PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION
A Magnificent Brush Pot for an Imperial Scholar
International Academic Director Asian Art
This exceptionally well-painted brush pot was created at the imperial kilns during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (1723-35). The arts made for the Yongzheng emperor are noted for their refined taste and their exquisite craftsmanship. He was an extremely demanding patron, and the items made for him during his years as an imperial prince, as well as those made during his relatively short imperial reign, reflect his very high standards, and have always been highly regarded by connoisseurs. The current brush pot is the result of technological advances, artistic inspiration, and keen imperial patronage.
Prince Yinzhen, who was to rule as the Yongzheng emperor was only the Kangxi emperor’s fourth son and was not named as his successor until the very end of Kangxi’s life. Thus he was not brought up as heir apparent. Nevertheless he began his education at the age of 5 and attended classes from 5 am to 5 pm almost every day of the year. From daybreak he would study Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, the classics, riding and archery. He worked hard and was generally praised for his accomplishments – particularly his calligraphy. The future emperor, who was such a demanding patron of the arts, did not spare himself when it came to honing his own skills. Before he came to the throne he used to spend hours copying the calligraphy of model books, and was regarded as a talented calligrapher, even by his - often critical - father, the Kangxi emperor. Indeed the Yongzheng’s calligraphy strongly resembles that of his father, with slender, contained, characters rendered in strong, fluent brushstrokes. Under the Qianlong emperor’s reign, Yongzheng’s calligraphy was printed in model books such as 四宜堂法帖 Model books of the Siyi Hall, and 朗吟閣法帖Model books of the Langyin Pavilion to serve as inspiration for aspiring calligraphers, indeed he is generally regarded as the best calligrapher among the Qing rulers. Scholars items related to calligraphy, such as brush pots and ink palettes, were therefore particularly close to his heart. In one portrait, commissioned after he ascended to the throne, the emperor is seated reading, and on his right is an archaic jade cong, which he is using as a brush pot (illustrated China – The Three Emperors (1662-1795) (E. S. Rawski and J. Rawson eds.), p. 246, no. 165). Another painting of the emperor entitled Copying a Sutra in a Studio, one a series of ‘Yinzhen’s Amusements’, shows the emperor seated, brush in hand, at a table with paper spread out in front of him and what appears to be a bamboo brush and scroll pot to his right (illustrated National Palace Museum, Taipei, Harmony and Integrity – The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times, pp. 116-117, no. I-57).
The records indicate that while he was a prince Yinzhen spent most of his time studying and decorating his palaces, when he wasn’t travelling with his father. The craftsmen in the imperial workshops were often commanded to make items for Yinzhen’s palaces, and when he became emperor Yinzhen was very strict and did not allow items made outside the imperial workshops to be used in his inner palaces. He took a keen and active interest in the arts and encouraged court painting, and the decorative arts. He was particularly
interested in the production of imperial porcelain. The eminent Chinese art historian Yang Boda has said of the porcelains produced in the period AD 1728-35 of the Yongzheng reign: ‘The porcelain of this period has a pristine purity, and jade-like luminosity, and the painted design gives the piece a luxuriance reminiscent of brocade. Nianyao [ porcelains made under the supervision of Nian Xiyao] epitomize the classic refined style of Qing imperial ware, and they are rated by commentators as the best among the imperial wares of the entire Qing dynasty.’
Like his father, the Kangxi emperor, the Yongzheng emperor was a keen admirer of enamels and retained a personal interest in production, as evidenced by various documents in the palace archives. Yongzheng also put his favourite, and very able, younger brother, Prince Yinxiang (1686-1730) in charge of the ateliers. A memorandum of 1728 enumerated the enamel colours by then available for use, and suggested making the colours up in 300 cattie (approximately 400 lb.) batches. The memorandum also noted that the foreign enamel painters used duo’ermen oil (toluene) as a solvent for the enamels and ordered that the Essence Storage Room in the Wuyingdian should be checked to see if any was available. It is also recorded that at this time enamels were sent from the Beijing ateliers to Nian Xiyao at the Jingdezhen Imperial kilns.
The new array of glaze and enamel colours developed in the Imperial workshops during the Kangxi and Yongzheng periods, provided the ceramic artists with a vastly enlarged palette with which to create new designs on porcelain. Amongst the new designs were those which incorporated elements which allowed the porcelain to resemble another material. While the greatest proportion of porcelains decorated to imitate other materials were made during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, the few examples that have survived from the Yongzheng reign are of particularly high quality, and mostly feature the imitation of wood, as exemplified by the current finely-painted brush pot.
Two of the colours that particularly facilitated the imitation of wood were two orangey-reds, both of which were created using iron oxide. Iron-red enamels had a long history on Chinese ceramics, but in the first half of the 18th century craftsmen discovered that if they replaced some of the lead oxide (used as a flux in the original iron-red enamel recipe) with potassium nitrate, they could achieve an orangey-red that was ideal for imitating both lacquer and the grain of certain woods. They also discovered another orangey-red that could be fired at high temperatures, which was probably produced using a highly feldspathic low-lime porcelain glaze with a low iron oxide content, and which could be applied thinly, fired in reduction and cooled in oxidation. The wide range of colours available, including an extremely subtle range of browns and orangey reds, dark brown and black, allowed the ceramic decorator to create the very realistic wood effect on the current brush pot.
Only a very small number of porcelains with faux bois decoration from the Yongzheng reign are known and these are predominantly brush pots with faux bois interiors and exterior bands framing painterly landscapes which encircle the brush pots in the manner of hand scrolls. The painting style of the present brush pot is closely related to great artists of the mid-Ming period such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509), one of the leading masters of the Wu School. An example of the artist’s work that is closely related to the present landscape painting is a hand scroll in the Shanghai Museum Collection, illustrated in Ming Sijia Jingpin Xuanji, ‘Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty’, Hong Kong, 1996, no. 7, entitled Water Village and Dock amidst Mountains and Rivers, dated 1488. It appears that only one other Yongzheng-marked brush pot with similar decorative scheme to the current example has been published, and is illustrated in Small Refined Articles of the Study, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Shanghai, 2009, p. 98, no. 68. An unmarked brush pot of similar design dating to the Yongzheng period is also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, (illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong - Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 239, no. 68. A Yongzheng brush pot, of similar proportions to the current example, but with famille rose design of figures in landscape as the main exterior band, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (illustrated by Ke Meigui, Weiduoliya he A’erbote guoli bowuyuan cang - Zhongguo Qing dai ciqi, Guangxi, 1995, p. 159, no. 99). Another brush pot with faux bois and a landscape in famille rose enamels, formerly in the collection of Mr. Robert Chang, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong, 31 October 2000, lot 831. A square brush holder with its integral stand decorated in faux bois, and bearing a Yongzheng mark, in the collection of the Asian Art
Museum, San Francisco is illustrated by He Li in Chinese Ceramics, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, p. 305, no. 659, where it is dated to the Yongzheng reign.
The ability to create on porcelain fluently painted decoration resembling that seen in ink on paper or silk was something new in the Yongzheng reign. A good black enamel still evaded the enamel makers in the Kangxi reign, when black enamels were matt and fugitive, and had to be covered with a transparent pale green or aubergine enamel to provide a glossy surface and reasonable stability. In the Yongzheng reign, however the enamel makers working for the court managed to develop both a good glossy black enamel and a good sepia enamel, which allowed the decorators to imitate ink painting very successfully, as on the current brush pot. It is certain that the new black enamel was available to the ceramic decorators by 1732, since the Jiangxi tongzhi ( 江西通志, Provincial Gazetteer of Jiangxi province), compiled by 謝旻 Xie Min and published in that year, mentions that porcelains were decorated in black ink. In lists of the ceramics made for the court under the directorships of Nian Xiyao and Tang Ying, these ‘ink painted’ porcelains are listed as no. 40.
On the 29th day of the fourth month of 1732 the Yongzheng emperor issued an edict saying: ‘For Grand Minister Hai Wang to transmit the following edict: The enamel paintings in sepia are all exceedingly fine. Employ the two painters Tai Heng and T’ang Chen-chi as enamel painters and remove the paintings brought as samples of their works. Also remove the sample paintings by T’ang Tai. The work of the others is all fine, and they may remain. By Imperial Command. Have the painters Tai and T’ang transferred to enamel painting.’ (translated in Ts’ai Ho-pi’s introduction to the Special Exhibition of Ch’ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, p. 12). It was not only sepia landscapes which appealed to the Yongzheng emperor. Later in the same year the palace issued further instructions, this time in regard to blue enamel landcapes: ‘The 27th day of the eleventh month, 1732: By Imperial Command, in future paint fewer of the dishes with ink chrysanthemums. The teacups and wine cups with landscape decoration in blue are all quite fine, paint more of these.’ (ibid., pp. 16-17) The Yongzheng Emperor was quite generous when workmanship pleased him, as on the 28th day of the tenth month of 1732:
‘The enamel landscape in blue is quite well done ... Give ten teals of silver in reward for the enamel painting done by Zou Wenyu.’ (ibid., p. 16) This was a generous gift, but the emperor could be severe if work, or the lack of it, did not please him and there are records of wages withheld and workmen being removed from their posts.
While landscapes were used to decorate a range of vessel forms in the Yongzheng reign, landscape was a particularly appropriate decoration for a scholar’s brush pot, since landscape painting ranked second only to calligraphy in the hierarchy of Chinese scholarly appreciation. Landscape painting was also something that the Yongzheng emperor greatly admired, and the new black and sepia enamels allowed landscape paintings in the style of traditional ink painting to be applied to porcelain. The inspiration derived by ceramic decorators from traditional ink paintings is discussed by R. Scott in ‘Some Influences on the Paintings Styles of Qing Overglaze Enamel Wares’, Imperial Taste: Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, San Francisco, 1989, pp.115-118. Undoubtedly some of the finest manifestations of this inspiration are to be found among imperial porcelains of the Yongzheng reign, as evidenced by the current brush pot.
During the Yongzheng reign the quality and artistry of the porcelains produced at the imperial kilns for the emperor greatly benefitted from the presence of two extremely able supervisors. One of these was Nian Xiyao, who was appointed from Beijing in 1726 to oversee the Huai’an Customs Barrier on the Grand Canal and also to take on the responsibility of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. In 1728 an official by the name of Tang Ying was appointed from the Imperial Household in Beijing to go to Jingdezhen as resident assistant. He was later to take full control and remained in charge of the kilns until his death in 1756. He was a man of great talent as a ceramicist, an administrator, and a painter, and under his guidance some of the most beautiful porcelains ever produced in China were made at Jingdezhen. It is likely that the current brush pot was made under Tang Ying’s supervision for use on the emperor’s writing table. This beautifully painted vessel with its evocative ‘ink’ landscape would have provided both pleasure and inspiration for its imperial owner in his scholarly pursuits.