Please note the provenance should read as follows:
Sotheby's London, 15 April 1980, lot 231.
Mayuyama & Co., Tokyo.
THE PROPERTY OF GOTŌ SHINSHUDŌ
Abundant Descendants – A Rare Yuan Dynasty Pear-shaped Vase
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art
This exceptionally rare blue and white vase, which was published in 1981 by Tsugio Mikami in Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 13, Liao, Chin and Yüan Dynasties, pl. 210, dates to the Yuan dynasty and belongs to the finest group of pear-shaped vases, yuhuchunping, from this period. It is finely-potted, has a sinuous S-shaped profile, and a slender neck with widely flaring trumpet mouth, which perfectly balances the lower part of the body. This group may be distinguished from the somewhat more heavily-potted vases of this form, including those which have octagonal bodies. Probably because of their more delicate potting, fewer of these vases appear to have survived than those from the other groups. However, the fine quality of their potting and finishing render this group more suitable for decoration without, or with minimal, minor bands, since there was no need to break up the design in order to mask infelicities of form. The high regard in which these more delicate pear-shaped vases were regarded is reflected in the fact that one of them, unearthed from a Yuan dynasty cellar at Gao’an, Jiangxi province in 1980, was white-glazed and then had dragons in gold foil applied to the surface (illustrated in The Porcelain from the Cellar of the Yuan Dynasty in Gao’an 高安元代窖藏瓷器, Beijing, 2006, p. 89). Nevertheless, some of the fine pear-shaped vase group were decorated with banded decoration, such as the pear-shaped vase excavated in 1985 from a Yuan dynasty tomb in Qingzhou, Shandong province (illustrated Blue and White of the Yuan 元青花, Beijing, 2009, pp. 26-7), which has a three-clawed dragon in its main decorative band, or the vase in the collection of the Capital Museum, Beijing, which has ducks on a lotus pond in its main decorative band (illustrated by Zhu Yuping 朱裕平 in Yuandai qinghuaci 元代青花瓷, Shanghai, 2000, p. 126, no. 5-14) but this was a choice by the decorators of these vases, rather than a necessity.
When these fine pear-shaped vases had single theme decoration, it usually took one of two forms. Either the vessels were decorated with narrative scenes from contemporary drama, or they bore well-painted scrolling decoration. Amongst those bearing narrative scenes is the vase, which was excavated in 1956 in Taoyuan county, Changde city, Hunan province, with a scene with Meng Tian (蒙恬 d. 210 BC), who was a general of the Qin dynasty and was honoured for his campaigns against the Xiongnu (illustrated in Blue and White of the Yuan, op. cit., p. 31), and the vase excavated in 1986 from a Yuan dynasty tomb at East Wayao village, Beimen, Shangrao, Jiangxi province depicting Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤 AD 1017–1073), the Neo-Confucian philosopher and cosmologist, admiring the lotuses which he commemorated in his famous prose work Ai lian shuo (愛蓮說 ‘On Love of the lotus’) (illustrated in Splendors in Smalt – Art of Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain 幽藍神採,元代青花瓷器特集, Shanghai, 2012, pp. 196-7, no. 67). In addition, a small number of these trumpet-mouthed Yuan dynasty pear-shaped vases bear all-over designs of dragons, such as the small vase from the Osaka Museum of Oriental Ceramics illustrated by Zhu Yuping in Yuandai qinghuaci, op. cit., p. 87, no. 3-45, and the vase depicting a dragon five-clawed dragon amongst clouds in the collection of the Henan Provincial Museum, illustrated in the same volume, p. 101, no. 4-15.
However, Yuan dynasty blue and white pear-shaped vases with all-over scrolling plant designs, like that on the current vase, are particularly rare. One such vase with a design of white peony scrolls against a background of formal, concentric arc, waves is in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City (illustrated by Zhu Yuping in Yuandai qinghuaci, op. cit., p. 274, no. 10-8). A vase in the collection of the British Museum, decorated with a chrysanthemum scroll is illustrated in Splendors in Smalt – Art of Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain, op. cit., pp. 88-9, no. 15. A further pear-shaped vase now in Shanghai is decorated all-over with a dense peony scroll (illustrated by Xu Ming 許明 in Tu’erqi, yi lang guan cang Yuan qinghua kao cha qin li ji 土耳其, 伊朗館藏 元青花 考察 親歷 記, Shanghai, 2012, p. 273). No Yuan dynasty blue and white pear-shaped vase decorated solely with fruiting scrolls - either grape vines or melon plants - other than the current example, appears to have been published.
A Yuan dynasty blue and white pear-shaped vase with banded decoration, but with the main decorative band containing an unusual design of grape vines was found in Indonesia in the 1960s and is now in the collection of the British Museum (illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall in Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, P. 72, no. 1.28). It is, however, very rare to find grapes or melons appearing alone in the decoration of Yuan dynasty blue and white vessels. The two plants frequently occur in the decoration of large Yuan dynasty dishes, but as part of an ensemble of rocks and plants, suggestive of a garden or landscape but rarely composed in a naturalistic manner, or with realistic proportions. Such ensembles occur on both dishes with bracket lobed rims and those with straight rims. Dishes with this type of design and with bracket lobed rims include those in the Shanghai Museum (illustrated in Splendors in Smalt – Art of Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain, op. cit., pp. 112-13, no. 27), and the British Museum (illustrated in Tu’erqi, yi lang guan cang Yuan qinghua kao cha qin li ji, op. cit., p. 229). Dishes of this type with straight rims include those in the Topkapi Saray, Istanbul (illustrated in the same volume, p. 20), and two dishes from the Ardebil Shrine (illustrated in the same volume, pp. 168 and 169). The ensemble including grape vines and melon plantss also appears on a small number of Yuan dynasty blue and white large dishes with bracket lobed rims, which include birds in the central roundel. These include a dish in the collection of the Topkapi Saray, Istanbul, which depicts two long-tailed birds, one of which is perched on a balustrade (illustrated by Zhu Yuping, op. cit., p. 178-9, no. 7-7), and the dish which includes a flying phoenix from the collection of the Ardebil Shrine, now in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran (illustrated in Splendors in Smalt – Art of Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain, op. cit., pp.138-9, no. 39). This latter dish bears the vaqfnameh of Shah ‘Abbas (r. 1588-1629) incised under the rim.
Both grape vines and melon plants can also be seen on rare large blue and white octagonal double gourd vases in the Yuan period. They tend to appear within the cartouches on the lower part of these vases. Two such double gourd vases are in the collection of the Topkapi Saray, Istanbul – one including birds and insects, and the other including frog, lizard and insects illustrated by J. Ayers and R. Krahl in Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, vol. II, Yuan and Ming Dynasty Porcelains, London, 1986, pp. 498-500, nos. 576 and 577, respectively. Vines and melons also appear in a cartouche on a meiping in the Topkapi Saray (illustrated ibid., p. 497, no. 575), while grape vines and melons also appear, alongside rocks and bamboo on the interior of a bowl in the same collection (illustrated ibid., p. 497, no. 573).
It is significant that these two fruit – grapes and melons – were selected from amongst the various plants which were included in the nature-based ensembles on Yuan dynasty blue and white vessels to appear on the current vase, for it was these two fruits which also went on to appear individually in the central roundels of fine imperial blue and white dishes in the early 15th century, as the interest in fruit as a subject for decoration increased in the Yongle reign. A large dish decorated with grapes on a vine was excavated from the Yongle stratum at the imperial kilns at Zhushan Jingdezhen in 1994 (illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1996, pp. 166-7, no. 51), while a dish decorated with a melon plant was also excavated at Zhushan in 1994 (illustrated ibid. pp. 156-7, no. 46). Both melons on the vine and grapes on the vine were regarded a symbolic of ceaseless generations of sons and grandsons. In the case of the grapes this was in part because they grow in clusters of many fruit, and in the case of melons it was because they contain many seeds. In addition, the vines and tendrils of these plants – mandai (蔓帶) in Chinese – suggest the phrase wandai (萬代, 'ten thousand generations').
In the context of the current vase it is also interesting to note that grapes are not indigenous to China, but are among the plants that are recorded as having been brought to China from Central Asia by Zhang Qian, a returning envoy of Emperor Wudi in 128 BC, and many different varieties of grape were grown in China by the early 15th century. Records show that both green and black grapes were grown by the beginning of the 6th century AD, and Song dynasty texts mention a seedless variety. An extensive illustrated entry on grapes (Chinese putao 葡萄) is included in volume (juan) 23 of the Chongxiu Zhenghe Jingshi Zhenglei Beiying Bencao (Classified and Consolidated Armamentarium Pharmacopoeia of the Zhenghe Reign (AD 1111-1117). The grapes were eaten fresh, as well as dried in the form of raisins, but do not seem to have been widely used to make wine until the Tang dynasty. Grapes rarely appeared as decoration on Chinese art objects of the early period, with the exception of those depicted in relief on pilgrim flasks of the period Six Dynasties-Sui dynasty (AD 6th-7th century), which were influenced by the arts of Central and Western Asia. Grapes became a more popular motif in the Tang dynasty, when, again under western influences, they regularly appeared, for example, as part of the ubiquitous ‘lion and grape’ motif on bronze mirrors. However, grapes do not seem to appear as decorative motifs on painted ceramics until the Yuan dynasty.
The unusual shape of the leaves of the grape vines on the current vase perhaps suggest another link with lands to the west of China’s borders. They are somewhat reminiscent of the palmette and leaf motifs depicted on early Near Eastern ceramics, including those decorated with cobalt blue, especially those from the Samarra area in Iraq in the 9th century (see for example the dish illustrated by D. Talbot Rice in Islamic Art, London, 1977 reprint, p. 39). Inspiration from the West in the decoration on Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelains is not as surprising as it might initially seem, since it is well-documented that many craftsmen from the Islamic West were employed at the Jingdezhen kilns during the Yuan dynasty (see Liu Xinyuan, ‘Yuan Dynasty Official Wares from Jingdezhen’, The Porcelains of Jingdezhen, Rosemary Scott (ed.), Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia, No. 16, London, 1993, p. 36 and Xu Youren (許有壬), Zhizheng Ji (至正集 Collection from the reign of Zhizheng), juan 9).
This rare vase, therefore, provides references to the sources of inspiration at the Yuan dynasty kilns, as well as presaging the tastes of the Chinese court in the early 15th century.