This carved red lacquer bowlstand is a superb example of imperial lacquer made for the Yongle Emperor (1403-24). Imperial carved lacquer from the Yongle reign is regarded by many connoisseurs as the apogee of lacquer carving, and this bowlstand is one of the finest examples of the art. No expense was spared in its production. A considerable depth of lacquer has painstakingly been built up - one very thin layer at a time. The application of the lacquer alone would have taken many months. The base material to which the lacquer has been applied is not wood, bamboo or cloth, but metal. This brought its own challenges for the application of the lacquer, and would have been expensive. However, this metal base makes the bowlstand heavier, and thus more stable, as well as being less susceptible to certain kinds of damage.
The considerable depth of lacquer on the bowlstand has allowed the carver to achieve a remarkable richness of surface texture. The tremendous skill of the carver can also be appreciated when considering the shape of the vessel and the way in which the craftsman has overcome the challenges presented by curved surfaces and acute angles to create an intricate and harmonious design. These particular areas of difficulty can be seen in the upward curve and lobing of the flange, and the sharp junctions of the flange with both the upper section and the splayed foot.
The form of this bowlstand takes its inspiration from two of the most respected periods in the history of Chinese art - the Tang and Song dynasties. It is the floral shape of the flange that is particularly distinctive. Petal-like foliations and a slight upturn of the flange rim can be seen, for example, on a silver gilt bowlstand which was excavated from a Tang dynasty site at Hepingmenwei, Xi'an, Shaanxi province (illustrated in T. Akiyama, et al., in Arts of China, Neolithic Cultures to the Tang Dynasty - Recent Discoveries, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1968, p. 99, pl. 179). This creation of flower-like flanges was taken up in both the Liao and Song dynasties. A silver bowlstand with accompanying bowl was excavated from a Song dynasty site at Deyang in Sichuan province (discussed in 'Sichuan Deyang chutu de Song dai yingqi', Wenwu cankao ziliao, 1961, no. 11, pp. 48-52).
The flange of the famous Percival David Foundation Northern Song Ru ware bowlstand (illustrated by Rosemary Scott in 'Song Dynasty Wares in the David Foundation in the Light of the Laohudong Excavations', in Song Ceramics - Art History, Archaeology and Technology - Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 22, Percival David Foundation, London, 2004, p. 165, fig. 22) shares this floral form. A simple version of the form is even found in lacquer in the Song dynasty. A plain black lacquer example was discovered in a Northern Song dynasty tomb at Wuhan (fig. 1) (illustrated in 'Wuhanshi shi lipu Bei Song mu chutu qiqi deng wenwu', Wenwu, 1966, no. 5, pl. 7, fig. 3).
The decoration of phoenix and lotus scrolls complements the elegant shape of the bowlstand with its six petal-lobed flange. These motifs were popular on Ming court arts in many media, since they contain not only a reference to the empress, but to feminine beauty and purity. A blue and white porcelain stembowl decorated with similarly posed phoenixes around the bowl was excavated from the late Yongle stratum at the Imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen in 1984 (illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, p. 285). Interestingly, the form of the blossoms in the lotus scroll around the stem of the porcelain stembowl also accord well with those on the current lacquer bowlstand (fig. 2).
This bowlstand was formerly in the collection of the British scholar and collector Sir Percival David. It was loaned by him to the 1935-6 International Exhibition of Chinese Art held at the Royal Academy, London (illustrated in International Exhibition of Chinese Art - Catalogue and Illustrated Supplement , Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, no. 1402) (fig. 3). The 1935 catalogue entry erroneously describes the bowlstand as being decorated with dragons, but the photograph, size and reference to the Qianlong inscription make it fairly clear that it is the same piece. The catalogue entry notes that the Jiajing bowl mentioned in the Qianlong inscription was also included in the 1935 exhibition as exhibit number 1404. In 1957 Sir Percival and Lady David lent to bowlstand to another exhibition. This was The Arts of the Ming Dynasty, organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Oriental Ceramic Society at the Arts Council Gallery, London. The bowlstand was exhibit number 234, and on this occasion was correctly described in the catalogue as being decorated with phoenixes.
The bowlstand bears a Ming dynasty Yongle reign mark incised in needle-fine characters below the left rim on the inside of the foot. However, this piece was also admired by Qing emperors. It was formerly in the imperial collection of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), who in 1781, composed an inscription, which he commanded to be incised into the interior of the bowl of the vessel and highlighted in gold lacquer. The text of this inscription is included in Qianlong yuzhi shiji, 'Collected Poems of the Qianlong Emperor', and reproduced in Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji, 'An Anthology of Imperial Poetry and Prose Composed by Gaozong of the Qing Period', National Palace Museum Press, Taipei, 1976, p. 677, under the title: On a Yongle carved lacquer bowlstand. It may be translated as reading:
'This Yongle stand remains;
no one knows when the bowl was lost.
The drawing of the design has disappeared, but the carved decoration is left;
the needle-fine reign mark is still visible.
A replacement lacquer bowl was added later; fitting it so well.
(A Jiajing carved lacquer bowl was matched with this stand. It fitted perfectly, which itself is worthy of praise.)
Although lacking one half, fortunately it was once again made whole.
However, although whole now, it could again become a half some day.
Laying down my brush, I break into a smile.'
The Qianlong Emperor took a passionate interest in art and antiques, and, if a certain piece particularly pleased him, he would compose poetic comments, which were then inscribed upon the object. It is interesting that Emperor Qianlong appears to believe that the bowlstand would originally have formed a set with a carved lacquer bowl. In this he may have been mistaken, since early paintings usually show carved lacquer bowlstands being used with bowls of a different material. However, in the inscription, the Emperor appears very pleased to find that the bowlstand had been matched with a bowl from the Jiajing reign (1522-66), which fitted it perfectly. In truth, this is less remarkable than Qianlong imagined since the sides of bowls tend to be narrower at the foot and widen towards the mouth-rim, thus offering a gradation of diameter that would have allowed many bowls to fit the bowlstands. The Emperor mused that although the two had been matched, they could become separated again in the future. It is hard to know whether this is a comment on the general vagaries of fortune, or a cynical view of the imperial storage system, but in any case he seems unworried by it, since Qianlong's inscription ends with the words: 'Laying down my brush, I break into a smile'.
Only two other identical Yongle-marked bowlstands are known, but both without Qianlong inscriptions on the interior: the first in the Beijing Palace Museum, illustrated in Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 44, no. 27 (fig. 4); and the second is illustrated by J. Watt and B. Ford, East Asian Lacquer, The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991, p. 87, no. 28.