This very rare porcelain pail is an exceptional example of the ability of the ceramic decorators in the Qing dynasty to imitate a range of different materials using enamel colours on porcelain. A new array of glaze and enamel colours were developed in the Imperial workshops during the Kangxi and Yongzheng periods, thus the craftsmen had a vastly enlarged palette with which to create new designs and effects on porcelain. The 18th century fascination with imitating other materials through the use of glazes and enamels on porcelain can clearly be seen in a set of nine thumb rings in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, each of which imitates a different material, including wood, bamboo, marble, pudding stone, inlaid bronze, malachite and turquoise, see Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, p. 199, no. V-36. While the largest number 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.
Two of the colours that particularly facilitated the imitation of wood were two tones of orange-reds, both created using iron oxide. Iron-red enamels had a long history on Chinese ceramics, but in the 18th century the 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 good for imitating both lacquer as well as the grain of certain woods. They also discovered an orangey red glaze 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, have allowed the ceramic decorator to create the very realistic wood effect on the current pail.
A number of porcelains with faux bois decoration from the Yongzheng reign are items for the scholar's desk, and are only partly decorated in faux bois. The imitation of wood on porcelain seems to have become a fascination during the 18th century and a small number of porcelain vessels has been preserved on which the faux bois effect have been achieved with particular success and applied on most, or all, of the surfaces of the vessel, as in the case of the current pail.
Traditional wooden pails were made in different proportions in China, but were usually made from planks of wood held tightly together by two bands of plaited rattan strapping, as depicted on the current Yongzheng porcelain pail. The handles were of different types, sometimes of wood, sometimes of rope, and sometimes a mixture of the two. One of the famous album leaves of Portraits of Emperor Yongzheng Ploughing and Weaving, in which the Yongzheng emperor is shown taking part in horticultural and sericultural scenes from the Yuzhi Gengzhi tu, shows him with two pails which have raised, pierced lugs on either side to which the rope handles are attached, cf. Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 14, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 77, no. 11-8.
Only two other Yongzheng faux bois porcelain pails of the same shape as the current vessel appear to have been published. An almost identical pail in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (fig. 1) is illustrated by Wang Qingzheng (ed.) in Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Sun Tree Publishing, Singapore, 2002, p. 228, lower right, and illustrated again in Masterpieces of Beauty (3) East-West Exchange and Imperial Culture, Ceramics of Yuan, Ming and Qing, 1991, p. 145, no. 158, where it is noted that the Yongzheng mark is in underglaze-blue. The second pail was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2009, lot 1828.