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A MAGNIFICENT AND RARE ZITAN DRAGON THRONE
A MAGNIFICENT AND RARE ZITAN DRAGON THRONE
A MAGNIFICENT AND RARE ZITAN DRAGON THRONE
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PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE AMERICAN COLLECTION
A MAGNIFICENT AND RARE ZITAN DRAGON THRONE

18TH-19TH CENTURY

Details
A MAGNIFICENT AND RARE ZITAN DRAGON THRONE
18TH-19TH CENTURY
The stepped, solid zitan back is finely carved with a front-facing five-clawed dragon above a shou character flanked by two five-clawed dragons on either side amidst five bats in flight and dense, scrolling clouds. The two side railings are similarly carved in high relief with a dragon striding amidst bats and clouds, above the rectangular seat and a narrow waist with shaped, beaded apron further carved with archaistic scroll. The whole is raised on thick cabriole legs of square section terminating in ruyi-form feet and joined by rectangular base stretchers.
43 7/8 in. (111.4 cm.) high, 48 1/8 in. (122.2 cm.) wide, 30 ¼ in. (76.8 cm.) deep
Provenance
Acquired from a Private New England collection in 1999.

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Michael Bass
Michael Bass

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Lot Essay

Imposing thrones were arguably the single most important element of formal arrangements in the palace during the Qing dynasty, and their production was highly regulated in terms of size, decoration and the materials used. Thrones created the platform upon which the emperor would be seen by his subjects and embodied the ultimate symbol of imperial power. Every throne, therefore, had to help create an imposing scene by being majestic in scale, constructed of the finest and rarest materials, and of the highest possible workmanship. Placed centrally in an Imperial hall, they would be backed by a large screen and flanked by pairs of incense burners, ornamental animals and fans. As discussed by John C. Ferguson in Survey of Chinese Art, Shanghai, 1940, there were more than one hundred throne chairs in the Palace. Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing and Lu Yanzhen additionally note in Daily Life in the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1988, pl. 196, that in the early Qianlong period, the emperor decreed that a screen and a throne be placed in each of the twelve eastern and western palaces, and repeated changes would be made in the following reigns.

There is little doubt that zitan was reserved for the most important thrones, as zitan had become a very expensive commodity by the early Qing period, as a result of excessive logging throughout the Ming dynasty. The wood's scarcity was compounded by the fact that the trees themselves are slow growing and require centuries to fully mature into usable material. Although local sources of zitan exist in the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi, much of the material was imported from Southeast Asia. As an imported commodity, its use was scrupulously monitored and carefully restricted at the Imperial workshops.

Thrones required raw material of enormous girth to permit the construction of the rectangular seat and shaping of the sturdy protruding curve of the legs from a single piece of timber. From its massive size, it is evident that no expense was spared in the production of this throne. The generous use of large pieces of solid zitan also helps to date the throne to the late 18th or early 19th century, since by the mid-late 19th century, supplies were so scarce that even Imperial furniture was made of much smaller sections of timber and often applied as a veneer over another wood.

The highly refined quality of the carving and the raw materials used in the construction of this throne point towards this being a product of the Muzuo (Wood workshop) of the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace workshops).The style and intricacy of the carving, however, suggest that the present throne could also have been made in Guangdong as a tribute to the Imperial Court or by craftsmen from Guangdong working in the Zaobanchu. The style of carving is closely comparable to that found on a pair of zitan compound cabinets in the Yangxin dian, the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City, illustrated by Yang Boda in Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1987, p. 38, fig. 14, where the author describes them as being produced in the Guangdong Workshop. Interestingly, the lower panels of the cabinets feature a shou character roundel that is also found in the center of the present throne’s back panel. Yang Boda goes on to discuss the records of furniture produced in Guangdong for the court, which specifically include a substantial number of zitan thrones. He notes that the majority of furniture tributes seem to have been presented in the middle of the Qianlong reign, with numbers increasing substantially in the 10th year of the Qianlong reign (1746) and diminishing again markedly by the 59th year of the reign (1795).

Thrones come in two basic forms, differing only in the number of panels that form the back rest. The present example is composed of a single back panel flanked by two side panels forming the arm rests. The other variation is comprised of three back panels flanked by the two arm rests. The themes depicted in the carving on Imperial zitan thrones tend to fall into distinct themes, including dragons among clouds, floral scroll or landscape scenes. With their associations to Imperial authority, it is likely that that ‘dragon’ thrones would have been reserved for use in the most important halls and settings in the Imperial Household. In contrast to the strictly prescribed forms and functions of Palace furnishings and working within the constraints of the emperor’s specific requests, the master craftsmen clearly had a wide degree of freedom in their interpretation of the designs and as a result, almost all known examples of thrones appear to be different and individual in their designs.

Another slightly larger (140.5 cm. wide) zitan ‘dragon’ throne, attributed to the Qianlong period, with very similar rendering of the dragons, clouds and waves, was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8 October 2009, lot 1645, and is now in the Long Museum, Shanghai. The Long Museum example appears to be the closest published throne to the present throne. However, there are notable differences that include the Eight Buddhist Emblems as part of the design, dragon designs on the outward-curved legs (as opposed to the squared archaistic design on the legs of the present throne) and diaper carving on the sides of the frame. The plain, beaded scroll found on the frame and the archaistic scroll on the legs of the present throne can also be found on a zitan and nanmu throne in the Palace Museum Collection illustrated by Hu Desheng in Ming Qing gongting jiaju daguan, vol. 1, Beijing, 2006, p. 70, fig. 45. Another closely related throne carved with the Eight Buddhist Emblems among lotus, illustrated in situ with a screen and flanked by cloisonné cranes, mythical beasts and censers on a throne carpet, is illustrated ibid., vol. 2, p. 679, fig. 777. Compare, also a zitan and zitan-clad ‘dragon’ throne from the C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love Collection dated to 18th-19th century, sold at Christie’s New York, 20 October 2004, lot 315 and a high-waisted, 'S'-shaped-legged throne with five panels illustrated by Tian Jiaqing, Notable Features of Main Schools of Ming and Qing Furniture, Hong Kong, 2001, pp. 54 - 61.

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