MIRRORING ANTIQUITIES: QIANLONG'S ARCHAISTIC VASE
ROSEMARY SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR ASIAN ART
This vase was made in the 18th century for the Qianlong Emperor, who may be regarded as perhaps the greatest imperial collector of the Qing dynasty. Indeed it appears that the vase subsequently retained association with the Qing imperial family and may also be linked with the Japanese imperial family. According to the Japanese inscription on its box the vase was in the possession of Zai Zhen (1876-1948), a great great grandson of the Qianlong Emperor, who was awarded the title of Beizi - fourth rank of nobility in the Chinese imperial hierarchy - and who inherited the title Prince Qing on the death of his father in 1917. Zai Zhen travelled widely. He was sent as the emperor's special envoy to congratulate the British King Edward VII on the occasion of his coronation in June of 1902, and also travelled to Belgium, France and the United States. Significantly he visited Japan in the early 1900s, and according to the inscription on the box he presented this vase to the Japanese imperial family on the 2nd day of the 9th month of the 35th year of the Meiji period (equivalent to 1902). It is also noted in the inscription that on the 15th day of the 8th month of the 3rd year of the reign of Emperor Taisho (equivalent to 1914) the vase was bequeathed by Empress Dowager Shoken (1849-1914) by imperial command.
The exquisite vase displays a perfect melding of focussed technical development and informed archaistic influence in its highly refined celadon glaze combined with shape and decoration based upon ancient bronze. Specifically both the basic form and the complex relief decoration on the vase have been inspired by Zhou dynasty bronzes of the 9th century BC. The delicate pale celadon glaze, which complements them both, has its origins in fine high-fired celadons of the Tang dynasty, but was ultimately the result of research and development by potters at the Qing imperial kilns.
A key factor in the design of contemporary decorative arts in the 18th century was that the three great Qing emperors - Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong - were all ardent antiquarians, who collected and studied material from earlier dynasties. They collected not only early ceramics, but material in a wide range of other media, most notably bronzes. The Qianlong Emperor was the most enthusiastic collector and was unsurpassed in the number and range of items he added to the imperial collection - indeed he has been described as having an 'omnivorous fondness' for collecting art. Following the lead of the Northern Song Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25), Qianlong commissioned the publication of illustrated catalogues of his collections, including the Shiqu baoji (Shiqu catalogue of the imperial collections); Midian zhulin (Court collection of treasures), the Tianlu lin lang (Tianlu collection of masterpieces), and the Xiqing gujian (Xiqing mirror of antiquities). The latter, which was compiled in 1749 (fig. 1), may well have provided models for porcelains in ancient bronze style, such as the current vase. This rare and finely decorated vase is representative of a particular archaistic style seen in porcelain vessels of the Qianlong period, when the interest of the emperor in archaic bronzes and antiques of all types required the potters at the imperial kilns to interpret the shapes and designs of early bronzes in porcelain.
Specifically, the decoration and shape of the present vase was inspired by Western Zhou, 9th century BC, bronze lei, similar to that in the Freer Gallery of Art illustrated by John A. Pope et al., Freer Chinese Bronzes, vol. 1, Washington DC, 1967, pl. 83 (fig. 2). Although in the case of the ceramic form, the shoulder handles of the original bronze were omitted and the neck lengthened in order to give the porcelain vessel a more elegant profile. Crisply cast bands of decoration in a formal broad wave-pattern band, like that on the current vase, can also be seen on the large bronze Xiao Ke ding (fig. 3), in the Shanghai Museum illustrated in Zhongguo Qingtongqi Zhanlanmulu, Wuzhou quanbo chubanshe, 2004, nos. 68-69; and on the Hu gui, also in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated by Chen Peifen in Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Shanghai Museum, London, 1995, pp. 74-5, no. 46.
In the 18th century the Jingdezhen imperial kilns devoted considerable research and development to the production of celadon glazes applied to a white porcelain body. Although celadon-type glazes, coloured with small quantities of iron, were applied to porcelain bodies at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns in the early Ming period, the Kangxi potters perfected a particularly delicate version over a very white (low iron) porcelain body. The delicate celadon glaze was coloured using only about half the amount of iron found, for instance, in typical Longquan celadon glazes of the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties. The new celadon glaze for porcelain was further modified in the Yongzheng period to produce an even more finely textured and slightly bluer pale celadon glaze, and small adjustments continued to be made in the Qianlong reign. This range of delicate Qing dynasty celadon glazes has been much admired by Chinese connoisseurs, and individual glazes have been given names such as douqing (bean green) and dongqing (eastern green) in the Kangxi reign, dongqing (winter green) and fenqing (soft green) in the Yongzheng reign. In the Qianlong reign these fine celadon glazes were sometimes used on undecorated pieces - the perfection of the glaze enhancing the elegance of the form. However, celadon glazes were also applied to porcelain vessels with low relief surface decoration, which had become somewhat bolder and more formal in the Qianlong reign.
The present vase is also an excellent example of the refined effect that could be created by the use of the carved decoration on a monochrome porcelain vessel. The technique allows the details of the elaborate, crisp decoration around the body to be highlighted by the delicate translucent glaze pooling in the deeper recesses to provide a contrast of colour tones, thereby creating a pleasing dichromatic effect, while accentuating the dense archaistic design.
A small number of other vases of the Qianlong period with this rare combination of shape and decoration are published. One from the Baur Collection is illustrated by J. Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, vol. 2, Geneva, 1999, pl. 290 [A379], and again in Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 15, Tokyo, 1983, p. 111, pl. 121. Another, formerly in the T.Y. Chao Collection, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 1 November 2004, lot 875. An example in the Chang Foundation, Taipei, is illustrated by J. Spencer, Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Qing Dynasties, Taipei, 1990, pl. 155; while another in The Wang Xing Lou Collection is illustrated in Imperial Perfection: The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors: Kangxi - Yongzheng - Qianlong, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 184, no. 68.
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION