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THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
A Porcelain Masterpiece
This unique falangcai dish dates to the latter years of the Yongzheng reign, and typifies the finest qualities of that period - artistic elegance and technical achievement. By the 1730s the decorators working in the imperial ateliers in the Palace were provided with a fully developed palette of the new enamel colours and had achieved full mastery of their use. The decoration on this dish may be seen as the culmination of that mastery combined with superb artistic skill.
Three dishes with this design are known, each of them differing slightly from the others. One was a gift of Dr. Tamisuke Yokogawa to the Tokyo National Museum (fig. 1). This is slightly more heavily potted than the other two dishes, but shares with them similar characteristics of enamel control and painting style. The painted design on this dish is restricted to the interior of the vessel, while the back of the dish is covered with pale green enamel (fig. 2). This dish shares with the current example the same poetic inscription and the same seals.
Both inscriptions are written in two vertical lines of four and three characters. Close examination of the inscription on the Tokyo dish and the current dish strongly suggest that they were written by the same hand (see fig. 3). The seals also share the same text and form, suggesting that they too were the work of the same artist.
fang rui jing shi xue li kai
"In due time the fragrant buds will blossom through the snow"
jia li beautiful; xiang qing pure fragrance; shou gu ancient longevity.
The second dish is in the Baur Collection, Geneva (fig. 4). This dish is, like the current example, more thinly potted than the Tokyo example. The painted design on this dish is also restricted to the interior of the vessel, and the exterior is covered with green enamel (fig. 5). The enamel on this dish is deeper in tone and of thicker texture than that on the Tokyo dish. The Baur dish bears a different calligraphic inscription to that on the other two dishes, but examination of the calligraphy again strongly suggests that it is by the same hand (fig. 6). The seals have the same text and form as those on the other two dishes.
shu zhi heng cui zhu yi ye rao zhu lan
"Many branches of kingfisher green bamboo growing horizontally, winding around the vermilion balustrade in one night"
jia li beautiful; xiang qing pure frangrance; shou gu ancient longevity.
The third dish with this design is the current example, which shares with the Baur Collection dish similar fineness of potting, and shares with the Tokyo dish the same calligraphic inscription, as well as having the same seals as both the other two. It is interesting to note that all three dishes share the appearance of tiny pin holes in the glaze on their bases, caused by the bursting of bubbles on the surface of the glaze. They also share the same body texture apparent on their unglazed foot rims, as well as a slight orange tinge to this area, caused by re-oxidation during the firing of the enamels. All three dishes share the same enamel palette, as well as the way of using those enamels. This is particularly evident on the pink flowers and their calyxes, and in the use of a very pale, transparent green enamel on the pale central veins of the bamboo leaves.
Where the current dish differs from the Baur and Tokyo dishes, is that the decoration extends to the exterior, which is not covered with green enamel. To be more accurate, the decoration begins at the foot, extends over the rim to the interior of the vessel, and then one branch returns over the rim to decorate the exterior. The composition is innovatively conceived and brilliantly executed. It seems probable that this style of decoration, which brought a flowering branch over the rim of a dish or bowl, and which was known as guozhihua (flowering branch passing over [the rim]), was first developed in the latter years of the Ming dynasty in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. A blue and white example of ko-sometsuke ware was published by Saito Kikutaro in Toji Zenshu, Vol. 15, plate 4. However, it was not until the Qing dynasty that this style of decoration seems to have gained popularity and specifically imperial favour. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has in its collection a rare bowl, formerly in the Bernat collection and dated to the late seventeenth century, which bears the name of the legendary potter, Hao Shijiu (see Wu Tung, Earth Transformed - Chinese Ceramics in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MFA Publications, Boston, 2001, p. 149). This bowl, which was probably made in the Kangxi reign, has a white slip design of prunus blossom running from the exterior to the interior.
It was in the Yongzheng period that the guozhihua style of decoration reached its peak, in terms both of accomplished execution and also of popularity at court. Finely enamelled vessels of both large and small size were decorated with blossoming branches that began at the foot of the vessel and then continued over the rim into the interior. A dish (D: 50.8 cm.) in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, decorated with flowering and fruiting peach and tree peony, provides a good example of the large vessels (see R. Scott, Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Chronicle Books, San Francisco/Los Angeles, 1989, p. 84, no. 52). An example of the small vessels can be seen in the cup (D: 8.6 cm.) decorated with flowering branches and butterflies in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrated by Wu Tung, op. cit., p. 159). These two vessels are exquisitely painted, but they lack the calligraphic inscription and seals of the current dish and were probably decorated at Jingdezhen. The current dish is a rare example of a falangcai vessel decorated at the imperial ateliers in Beijing, which has not only utilised the guozhihua style, but has taken it one step further by bringing a branch back over the rim to the exterior.
There is a pair of Yongzheng falangcai bowls, one now in the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 7 [Falangcai, Fencai, Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration: The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Vol. 39, The Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, no. 12]) and the other in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (fig. 8 [Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, Taipei, 1992, Catalogue no. 32]), that provide an interesting comparison with the current dish. Both bowls are decorated with branches of single white blossom and double pink blossom very similar to those on the three dishes, but without bamboo. Both bowls have the same calligraphic inscription as that on the current dish, and only slight modifications to the seals. Those on the bowls read: xian chun early spring; shou ru extended longevity; xiang qing pure fragrance. The style of painting, calligraphy and seals seen on these bowls closely resembles that on the three dishes. It is particularly interesting to note that although the bowls do not have decoration going over their rims into the interior, viewed in profile one branch on the Beijing bowl has been painted in such a way that it seems to disappear at the rim and then return to the exterior in the same way as the branch on the current dish.
A slightly larger Yongzheng falangcai bowl in the National Palace Museum (fig. 9 [Ibid., Taipei, 1992, Catalogue no. 23]) bears the same decorative motifs as the current dish - bamboo, single white blossom and double pink blossom - painted in very similar style. This bowl bears the same seals as the pair of bowls discussed above, but a different calligraphic inscription reading:
qing ying zhao qi shui yan lian xia qiong tai
"Gracefully swaying, reflected in the mountain stream,
gently bending downwards from the palace of the immortals".
A somewhat smaller Yongzheng falangcai bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan (fig. 10 [Ibid., Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 49]) bears almost the same motifs as the current dish - bamboo, single white blossom and single (rather than double) pink blossom. This bowl has the same seals as the dish in the same style. The bowl bears, however, a different calligraphic inscription reading:
dan zhuang shu ying liang yi yi
"Like ladies with light maquillage, through the shadows they lean on one another".
The same decorative motifs, with single pink blossom, single white blossom and bamboo appear on the interior of a Yongzheng falangcai dish in the National Palace Museum (fig. 11 [Ibid., Taiwan, 1992, cat. no. 104]). The dish, which has yellow enamel on its exterior, bears the same seals as the bowls. However, unlike all the vessels discussed to date, it has a six-character underglaze blue mark within a double circle. The painting style on this dish is also quite different from that of the other vessels, most noticeable in the large heavy green calyxes of the white flowers. This dish was obviously painted by a different artist to the one who worked on the current dish, the Baur Collection dish, or the one in Tokyo.
In the context of these last three dishes, it is worth noting that their four-character blue enamel marks, enclosed in a double square with mitred corners and a thick exterior line surrounding a thinner interior one, are extremely similar not only in form, but also in the colour and texture of their blue enamel. Another Yongzheng falangcai dish in the Percival David Foundation (PDF A808 illustrated by Sheila Yorke Hardy in 'Ku Yueh Hsuan - A New Hypothesis', Oriental Art, II (1949), No. 3, p. 117), which is decorated on the exterior with branches of blossoming white prunus and pink mallow against a pale green ground, also bears a reign mark very close in all respects to that on the current dish. This David Foundation dish, which is probably a pair to another in the Freer Gallery (The World's Great Collections Oriental Ceramics, vol. 9, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C., Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1981, col. pl. 25) bears the same inscription as the small National Palace Museum bowl, discussed above (fig. 10 [cat. 49]).
The most extraordinary closeness, not only in the style and enamel of the mark, but in virtually all other aspects, can be seen between the current dish and one of the famous falangcai teapots in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (fig. 12). The teapot in fact dates to the Qianlong reign, but its restrained polychrome effects and specific painting style indicate that it was made early in the reign. A closeness between the late Yongzheng dish and the early Qianlong teapot is therefore not surprising. The dish and teapot have been examined closely side by side, and it was noted that the texture of the glazes is identical. The colour and texture of the reign marks is also identical, as is the tone and texture of the individual enamel colours. The David Foundation teapot bears a ten-character calligraphic inscription written in four vertical lines of three, two, three and two characters (fig. 13), which is the same as that on the Baur Collection dish. Even though the teapot's inscription is written in four shorter lines, because of the vessel shape, it is clear that this inscription, the inscription on the Baur dish and that on the current dish were all written by the same hand. All three vessels also have the same seals in the same style and colour.
It is, however, in the minutiae of the enamel painting on the current dish and the David Foundation teapot that the similarities are most remarkable. Comparison of specific sections of the designs on the two vessels show a very similar approach to design layout, and even in places one vessel has a section which is almost a mirror image of a section on the other (figs. 14, 15). Although the teapot has additional elements, such as rocks and narcissi, the painting of the bamboo, single white blossoms and double pink blossoms is almost identical to that on the dish. The use, tone and texture of the pink enamel are strikingly alike on the two vessels, especially in the achievement of deeper and paler tones (figs. 16, 17). The depiction of both the anther and stalk of the stamens is identical, as is the tone and texture of the yellow enamel used for the anthers (figs. 18, 19). The delicate use of exactly the same amount of pink to edge the green of the calyxes on both teapot and dish is yet another indication that they were painted by the same hand (figs. 20, 21).
The current exquisite dish is unique in its combination of attributes, but belongs to a close group of extraordinarily fine enamelled porcelains decorated in the imperial ateliers in the 1730s at the end of the Yongzheng and the beginning of the Qianlong reigns.