Lee Yu-Kuan (Sammy Lee)
The Arthur M. Sackler Collections, sold at Christie's New York, Important Chinese Works of Art from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, 1 December 1994, lot 172
EXQUISITE LACQUER FURNITURE
Chinese furniture has been finished with lacquer since ancient times. Processed and cured, natural lacquer resin provided a durable smooth surface, and it was also well suited to a wide range of decorative effects. Lacquer craftsmanship reached unprecedented heights throughout the Song, Yuan, Ming, and early Qing periods, and by the late Ming period, some one hundred eighty distinctive techniques were recorded in the lacquer treatise Xiushilu. With the increased popularity of hardwoods and wood-carved decoration throughout the Qing dynasty, the use of decorated lacquer for furniture gradually waned. Three exceptional lots (lot 1813, 1814 and 1815) offered in this sale reflect the height and breadth of the lacquer tradition, and moreover, stand independently as masterpieces of the celebrated Chinese furniture-making tradition.
Black Lacquer Incense Stand with Painted and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
The incense stand is unique to the Chinese tradition. Surpassing the mundane, its functionality borders upon metaphysical realms. The form generally exhibits an elevating aesthetic and at times, bears a resemblance to the rising lotus blossom. The common name xiangji reflects the traditional use as a platform, or portable altar, for burning fragrant incense - a sophisticated ritual (now largely lost to modern culture) for contact with worlds beyond. It was used to display spirit rocks, whose miniaturized forms reflected the ever-present qi of Great Nature. As a stand for elegant flower arrangements or potted plants, it also served to evoke the gentle state of grace (fig. 1).
The lacquer incense stand from the Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection exhibits a sumptuous, fully sculpted form. The foliated shape of top echoes through to the base with a contoured profile that was popular with Yuan and early Ming lacquer wares and porcelains (fig. 2). Six cabriole legs extend gracefully from ruyi clouds at the corners of the aprons; the legs terminate with scrolled feet and leaf tendrils that rest upon the base. Combined with a masterful integration of motifs drawn from nature, the marvelous form breathes with life.
Lustrous, thick black lacquer coats the entire surface, which is further embellished with a variety of techniques. The top patterned like a fitted panel of 'lantern brocade' fabric with engraved and painted with 'five-color' lacquer. The waist panels are inlaid with mother-of-pearl 'cracked-ice' decoration and gold-painted plum blossoms. The base panel is lightly decorated with mother-of-pearl and painted floral motifs. The resulting impression is one of natural beauty unmarred by excess.
Lacquer Cabinet Decorated with Colorful Semi-precious Inlays
Records of furniture decorated with semi-precious inlays date from the Han dynasty, and few rare works with colorful inlay reflecting the Tang dynasty tradition have also survived, indicating a decorative tradition of ancient origins. By the late Ming period, the technique had evolved to yield creations of enchanting painting-like imagery composed of multi-coloured inlays. The technique appears in the lacquer manual Xiushilu as 'hundred-treasures inlay' (baibaoqian), and is also associated with a semi-legendary artisan from Yangzhou named Zhou Zhu whose inlay work was applied to both lacquer and hardwoods, and whose hallmark Zhouzhi was used for the imitated style that thrived throughout the Qing dynasty.
Credence to the legend is suggested by the inlay tradition largely centered around Yangzhou, where the highly developed jade-working skills were adapted to semi-precious, hardstone gems and coloured glass. Because of the complexity and laborious expense of creating such puzzle-like compositions, Zhouzhi inlay work appears primarily on small objects such as brushpots and cases. The few surviving works of large-scale Zhouzhi furniture that are known were in the possession of those for whom lavish expense was of no concern. Thus, it is within the Palace Museum collection where large wardrobes have survived with Zhouzhi inlay work depicting scenes of 'foreigners bringing tribute' and 'one-hundred children'; it is likely that the few others in early Western collections depicting 'precious antiquities' and 'flower-and bird' patterns also originated from Imperial palaces in Beijing (fig. 3). Qing dynasty palace records also reveal Yangzhou to be an important source of inlaid works that were both commissioned by the palace and sent as tribute.
The tapered cabinet from the Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection is a superb example from the early period of the Zhouzhi tradition. The cabinet itself reflects the elegant proportions and refined style of late Ming period craftsmanship from the Jiangnan region - a subtlety that is largely overshadowed by the splendid imagery with auspicious flowering plants, birds and butterflies. The composition of inlays are further enriched with painted decoration of flowers and bamboo, most of which have faded to dark shadows over time (fig. 4). Set against the black lacquer ground, the splendid array stirs the heart to wonderment.
Pair of Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Chairs
Carved cinnabar lacquer is the most luxurious of all lacquered-furniture types. The production of a thick surface suitable for deep carving was notoriously time consuming, requiring between 40 to 100 layers of lacquer.
The earliest known work of carved-lacquer furniture is a recessed-leg table, excavated from a Yuan dynasty tomb in the arid region of Gansu province. The well-known altar table at the Victoria and Albert Museum and an incense stand at the Palace Museum, both with Xuande dated inscriptions, were undoubtedly pieces for use at the early Ming Imperial court, and coincide with the pinnacle of the carved lacquer tradition. Evidence for large-scale furniture pieces reappears during the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, where finely carved lacquer furniture was produced for the Qing Palace in the Jiangnan region workshops (fig. 5). During the late Qing period, the quality of carved lacquer work rapidly declined, and most was produced moulded rather than carved.
This pair of carved cinnabar lacquer chairs (lot 1815) clearly fits into to the last great period of carved-lacquer production. The thick surface is comprised of two colour layers - a base of green lacquer followed by a stratum of red lacquer. Scrolling lotus, dragons and clouds appear in relief against the exposed green lacquer ground, incised with a wanzi diaper pattern. The technique of carving through to coloured layers also appears in Xiushilu as ticai, or literally, 'picking out the colour'. The scrolled backrest is carved with a five-clawed dragon holding a stylised longevity character that integrates the imagery of the Sun and Moon (fig. 6). The complexity of patterns throughout the multiple surfaces, particularly in the articulate scrolls, displays the virtuosity of one of the last few carved-lacquer masters.
PROPERTY FROM THE MIMI AND RAYMOND HUNG COLLECTION
Lee Yu-Kuan, Oriental Lacquer Art, Tokyo and New York, 1972, p. 309, no. 236
Wang Shixiang, Classic Chinese Furniture, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 279, pl.76 (ii)
Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Chinese Furniture: One Hundred Examples from the Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection, New York, 1996, p. 128, no. 44
Michael Knight, Orientations, 'Chinese Lacquered Wood Furniture: Two Examples from the Collection of Mimi and Raymond Hung', January 1998, pp. 236-245
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 17 January - 6 September 1998
Hong Kong Museum of Art, In Pursuit of Antiquities - 40th Anniversary Exhibition of the Min Chiu Society, Hong Kong, 2001, illustrated in the Catalogue, no. 239