgauté. To date very little excavated evidence has been forthcoming for Song/Jin lacquers of this type, except for a circular box with floral decoration found in a burial dated to 1262 at Datong, Shanxi province and illustrated by Zhou Naquan and Ye Qifeng, 'The origins and development of mother-of-pearl inlay', Gugong bowuyuan yuankan, 1981, no. 1, pp. 52-8. The technique was well established by the Yuan dynasty, and it was this type of fine mother-of-pearl inlay that remained the most admired by connoisseurs of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

    However, such inlaid lacquer was usually applied to a base made of wood, or other organic material. Nevertheless, as early as the Tang dynasty, lacquer was very occasionally applied to valuable ceramics. Excavation of the so-called 'underground palace' beneath the pagoda of the Famen Temple near Xi'an in Shaanxi province revealed both fine examples of the much prized Yue type ware known as mise yao, or secret-colored celadon wares, and an inventory, dated to AD 874, identifying them. Remarkably two of these precious mise yao bowls were embellished on the exterior with black lacquer inlaid with decoration in gold and silver foil and are illustrated in Report of the Archaeological Excavation at Famen Temple, vol. II, Beijing, 2007, pl. CXCVII: 1-2. One of the earliest extant examples of lacquer applied to white porcelain is the beautiful Yuan dynasty seated figure of the Buddha Amitabha in the collection of the Beijing Art Museum, which was displayed as exhibit no. 7 in Treasures from Ancient Beijing, held at Christie's New York in 2000, and which also appeared on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. While most of the figure displays its qingbai glaze, the robe is lacquered.

    It was under the aegis of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) that there was renewed interest in the lacquering of porcelain. However, only a very small number of Kangxi porcelain vessels decorated with lacquer have survived. One of these, a small jar decorated with mother-of-pearl applied to lacquer in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague is illustrated by M. Beurdeley and G. Raindre in Qing Porcelain: Famille verte, Famille rose, London, 1987, p. 65, no. 67, where the authors note that, "This is a piece of great rarity". See, also, the equally rare porcelain rouleau vase decorated with rock, flowers, and butterflies in black lacquer and mother-of-pearl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dated mid-17th-early 18th century, illustrated by Denise Patry Leidy, Mother-of-Pearl, A Tradition in Asian Lacquer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, p. 43, fig. 32.

    The delicately inlaid decoration on the current brush pot depicts a well-conceived river scene in which a sampan with furled sail approaches the river bank on which two scholars are waiting. This theme of scholars on or near a river was a popular one amongst the literati. The notion of spending their days in peace and seclusion fishing on the river had a special appeal for Chinese scholars, and influenced many of the decorative scenes of scholarly accoutrements in a variety of media, as well as providing poetic metaphors in literature.

    Provenance

    Reverend Victor Farmer Collection.
    Christie's, London, 8 June 2004, lot 465.