The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China for six decades from 1736 to 1795, was renowned for his vast art collection. ‘He was a visionary,’ says Marco Almeida, specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s in London. ‘He expanded the Chinese Empire and welcomed Western influence into his court.’
This extremely rare, carved three-colour lacquer throne, with stepped back separated into three vertical panels, dates to the Qianlong period. Although a significant number of thrones from this era are preserved in the Palace Museum in Beijing, very few are of carved red lacquer. ‘There is one Palace Museum throne that is very similar to ours in quality and construction,’ reveals the specialist. ‘This suggests that our throne could originate from the imperial household around the same time.’
The body of the throne offered at Christie’s on 14 May is made out of softwood, coated in around 100 to 150 very thin layers of lacquer. ‘It could take anywhere between three and six months to coat a piece of furniture of this size,’ Almeida explains. ‘Lacquering was an incredibly laborious process and one only undertaken by highly skilled craftsmen.’
This throne is finely carved through the many layers of red lacquer to the ochre and dark green underlayers. ‘It's very unusual to see three-coloured lacquered furniture come to market. Its usage was saved only for the most important imperial pieces,’ adds the specialist.
The primary decoration on this throne comprises nine dragons, clouds, bats, scrolling lotus leaves and petals. For Almeida, the throne’s most striking feature is the front panel, into which is carved a five-clawed dragon set against a sea of clouds. Eight further five-clawed dragons, each in pursuit of flaming pearls — which symbolise wisdom, harmony and prosperity in ancient Chinese culture — are depicted on the throne’s sides.
The link between dragons and Chinese emperors dates back to The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), the first known emperor of China, whose dates are usually given as 2697-2597 BC. According to legend, the Yellow Emperor transformed into a dragon upon his death. ‘This is one of the primary reasons why dragons are auspicious — in other words, imperial power,’ explains the specialist.
‘This is the first time in at least a decade that a throne of this type has come up on the open market’ — Marco Almeida
The dense sea of carved clouds on this throne, also regarded as auspicious symbols, are shaped like lingzhi — the fungus symbolising immortality. On its reverse is a Daoist bat holding a Daoist chime and a pair of twin-fish, one of the eight auspicious Buddhist emblems symbolising abundance, harmony and marital bliss.
‘In a way, the throne is telling us of the Emperor’s constant search for a harmonious, prosperous empire,’ says Almeida.
The imperial title Son of Heaven (Tianzi) for the Chinese emperor had its origins in antiquity. The Son of Heaven was seen as having the mandate of heaven to rule the empire — tianxia, literally ‘land under heaven’, and having personal responsibility for the prosperity and safety of his subjects. This responsibility for the welfare of their subjects is another reason for the link between emperors and dragons. In China the dragon was a beneficent creature associated with water, specifically seen as the bringer of rain.
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What makes this throne particularly special, though, are its condition and rarity. ‘It's the first time in at least a decade that a throne of this type has come up on the open market,’ confirms Almeida.
Considering the fragility of the material, it’s also extremely well preserved. ‘This throne for the Son of Heaven will be very attractive to collectors of Imperial Chinese furniture,’ says Almeida, ‘as well as to Western collectors looking for a magnificent, very important work of art.’