INSPIRED BY ANTIQUITIES - A SPECTACULAR BLUE AND WHITE QIANLONG AMPHORA
ROSEMARY SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART
This very rare vase is a particularly fascinating example of the way the emperors' interests influenced the objects made for their courts. The three great Qing emperors - Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95) - were all enthusiastic collectors of antiques, and all three commissioned items for their courts made in antique styles. These archaistic pieces were made in many media, but those in bronze and ceramic were perhaps the most artistically successful. Those made in ceramic were the most varied - some adapting archaic decoration, some adopting antique forms, and others combining elements of the two. The current 18th century vase has faithfully copied the form of an amphora from the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), while some of its decoration is in the style of porcelains dating to the first half of the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644).
While amphorae with short necks, small handles at the widest part of the body, and pointed bases were made in China at Neolithic sites such as Banpo (5th-4th millennium BC, see The Genius of China, Times Newspapers Ltd., London, 1973, p. 49, no. 19), the form of the current amphora probably entered China from the west. The term amphora refers to vessels with two carrying handles, one on either side. Although the name amphora comes from Latin, that in turn comes from a Greek word amphoreus, short for amphiphoreus, formed by a combination of a term meaning 'on both sides' and one meaning 'to carry' - reference to the handles. Such vessels were used throughout the Graeco-Roman world to store or contain, oil, wine, water, fruit and grain. Some had pointed bases and some had a disk-shaped foot. The Greeks gave beautifully decorated examples as prizes to the victors at Panathenaic games, while simple examples were very popular practical vessels.
In the Tang dynasty amphorae were made with wide shoulders tapering to a relatively narrow foot and flat base, the necks were narrow and quite long with rings around them, while the mouths were dished and the handles were in the form of dragons heads, apparently biting the mouth of the vessel on either side (see fig. 1). Most vessels have two handles, but rare examples, such as the one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, had three. The Tang vessels were made either with monochrome glazes, most frequently white, but sometimes green or amber, or were decorated in the sancai glaze palette. An example of the latter type from the collection of the Tokyo National Museum is illustrated in Special Exhibition - Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo National Museum, 1994, p. 75, no. 106. A Tang dynasty white-glazed amphora in a private collection (illustrated by Masahiko Sato in Chinese Ceramics: A Short History, Weatherhill/Heibonsha, New York/Tokyo, 1981, p. 53, fig. 77) is particularly close in form to the current Qianlong vessel, having low relief rings around the neck and sprig-moulded palmette appliqués on the shoulder. The current vase demonstrates just how faithfully the 18th century porcelain forms sometimes copied that of the original vessels.
In the 18th century amphorae of this form were made in porcelain at the Jingdezhen kilns and were either decorated in underglaze cobalt blue or were given monochrome glazes. A Yongzheng-marked blue and white amphora of similar size and shape to the current Qianlong example is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 108, no. 94 (see fig. 2). A larger Yongzheng-marked blue and white amphora of the same shape as the current vessel, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (illustrated by Rose Kerr in Chinese Ceramics - Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1986, p. 30, no. 13). A Yongzheng-marked amphora of this form with monochrome sky-blue glaze is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 433, no. 906). A Yongzheng amphora of this form with teadust glaze is illustrated by John Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in the Koger Collection, London, 1985, and another teadust-glazed Yongzheng amphora from the Idemitsu collection is illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, 1987, no. 962. A Yongzheng amphora with celadon glaze was sold by Christie's Hong Kong, 1 November 2004, lot 872 (see fig. 3). Qianlong examples of this form are very rare and were probably only made in the early years of the reign.
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN