‘The Chinese name for this type of chair, quanyi, is literally translated as ‘chair with a circular back’ or ‘circle chair,’ explains Michelle Cheng.
Once displayed at the heart of Ellsworth’s apartment, this set of four is among eight known and published chairs of this design. ‘Of elegant form and proportions, the chairs are distinguished by graceful, sweeping crest rails which terminate in well-carved and elegant hook handles, the beautiful three-part backsplat, comprised of a finely carved openwork panels and a beautifully figured wood panel suggestive of a landscape,’ comments Cheng.
‘Games tables were particularly popular during the Ming dynasty,’ explains Michelle Cheng, ‘though rectangular examples such as this are exceptionally rare.’
Whilst the table had a recreational aspect, it was also required to double up as a functional dining table or domestic surface. ‘The table could quickly transition between the two roles by simply replacing the top,’ explains Cheng. ‘In this example, the removable top conceals a rectangular recess for a shuanglu (a Chinese version of backgammon) board, other gaming boards such as xiangqi and weiqi (Chinese equivalents of chess and checkers), as well as two cylindrical game piece cups.’
These elegant huanghuali chairs were inspired by and mimic the curves and form of traditional bamboo furniture, which saw long stalks of bamboo bent and shaped using hot steam.
‘The abundance of bamboo made it a popular material amongst the lower classes,’ explains Michelle Cheng, pointing out its cost-effectiveness and ease of transportation. ‘This rare pair would have been commissioned by a wealthy family, attracted to the humble origins of bamboo furniture, but seeking the luxury and status associated with precious huanghuali wood,’ she adds.
Known as sijiangui, or ‘four-part wardrobes’, these massive compound cabinets and hatchests were generally made in pairs. ‘Garments and large items would have been stored in the lower cabinets,’ explains Michelle Cheng, ‘while smaller items or out of season clothing would have been kept in the top chests, which often required the use of a ladder due to their size. Fitted with shelves and drawers, their generous size made them ideal for storing long scrolls, fabric, garments and books.’
The cabinet’s exceptional mix of light and dark woods is both decorative and practical: ‘The lighter hongmu provides an attractive contrast to the darker, swirled grain of the burl while the use of zhangmu, or camphor, on the back legs and panels would have helped to protect garments and other contents from moth and insect damage,’ Cheng explains.
‘Furniture of this design, known as simiamping or ‘four corner’s-flush’ form, is likely based on earlier methods of box-construction, and became a much revered form in the Ming dynasty. It is amongst the most attractive forms found in Chinese furniture construction. It relies on the simplicity of its lines and figure of the wood for its beauty. These benches are a superb example of this successful combination’
This rare pair of stools is distinguished by their unusual proportions and size. Their unique design, substantial use of precious huanghuali, or yellow pear wood, and thickness of the members, suggest the pair were a special commission by a wealthy client.