‘These seals are an example of the finest painting in the Chinese Republic period (1912-49), and would be the crowning glory in any collection,’ says Kate Hunt, Director of Chinese Art at Christie’s South Kensington, London. The two famille rose ‘landscape’ seals, decorated and signed by the renowned painter He Xuren (1882-1940), were be offered in the Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles sale on 12 May 2017 (estimate: £30,000-50,000), and sold for £221,000.
Hunt first saw the seals when the present owner brought them to the drop-in valuation counter at Christie’s South Kensington. He admitted that he didn’t know what they were, but Hunt was immediately thrilled. ‘The quality of their decoration grabbed me,’ the specialist recalled. ‘I’ve never seen a porcelain seal from this period of such quality, or this particular shape.’
For hundreds of years, seals have been used by Chinese artists, scholars and officials to stamp their name on their work or possessions. But the seals were traditionally made from jade or soapstone — very rarely porcelain. The majority of porcelain works from the Republic period were vases, dishes and plaques; these are the only porcelain seals Hunt has seen that date from this era.
After close examination, Hunt has attributed the paintings on the seals to He Xuren, an artist renowned for his winter landscapes. He Xuren was one of the ‘Eight Friends of Zhushan’, a group of talented artists working in Jiangxi province — an area famed for its ceramics industry — who met once a month to discuss art and the latest developments in ceramic techniques.
The market for the work of this group of artists has historically been unappreciated, but has escalated over the past decade. As collectors from mainland China have become more conscious of their country’s art history, Hunt explains, they have begun to acquire works by previously neglected artists. Pieces by the Eight Friends of Zhushan estimated at a few hundred pounds 20 years ago now routinely fetch five and six-figure sums at auction.
He Xuren is considered one of the most respected members of the group — and for that reason is also the most frequently copied. ‘There are many fakes that are also “signed” by He Xuren,’ Hunt admits. ‘But the paintings on these seals are so highly accomplished that we are confident they can only be by the master himself.’
These seals are painted on each side with a scene of a scholar contemplating nature. Hunt notes that, ‘He Xuren has written on both seals that he was following the style of the famous Ming-dynasty artist Shen Zhou (1427-1509)’. The snow scene on one of the seals, however, is emblematic of He Xuren’s signature style, and clearly shows his skill. ‘I feel freezing cold just looking at that winter landscape. The artist had to have many years of practice to accomplish his skill to this level,’ the specialist says.
The tops of both seals feature carp, a common motif in traditional Chinese art. As Hunt explains, ‘There are many examples of carp jumping out of the water and transforming into dragons’, a design that symbolises ‘the scholar passing his exam and being promoted to a position of authority.’ Hunt notes that the potter has skilfully incorporated an air hole into the fish’s eye — a small opening being necessary to prevent the porcelain from exploding during the firing process.
The seals were made as a gift for Zhu Peide (1888-1937), one of the most senior commanders in the Chinese Nationalist Party and the governor of Jiangxi province, where He Xuren lived and where the famous ceramic factories of Jingdezhen were located. One seal is carved with Zhu Peide’s birth name, while the other bears his professional name, ‘Yi Zhi’. The quality of the seals befitted a man of Zhu Peide’s rank, while their reference to scholarship would have enhanced his reputation among the cultural elite.