PROPERTY FROM PHILBROOK MUSEUM OF ART SOLD TO BENEFIT THE ACQUISITIONS ENDOWMENT
The current vase is a magnificent example of imperial Qianlong porcelain. The name of this shape of vase in Chinese is tianqiuping‘heavenly globe vase’, and it is significant that in Chinese iconography the earth is represented by a square, while heaven is represented by a circle. Hence, the large globular body of such vases
provides an ideal reference to heaven. This vase is a particularly large and impressive specimen of the tianqiuping shape. The vessel is extremely well-potted and the generous globe of the body has
retained its form even after firing, while some other examples can be seen to have sunk slightly under their own weight. The neck is in ideal proportion to the body, and has also remained in perfect alignment. The fact that this large vessel has fired so perfectly is a testament to the great skill of the potter, who has not only thrown it absolutely evenly – so that it did not distort in the kiln – but has perfectly judged the thickness of clay and precise junction of the neck to prevent the latter from sinking into the body during firing.
Although the tianqiuping shape appears in Chinese porcelains as early as the 15th century of the Ming dynasty in China, the 15th century examples have a shorter neck in proportion to the body than the 18th century vases. This can be seen on the early 15th century blue and white tianqiuping in the collection of the
Palace Museum Beijing, illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 34, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 90-95, nos. 87-89 (fig. 1). The tianqiuping shape really came to prominence in the 18th century on imperial porcelains commissioned by emperors who were unconcerned by the cost of producing such extravagant vessels. A number of tianqiuping were made in the Yongzheng reign (1723-35) – primarily with underglaze blue or overglaze famille rose decoration. An example of the latter, decorated with blossoming chrysanthemums, and somewhat smaller than the current vase, is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum (illustrated in
Oriental Ceramics, The World’s Great Collections, vol. 1, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 80. (fig. 2)). Two Yongzheng tianqiuping of similar size to the current vase, but decorated in underglaze blue, from the Qing court collection of Palace Museum, Beijing, are illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 36, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 96-7, nos. 82 and 83.
It is very rare to find a vase of this massive size with doucai decoration. This was a difficult and expensive decorative technique. First, the fine underglaze cobalt blue outlines were painted onto the porous unfired body. As the cobalt immediately soaked into the unfired clay, no mistakes could be rectified. The vessel was then glazed and fired. After the glazed piece had cooled, the overglaze enamels were carefully applied inside the underglaze blue outlines and the piece was fired again at a lower temperature. As each firing would have resulted in some failures, and large vessels tended to be more susceptible to warping and splitting, it would have been an expensive undertaking to create large doucai vessels which met imperial high standards. It is telling that even the Palace Museum in Beijing appears to have published only one Qianlong doucai vase (decorated with tribute bearers) which is as tall as the current vase(illustrated in Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 38,
Hong Kong, 1999, p. 274, no. 251)(fig. 3). Even the famous Qianlong doucai dragon moon flask in the Palace Museum (illustrated by E.S. Rawski and J. Rawson (eds.) in China – The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, pp. 294-5, no. 217) is 6 cms. smaller than the current vase, while the large Qianlong doucai charger, decorated with the Eight Buddhist Emblems, from the imperial collection in the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Nanjing, 1995, no. 104) is 5 cm. smaller. The famous Qianlong doucai flask with a design of a farmer ploughing his fields (inspired by the 1696 Yuzhi Gengzhi tu, Imperially commissioned Pictures of Tilling and Weaving) in the collection of the Tianjin Museum of Art (illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan – Taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 442, no. 936) is of comparable size to the current vase.
A Qianlong tianqiuping with doucai decoration, but of smaller size (H: 42 cm.) is in the collection of the Matsuoka Museum of Art in Japan (illustrated in Masterpieces of Oriental Ceramics from Matsuoka Museum of Art, Japan, 1997, p. 43, no. 33). A Qianlong imperial tianqiuping decorated in underglaze red and blue with some celadon areas, and another decorated in underglaze blue, and a further Qianlong tianqiuping with monochrome blue glaze, of slightly larger size to the current vase, are in the collection of the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongxzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Nanjing, 1995, nos. 80, 77 and 66, respectively).
It seems likely that the current vase was made at the imperial kilns early in the Qianlong reign. There are several aspects of the decoration that suggest this dating. Perhaps most telling is the delicacy and use of colour seen in the doucai decoration, which is akin to that of the Yongzheng reign. The underglaze blue outlines are both paler and narrower than those found on the majority of Qianlong doucai vessels, while the blue washes
are softer in appearance. The overglaze enamel colours are also applied with considerable restraint – highlighting certain aspects of the design without producing an overall gaudiness. The use of colours on the current vase may perhaps be compared with that of the Yongzheng doucai meiping in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which is illustrated in Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 38, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 245, no. 225. (fig. 4) There are also small details, such as the style of the petal band which encircles the foot of the current vase. This is relatively rare in the Qianlong reign, but can be found more often on Yongzheng porcelains, such as the enamelled bowl illustrated in Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, op. cit., p. 171, no. 157.
An early Qianlong date is also suggested by the seal-script reign mark in underglaze blue on the base of the vase. Professor Peter Lam has conducted detailed research into the form of reign marks during the Qianlong reign, and the reign mark on the current vase accords most closely with the style that he denotes ‘type 5’. (see Peter Y.K. Lam, ‘Towards a Dating Framework for Qianlong Imperial Porcelain’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 74, 2009-2010, p. 23). Interestingly, Lam describes this mark as ‘...similar to the standard squarish seal mark of Yongzheng ..., but the brushstrokes are more angular’. Lam estimates that this style of seal mark was in use from approximately the 7th to the 35th year of the Qianlong Emperor’s 60-year reign. This would mean that the current vase was made during the tenure of the most revered of all the supervisors of the Qing Imperial kilns, Tang Ying (1682- 1756), under whose auspices some of the finest imperial porcelains were made.
In addition, an early Qianlong date is suggested by a note in the palace records which states that on the twenty-fifth day of sixth month of Qianlong third year (1738): [a model of] ‘a large wucai tianqiu zun decorated with the Eight Daoist Emblems was presented ...[The Emperor decreed] Manufacture accordingly, and return the original porcelain model to the porcelain storeroom when it is done’. Although the vessel mentioned in the records is described as wucai, rather than doucai, it may nevertheless refer to the same type of vessel as the current vase, and at the very least indicates that the Qianlong Emperor commissioned the Eight Daoist Emblems to be applied to tianqiuping at this early date.
Although the vessel mentioned in the records is described as wucai, rather than doucai, it may nevertheless refer to the same type of vessel as the current vase, and at the very least indicates that the Qianlong Emperor commissioned the Eight Daoist Emblems to be applied to tianqiuping at this early date.
The choice of decorative motifs on the current vase are rare on Qianlong doucai porcelains. The body of the vase is decorated with a delicate lotus scroll with multicoloured blossoms and punctuated with the Eight Daoist Emblems tied alternately with red and blue ribbons. The Eight Daoist Emblems are the attributes of the Eight Daoist Immortals. The fan belongs to Han Zhongli, the gourd (which contains magic potions) and iron crutch belongs to Li Tieguai, the bamboo drum and metal drum sticks belong to Zhang Guolao, a lotus or bamboo sieve belong to He Xiangu - the only female member of the group, who is regarded as the patron saint of housewives, a basket of flowers or peaches belong to Lan Caihe, the sword and fly whisk belong to Lu Dongbin, the pair of castanets belong Cao Guojiu, and the flute belongs to Han Xiangzi. While these attributes were seen accompanying the Eight Immortals from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), it was only in the Qing dynasty that the attributes alone became a popular motif, imbued with the same auspicious wishes as the immortals to whom they belonged. It seems that the Daoist Emblems’ first appearance alone on porcelains was in the Yongzheng reign. While the Qianlong Emperor, like his father and grandfather, was a devout Buddhist, the inclusion of Daoist symbols on an imperial vase would have been entirely
appropriate in view of their auspicious message.
On the neck suspended, beribboned, qing chiming stones alternate with suspended, beribboned, twin fish, with downward facing bats below. The chiming stone, also known as a lithophone, and called a qing in Chinese, is generally L-shaped, like a carpenter’s square and can be traced back to the Neolithic period. It is suspended by its apex and played using a mallet. During the Qing dynasty sets of twelve such chiming stones were made of jade for the palace where they were suspended on racks and were played on ceremonial occasions. Chiming stones are often included in porcelain decoration because qing chiming stone is a rebus
for qing meaning to celebrate. The twin fish (shuang yu) are usually included in the Eight Buddhist Emblems, but are also auspicious on their own, symbolising marital bliss, many children and abundant good luck. The bats on the neck of the vessel also provide an auspicious wish, since in the Chinese arts bats (fu)
provide a rebus for happiness (fu). It is no accident that the bats on the vase are shown upside-down. The Chinese word for upside-down (dao) has the same sound as the word for arrived (dao). Therefore, an upside-down bat indicates the arrival of happiness. The Eight Daoist Emblems combined with a suspended
qing chiming stone can be seen on a Qianlong ruby-ground famille rose vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, The
Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum vol. 39, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 145, no. 127. A combination of twin fish, qing chiming stone and bats can be seen on the Qianlong doucai vase in the Palace Museum with scenes of tribute bearers, mentioned above. The exceptional quality, monumental size, and imposing presence of the current tianqiuping, as well as its fine and auspicious decoration, would have rendered it suitable for prominent display in one of the halls of the Qing palace.
This rare vase has a prestigious provenance, having been donated to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1960 by Mrs. Francis Keally. The vase was inherited by Mrs. Keally from her father George Hathaway Taber Jr. (1859-1940) who was a prolific collector of Chinese ceramics and jades with a discerning eye for quality and an unusually good understanding of what was appreciated by Chinese connoisseurs. The son of Capt. George H. Taber (1808-1901), who rose from a humble background to
become a prominent member of the community filling a number of important offices including serving as President of Fairhaven Bank, George Taber Jr. made his mark as an oil executive, and ultimately board member, with the Gulf Oil Company. A selftaught engineer, he was instrumental in developing important
advances in oil refining techniques. Believed to have been inspired by a relative who travelled to China and brought back not only fascinating tales but also beautiful objects, George Taber Jr. built up an extraordinary collection which was loaned or gifted to a number of museums. Upon his death in 1940, the collection was
divided between his descendants and part of it was sold at the Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 7-8 March 1946. The Philbrook Asian art collection is particularly strong in Japanese paintings from the Edo period (1603-1868), which came from the Shin’enkan collection of Oklahoma oil magnate, Joe D. Price. A further
major gift, in this case of Southeast Asian ceramics, came from the Gillert Family, while the Taber Family donated Chinese ceramics and carvings. The current superb Qianlong vase, given by Taber’s daughter, Mrs. Francis Keally, has been an esteemed signature piece in the museum’s Asian art collection.