5 minutes with… The Marchant Xuande ‘fruit spray’ bowl

Jessica Chang marvels at the technical and decorative skills displayed in this 600-year-old bowl, which was recognised as a prize example by the renowned Asian art dealer Richard Marchant. It will be offered in New York on 22 March

According to Jessica Chang, specialist in Chinese ceramics in New York, there are three main factors that make this elegant Chinese blue and white bowl truly special. The first lies in the technical virtuosity needed to create it. ‘It was made in the workshop of the Xuande Emperor (1426-35) during the Ming Dynasty, a time when porcelain production reached a peak,’ she explains.

And it has clearly been potted by an expert: ‘The thick walls of the vessel have a perfect sense of balance, weight and stability,’ she says. ‘When you consider how much porcelain shrinks in the kiln, this is no mean feat.’

The bowl has also been exquisitely decorated. ‘The underglaze design of fruit and flower sprays has been boldly painted in this fine cobalt-blue colour, and rendered with great skill,’ says the specialist.

The six fruiting sprays each have a naturalistic break at the end of the twig, as if they have been plucked from a tree. ‘It might seem obvious now, when we are so familiar with “flower and bird” painting styles in Chinese art, but these designs were incredibly innovative at the time,’ says Chang. ‘The painter was probably inspired by woodblock prints in contemporary medicinal literature, which speaks to the interest in scientific research at the time.’

As well as representing a source of health and vitality, the fruits depicted have their own auspicious meanings in Chinese culture. ‘For instance pomegranates — here painted split open to reveal their seeds — recall the saying “revealing one hundred sons”, while peaches represent a wish for longevity and persimmons symbolise joy, completeness and reunion,’ says Chang. ‘Many Chinese ceramics feature depictions of fruit, but rarely will you see six different examples on one piece.’

On the side of the bowl there is also a painted Xuande reign mark. ‘A reign mark would normally be painted on the foot of the vessel, and its placement here makes its imperial provenance even more prominent,’ notes the specialist. ‘It’s like an official stamp of approval.’

The painted reign mark would normally be found on the foot of the bowl. Its prominence in this example draws attention to its imperial provenance

The painted reign mark would normally be found on the foot of the bowl. Its prominence in this example draws attention to its imperial provenance

The third factor that makes this bowl so remarkable is its condition — the fact that it is 600 years old and has survived in a perfect state is almost a miracle.

The bowl was purchased in 1969 by the renowned Asian art dealer Richard Marchant. Records show that in 1937, three similarly shaped bowls sold for £147 combined. ‘By 1968, you were looking at £11,000 for one of them,’ says Chang. Today there are just a handful of examples with similar decoration known, and many are in the best museums in the world. The quality of this example, however, outshines them all.

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‘Recognising the true majesty of this bowl, Richard Marchant decided to keep it, and passed it on to his two sons, Stuart and Bruce,’ Chang explains. ‘The fact that it has been kept hidden away for decades makes it all the more fresh and exciting now.’