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The body and neck dramatically painted with a bold overall pattern of tree peony rising from two pierced garden rocks on opposite sides of the base, the voluptuous blossoms depicted in bud, in full bloom and as if viewed from different angles, the leaves and petals unusually combed with very dense, naturalistic veins showing through a heavily 'heaped and piled' underglaze blue of a deep and exceptionally vibrant color, with extensive blue flecks from excess cobalt around the design, the base unglazed within the shallow-cut, broad foot ring
20 1/8 in. (51 cm.) high
The Property of a Private Collector; Christie's, London, 13 December 1982, lot 500.
Christie's Review of the Season 1983, p. 366.
A. du Boulay, Christie's Pictorial History of Chinese Ceramics, New Jersey, 1984, p. 114, fig. 2.

Lot Essay

A Magnificent and Rare Yuan Dynasty Double-gourd Vase
Rosemary Scott, Senior Academic Consultant, Asian Art Departments
This magnificent double-gourd vase, which combines a monumental form with an unusual, freely disposed scrolling decoration painted in a deep, brilliant, cobalt blue, would have been an important and expensive commission when it was made in the mid-fourteenth century. Both its form and its decoration are very rare among Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelains. It has become clear from the material excavated at the site of the imperial kilns in recent years that certain shapes and decorative motifs became established in this period and were then carried on into later dynasties. The large double-gourd vase form and the overall split-peony scroll motif fall into this category. The current double-gourd peony vase is an exceptionally rare vessel combining both features.

It may be noted that relatively few large double-gourd vases are known from the Yuan period, and the majority of them are octagonal. Among the best known of these are the octagonal vase with insect and bird decoration in the Kikusui Kogeikan Museum, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan illustrated by Tsugio Mikami (ed.), Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 13, Liao, Jin, Yuan, Tokyo, 1981, pp. 78-9, fig. 61 and 62; the octagonal vase with ogival panels containing insects, reptiles and plants in the collection of the Topkapi Saray, Istanbul illustrated by J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, vol. 2, Yuan and Ming Dynasty Ceramics, London, 1986, no. 577; and the octagonal double-gourd vase from the same collection decorated with birds, flowers and fruit illustrated by Zhu Yuping, Yuandai qinghua ci, Shanghai, 2000, p. 139, no. 6-15. The remains of a fourth octagonal double-gourd vase can be found in the collection of porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, now in the Iran Bastan Museum in Teheran. Although only the lower part (height 34 cm.) of the Ardebil vase has survived, it shares with the current vase a well-developed split-peony scroll, albeit confined to a single band. See John A. Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, London/New Jersey, 1981, p. 27.

Another broken double-gourd vase, which provides an interesting comparison with the current vase is in the Villanueva Collection in the Philippines. Like the Ardebil octagonal vase, the Villanueva piece has retained only its lower section. See Consuelo Abaya, The Villanueva Collection of Oriental Pottery, Philippines, 1974, p. 11. It is, however, interesting in two respects, firstly because it is not faceted but round in section, and secondly because its decoration comprises a single scrolling motif. In this case the scrolling motif is of gourd vines, but their disposition over the surface of the vessel has the same freely undulating quality seen on the current double-gourd vase. A much more modest, but less damaged, double gourd-vase of round section is also in a Philippine collection. See L. Gotuaco, R. C. Tan and A. I. Diem, Chinese and Vietnamese Blue and White Wares Found in the Philippines, Makarti City, 1997, no. Y28. This vase is much smaller than the current example, and has more simply painted decoration, but even among the smaller Yuan porcelains double-gourd vases are rare. Small double-gourd ewers are encountered more frequently, but these are usually simple in both potting and decoration.

The only directly comparable vase to the current piece is in the Topkapi Saray collection, illustrated by Ayers and Krahl, op. cit., p. 406 (col. pl.), p. 500, pl. 580. This Topkapi vase shares with the current vase its size, form and decoration. In the 19th century, the Ottoman owners of the Topkapi vase had it mounted with a very elaborate, finely wrought, silver neck rim and domed cover. This may be seen as an expression of their great admiration for the vase. Even the Topkapi vessel, however, does not share the extravagant use of fine cobalt seen on the current vase. It is worth bearing in mind that all the cobalt used at the Jingdezhen kilns in the Yuan period was imported and exceedingly expensive. Its use was strictly controlled and one of the suggested reasons for the abandonment of decoration reserved in white against a blue ground in the mature Yuan style was related to the cost of the cobalt. The extremely generous use of high-quality cobalt on the current vase, which accounts for the jewel-like quality of its decoration, would have made this a very precious vessel even when it was first produced. The decorator's brush was so laden with cobalt that tiny specks of blue have fallen on some of the upper surfaces of the vase. This is a phenomenon which does occasionally occur on fine Yuan dynasty porcelains, as can be seen, for example, on the fragment of a large, very handsome, dish excavated from the Hutian kiln site. See Jingdezhen Institute of Ceramic Archaeology and Fung Ping Shan Museum, Ceramic Finds from Jingdezhen Kilns, Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1992, no. 136.

The decoration on the current double-gourd vase is particularly well adapted to this form, but is rare on Yuan porcelains. Most Yuan blue and white wares have bands of decoration. Thus the use of a single motif in the form of a freely disposed, undulating peony scroll, both on this vase and the similar piece in the Topkapi Saray Museum, is particularly rare. Such treatment of vertical forms is not without precedent, however. There is a group of pear-shaped vases (yuhuchun) from the fourteenth century, which are also decorated with a single scrolling motif. One such vase in the Philippines is covered with a well-painted lotus scroll, see L. Gotuaco, R. C. Tan and A. I. Diem, op. cit., no. Y16; another in the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, which has a white peony scroll reserved against a background of painted blue waves, is illustrated by Tsugio Mikami, op. cit., no. 209; while a third vase is decorated with a scrolling melon vine is illustrated, no. 210. A further pear-shaped vase, which was excavated in Southeast Asia, has been decorated, like the Kansas City example, with a peony scroll reserved in white against a ground of underglaze blue formal waves composed of concentric arcs. See Zhu Yuping, Yuandai qinghua ci, op. cit., p. 274, no. 10-8. Two late Yuan or early Ming blue and white pear-shaped vases have been published which are completely decorated with chrysanthemum scrolls. One of these in the Art Institute of Chicago is illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1989, p. 96, no. 84, and the other in the collection of the British Museum is illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 72, no. 1:27.

A few other forms are occasionally decorated all over without minor bands and with a single theme, such as the guan jar in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge decorated with ducks on a lotus pond illustrated ibid. no. 192, or the flattened flask in the Ardebil collection with phoenixes and baize amid peony scrolls (see John A. Pope, op. cit., plate 29, no. 29.475). Apart from the current vase, the Topkapi double-gourd vase, and the lower section of a double-gourd vase with scrolling gourd designs in the Villanueva collection, no other Yuan dynasty blue and white double-gourd vases with non-banded, single theme decoration appear to have been published.

The peony scroll on the current vase is of special interest for several reasons. The peonies are depicted growing from rocks painted at the lower edge of the vase. These rocks are interesting because they provide additional information regarding the date of the vase. The majority of ornamental rocks on Yuan dynasty blue and white wares appear on large dishes dating to the second quarter of the fourteenth century. These rocks, like that on the large dish in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, illustrated by R. Marks, R. Scott, B. Gasson, J.K. Thomson and P. Vainker, The Burrell Collection, London/Glasgow, 1984, p. 52, p. 16, are generally somewhat rounded in profile and without perforating holes. The few rocks which appear on Yuan blue and white porcelains of the mature period in the middle of the century are of a different style. These have sharply angled profiles and are perforated with holes. It is this latter type of ornamental rock which appears on the double-gourd peony vase, and suggests a mid-fourteenth century date for the current vase. Such rocks are the predecessors of the type seen on both underglaze blue and underglaze red-decorated ewers of the early Ming Hongwu reign. An underglaze blue example excavated from the site of the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen is illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taiwan, 1996, no. 2, while an underglaze red example from the Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo, is illustrated by Ryoichi Fujioka and Gakuji Hasebe in Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 14, Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, fig. 12. The rare painted rocks of the mature Yuan porcelains are therefore important steps in the development of painting style in the second half of the fourteenth century.

The form of the peonies themselves is also significant. They are richly and elegantly painted, showing several views of the blossom: some directly from above, some in three-quarter view, and some in profile with the lower petals separating from the upper, in the style known as 'split peony'. This varied peony scroll is typical of accomplished Yuan style. The final point to mention about this peony scroll is the use of parallel lines incised into the body of the vase beneath the cobalt. In the mid-fourteenth century this combed texture was used to great effect on leaves and petals of peony scrolls on large vertical forms. These can clearly be seen on a guan jar illustrated by Wang Qingzheng (ed.) in Qinghua Youlihong, Hong Kong, 1987, no. 22. Since the lines were incised into the body before the cobalt was applied, additional cobalt ran into these lines giving the appearance of even deeper colour. Thus rich blue vein lines are seen on the flowers and leaves. This feature is discussed in detail by Margaret Medley in Yuan Porcelain and Stoneware, London, 1974, p. 55.

This handsome and extremely rare double-gourd vase is a superb example of underglaze blue decoration in the mature Yuan style of the mid-fourteenth century. The fact that the decorator was allowed to be so extravagant in his use of the precious cobalt is an indication of the importance of the piece at the time it was made, suggesting that it was a special commission for a patron of considerable social standing.

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