Previously sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 14 November 1989, lot 18, and again, 5 November 1997, lot 1351.
This extraordinarily fine and very rare brushwasher combines a beautifully potted and elegant form with underglaze painted decoration in a vibrant, rich, cobalt blue. The ten petal lobes of the vessel's sides continue into the foot in a manner reminiscent of the fine lacquer wares which undoubtedly inspired this porcelain shape. The decoration of five-clawed dragons enhances the form. The exterior of each lobe bears an unframed dragon roundel - the dragons alternately ascending and descending, while both the interior and exterior of the base have single, large dragon motifs with clouds. The total number of five-clawed dragons on the washer is therefore twelve: an unusually generous number even on imperial wares.
The washer is one of only two early blue and white pieces of this form and size with additional dragons painted on the external base. The other example is now in the Millikin Collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, illustrated in Catalogue of the Severance and Greta Millikin Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1990, no. 27, col. pl. 2. This example, which is only slightly smaller (18 cm. diam.) than the current washer was also included in the famous 1949 exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, An Exhibition of Blue-Decorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty. At that time it was in the collection of Geoffrey Stevenson, and was exhibited as no. 43 (fig. 1, two views). There is a significantly smaller (15.7 cm. diam.) washer of the same design, without a dragon decoration on the exterior base, in the collection of the Capital Museum, Beijing, see Shoudu bowuguan zang ci xuan, Wenwu chubanshe, Beijing, 1991, pp. 30 & 110, no. 90 (fig. 2). The Beijing washer has been dated to the Yongle reign. Although at the time it was published, the Cleveland washer was dated to the Xuande period (1426-35), recent excavations have suggested that both it and the current washer should, like the Beijing example, be dated to the Yongle reign (1403-24).
Excavations at the Imperial kilns at Zhushan in 1982 revealed an undecorated, 'sweet white', tianbai, washer of this form in the Yongle stratum; see Chang Foundation, Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1996, pp 262-3, no. 100 (fig. 3). A slightly larger (20.5 cm diam.), plain-rimmed bowl decorated on the interior with six underglaze-blue five-clawed dragon roundels surrounding a stylised lotus flower with seed pod, was excavated in 1984 from the late Yongle stratum of the Imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, cf. Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Urban Council Hong Kong, 1989, pp 166-7, no. 42. This bowl shares with the current dish the feature of having an underglaze-blue dragon painted on its exterior base. The excavators have suggested that the use of the imperial dragon on the base was an indicator of the intended user of the vessel - the emperor - and was a precursor of the use of reign marks in this position. A bowl of similar size and design, including a dragon on the exterior base - is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition A Special Exhibition of Dragon-Motif Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1983, no. 46. Another similar piece, but with phoenixes, including one on the exterior base, is in the same collection, see National Palace Museum, Blue-and-White Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book II (Part 2), Cafa, Hong Kong, 1963, pp. 140-1, no. 56. Not only imperial emblems have been found painted in underglaze-blue on the exterior base of excavated Yongle porcelains. The base fragment of a dish excavated from the Yongle strata at Zhushan in 1984 has interior decoration of a lotus pond, while the base bears an underglaze-blue concentric hexagon design with tricorns at each point, cf. Fung Ping Shan Museum, Ceramic Finds from Jingdezhen Kilns, 10th-17th Century, University of Hong Kong, 1992, no. 203. Interestingly, a similar motif has been applied in gold to the exterior base of a blue and white bowl with lotus pond design on the interior in the National Palace Museum, see op. cit., Hong Kong, 1963, pp. 138-9, no. 55. Thus the form, the dragon roundels and the use of painted motifs on the exterior base of vessels have all been confirmed for the Yongle reign. It also seems appropriate that, at a time when reign marks were rare and almost exclusively confined to monochrome porcelains, the five-clawed dragon on the base should signify imperial usage.
The depiction of five-clawed dragons is relatively rare on blue and white Yongle porcelains, and the excavators of the Ming Imperial kiln site have noted that they have only been found in the stratum dating to the late Yongle period. The excavators have interpreted this to suggest that it was only in the latter part of the reign that the emperor commissioned underglaze-blue porcelains for his own personal use, as opposed to allowing their manufacture as gifts or for other purposes, cf. op. cit., Urban Council Hong Kong, 1989, p. 168 (fig. 4). There have been a number of Yongle underglaze-blue decorated porcelains with designs including three-clawed dragons found in the Yongle strata at the imperial kiln site, but those with five-clawed dragons appear to be of particular significance. They include the large meiping with reserved decoration and large jar with incised waves, both excavated from the imperial kilns in 1994; the jue ritual vessel excavated at Zhushan in 1982; and the splendid five-dragon pear-shaped vase excavated in 1984, see op. cit., Taipei, 1996, nos. 66, 67, 105 and 122 respectively. It is perhaps not surprising that a very personal item, like a brushwasher, should be included with the impressive and ritual vessels deemed of sufficient importance to bear the imperial five-clawed dragon in the Yongle emperor's reign.
The use of five-clawed dragon roundels without frames continued into the Xuande reign and can be seen on a Xuande-marked bowl illustrated by Fujioka and Hasebe, Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 14, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1976, p. 166, no. 152. This bowl shares with the Yongle dishes a ten petal-lobed form that continues into the foot ring. A similar Xuande-marked brushwasher in the National Palace Museum has unframed roundels with combined phoenix and five-clawed dragon, see Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, pp 418-0, no. 182 (fig. 5), and the washer from the Edward T. Chow collection with unframed roundels of phoenixes alone, sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981, lot 405. Both these latter types are represented in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, pp 136-7, nos. 128 & 129, while a washer with unframed dragon and phoenix roundels is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated op. cit., Hong Kong, 1963, pp 66-7, no. 23. However, more commonly found in the Xuande reign are washers of this type which have the smaller dragon, dragon and phoenix, or phoenix motifs contained within double quatrefoil panels. An example of this type with five-clawed dragon roundels is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Blue-and-White Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book II (Part 1), pp 68-9, no. 24 (fig. 6). This may suggest that those vessels made in the early part of the Xuande reign were decorated in the style continued from the Yongle reign with unframed roundels, while those from the latter part of the reign employed a new version of the design with enclosed quatrefoil motifs. However, the Xuande vessels do not appear to have continued the Yongle application of decoration on the exterior base, and indeed this area is usually taken up by a six-character Xuande mark within a double circle. These washers were greatly treasured and the admiration of later emperors can be seen in a scroll belonging to the Percival David Foundation, which is dated to the 6th year of the Yongzheng reign (AD 1728) and depicts antiquities in the imperial collection (fig. 7).
The current beautiful brushwasher is thus one of only two known brushwashers of this type made at the end of the Yongle reign for the personal use of an emperor whose demands for aesthetic perfection set the standard for imperial decorative arts of the succeeding reigns.