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AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPORTANT PAIR OF HUANGHUALI HORSESHOE-BACK ARMCHAIRS, QUANYI
Prospective purchasers are advised that several co… Read more Uniquely Styled and Elegantly Crafted: A Pair of Huanghuali Round-Back Chairs The round-back chair emerged simultaneously with other high-back chairs during the late Tang and Song dynasties. The form may well have been developed through a fusion of two more ancient forms—the platform dais and the curved armrest (pinji) with three short legs, the latter which was also placed upon platforms as an accessory backrest (cf. fig. 1). Early evidence from Song period paintings reveals large ponderous chairs with a comb-like arrangement of vertical posts supporting a curved armrest with scrolling ends; such form appears in a detail from Breaking the Balustrade (fig. 2) where upon a Han emperor is seated. Others also depict more ethereal forms with slender cabriole legs and delicately balanced armrests; such is the drawing of an abbots chair as well as the elegant seat depicted in the portrait of the Zen master Dao Yuan (figs. 3-4). By the late Ming and Qing dynasties, streamlined hardwood versions had developed into one of the most graceful forms of traditional Chinese furniture. Notwithstanding, stylistic innovations continued to be experimented with, and archaistic expressions drawn from early forms were also revisited. Such are the uniquely styled and exquisitely crafted pair of round-back armchairs offered in this sale. Decorative art with archaistic characteristics was often favored by the literati class. Wen Zhenheng, a late Ming arbiter of taste, repeatedly cites a preference for furniture styled according to the old patterns from the Song and Yuan dynasties. Several archaistic features may be seen in the chairs offered by Christies. Firstly, the armrests terminate with large scroll-shaped handgrips, a characteristic that is even more pronounced in early illustrations. Secondly is the wide back splat (fig. 5), which is constructed as a tri-sectional panel as illustrated in the Song drawing above. Finally, the acute angle of the “goose-neck” front armrest posts, which is fitted with bracket-like spandrels above and below (fig. 6), recalls those ethereal forms depicted in Song and Yuan paintings. Elegant design aside, the exquisite craftsmanship typical of the Jiangnan region is also apparent in the details of these chairs. The armrest is shaped with three pieces joined with half-lap joints utilizing blind tenons; the use of unique pressure pegs, which are intelligently set at an angle to impart compression, fixes the joint tightly together (fig. 7); this technique, which has been noted on several other chairs from the region, may also indicate the signature of a common workshop. Delicate beading, which is traced around the back-splat medallion, aprons and spandrels, also reflects the refinement typical to the southern furniture-making tradition. A unique feature of these chairs is the removable seat panel. Soft seats of woven cane required periodic replacement; presumably, independent seat panels would have facilitated such necessity. It is more common that beds were made with removable frames; even today it is still possible to happen upon an itinerant craftsman reweaving such a bed frame along the street side in some parts of China. A notable group of early-style huanghuali southern officials chairs with thick headrest reinforced with spandrels, high armrests, and straight side posts also share the feature of removable seat panels (cf. fig. 8); these chairs, which are also typically found throughout the Jiangnan and Weiyang regions, may bear some relationship to the round-back chairs. Nevertheless, chair construction with removable seat panels was not a widely adopted practice. The present chairs were originally likely part of larger set of eight or more identical chairs that became separated over time. Four from the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection were published in 1970, and in 2015, were sold by Christies for a record-breaking price (fig. 9); another pair was published by Giuseppe Eskenazi in the late 90’s; the pair in this sale bring the group to eight. Known sets of hardwood chairs rarely exceed four; those of eight are very rare. Notwithstanding, inscriptions discovered by this author on several lacquered chairs indicates that sets of twelve, twenty to thirty were not uncommon; thus, opportunities to reunite such chair sets still exist. Finally, the round back chair with cubic base is also a three-dimensional representation of the cosmological concept ‘round heaven and square earth’ (tianyuan difang). An ancient Chinese proverb also advises “external roundness and inner squareness” (waiyuan neifang)—square inside indicating guidance through noble principles; and round outside referring to the ability to exercise relative adaptability. These seats, which rest upon a solidly grounded base, and above, exhibit a welcoming supple openness, certainly reflect such divine balance. Curtis Evarts Independent Academic Consultant Former Curator of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, California. Blue Oaks Farm, California Fall, 2017 Figure 1 Detail from Shi Xianzu, anonymous, album leaf painting, attributed Song dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Figure 2 Detail from Breaking the Balustrade, anonymous, hanging scroll, Song dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Figure 3 Abbots chair, wood cut from Wushan shicha tu, Song dynasty. Figure 4 Portrait of Daoyuan, anonymous, hanging scroll, Song dynasty, Japanese collection. Figure 5 Detail of huanghuali round-back armchair, armrest and backrest. Figure 6 Detail of huanghuali round-back armchair, gooseneck support. Figure 7 Detail of huanghuali round-back armchair, half-lap pressure-peg join. Figure 8 Huanghuali southern official’s chair with removable seat panel, after Weiyang Mingshi jiaju, private collection, Hong Kong. Figure 9 Set of huanghuali four round-back armchairs, former Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection.
AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPORTANT PAIR OF HUANGHUALI HORSESHOE-BACK ARMCHAIRS, QUANYI

MING DYNASTY, 17TH CENTURY

Details
AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPORTANT PAIR OF HUANGHUALI HORSESHOE-BACK ARMCHAIRS, QUANYI
MING DYNASTY, 17TH CENTURY
On each chair the sweeping crest rail terminates in outswept hooks above shaped spandrels, and forms an elegant curve above the back splat decorated with an openwork four-lobed cartouche. The rear posts continue to form the back legs below the rectangular seat frame which has plain shaped aprons. The legs are joined by stretchers and a foot rest above a plain apron.
Each 26 ¾ in. (68 cm.) wide, 21 in. (53.3 cm.) deep, 36 in. (91.5 cm.) high
Provenance
With Grace Wu Bruce.
Property from a Distinguished Private Collection.
Literature
Grace Wu Bruce, On the Kang and Between the Walls, London, 1998, no.3, p16.
Grace Wu Bruce, Two Decades of Ming Furniture, Beijing, 2010, pp. 100-101.
Special Notice

Prospective purchasers are advised that several countries prohibit the importation of property containing materials from endangered species, including but not limited to coral, ivory and tortoiseshell. Accordingly, prospective purchasers should familiarize themselves with relevant customs regulations prior to bidding if they intend to import this lot into another country.
This lot will be removed to Christie’s Park Royal. Christie’s will inform you if the lot has been sent offsite. Our removal and storage of the lot is subject to the terms and conditions of storage which can be found at Christies.com/storage and our fees for storage are set out in the table below - these will apply whether the lot remains with Christie’s or is removed elsewhere. Please call Christie’s Client Service 24 hours in advance to book a collection time at Christie’s Park Royal. All collections from Christie’s Park Royal will be by pre-booked appointment only. Tel: +44 (0)20 7839 9060 Email: cscollectionsuk@christies.com. If the lot remains at Christie’s it will be available for collection on any working day 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Lots are not available for collection at weekends.

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Lot Essay

The present pair is among eight known and published chairs of this design. Of the eight extant examples, a set of four, formerly from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection, were sold at Christie’s New York, 17 March 2015, lot 41 and was illustrated by Robert H. Ellsworth in Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties, New York, 1971, pl. 15 (fig. 10) and another pair was sold at Sotheby's New York, 18-19 April 1989, lot 508, and is now in a private American collection. Of the eight known, all have been lacquered on the reverse of the backsplat and the seat frames are fitted with drop in mat seats.
 
This pair of chairs displays the unparalleled grace and finesse seen only in the finest furniture dated to the Ming dynasty. Several features distinguish this magnificent pair: the elegant curve of the crest rail, the exceptionally well-carved sweeping hook handles, the three-part backsplat with finely carved openwork panel, and the beautifully figured huanghuali panels. The chairs were constructed by a master craftsman, as evidenced by the confident carving of the well-molded hook handles, which are made rarer by the flattened, rounded ends. The unusual tri-part backsplat can also be seen on a single huanghuali side chair illustrated by G. Wu Bruce in Two Decades of Ming Furniture, Beijing, 2010, p. 136, suggesting that the set of eight horseshoe-back armchairs and the side chair were constructed in the same workshop. See, also, a Wanli-period woodblock print from the Story of the Red Pear, Hong Li Ji,  which depicts two scholars seated in tall ‘official’s hat’ armchairs with similar three-part backsplat (fig. 11).
 
The sweeping crestrail is constructed in three sections, which is rarer than the more commonly found five-section crestrail. Three-section crestrails demand larger sections of timber to achieve the dramatic curves of the arms and would have resulted in a significant amount of wastage, thus indicating the enormous financial resources of the gentleman who commissioned the set. For a detailed description and explanation of the sophisticated joinery utilized by the Chinese craftsmen to construct the curved rails of the elegant and graceful horseshoe-back armchair, see Curtis Evarts, "Continuous Horseshoe Arms And Half-Lapped Pressure Peg Joins," Journal of The Classical Chinese Furniture Society, Spring, 1991, pp. 14-18.

The Chinese name for this type of chair, quanyi, is literally translated as 'chair with a circular back' or 'circle chair'. During the Song dynasty (960-1279) this form was known as kaolaoyang, which refers to a large round basket made from split bamboo. The English name for this form, however, refers to the overall shape of the back and arm rests, which resembles a horseshoe. Wang Shixiang and Curtis Evarts have suggested that the horseshoe-back armchair emerged simultaneously with other examples of high-back chairs during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. See, Wang Shixiang and Curtis Evarts, op. cit., p. 56, for a further discussion of the form.

Figure 10 One of a set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection as published by Robert Ellsworth. Courtesy of Hei Hung Lu.

Figure 11 Woodblock print from Story of the Red Pear (Hong Li Ji), Ming dynasty.

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