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Chinese Deer Vases from an English Country House
International Academic Director, Asian Art Departments
These magnificent 'deer 'vases were formerly in the possession of the Earls Cowper and were among the works of art displayed at the family home of Panshanger Park in Hertfordshire. Although the residence of the First Earl was Cole Green Park, near Hertingfordbury, the Fifth Earl demolished this house and built Panshanger, just to the east of Cole Green, in the first decade of the 19th century. Writing in Country Life in 1936, Christopher Hussey noted of Panshanger that: 'House and park are a good example of the landscape architecture of Humphrey Repton. That is to say that the house was designed, not to be regarded by itself, but as part of the landscape formed by Repton out of the valley of the Mimram, the existing park of Cole Green, and the mature timber of Panshanger.' ('Country Homes, Gardens Old & New - Panshanger Hertfordshire-I A Seat of lord and Lady Desborough', Country Life, January 11th 1936, pp. 38-40).
In his Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, published in 1803, Humphry Repton lists Panshanger as one of his 'creations' and credits only the assistance of his son, John Adey Repton, 'in the architectural department'. It is possible that John Nash also worked with Repton on Pansanger, since the work was undertaken in 1799-1801, but after the rift between Repton and Nash in 1802-3, Repton did not include Nash's name in any of his commentaries, although Repton's younger son George appears to have continued to work with both his father and Nash. The house itself has been described by Hussey as 'a blend of "Elizabethan" and "Church Gothic"'(Country Life, op. cit., p. 43) while the grounds were developed in 'Picturesque' style. By the end of the 19th century the Pansanger estate covered about 662 acres in Hertfordshire, some of which were sold in 1919 to Ebenezer Howard's Second Garden City Ltd., and were eventually used for the building of Welwyn Garden City.
Humphry Repton was a competent artist and he used these skills to provide his clients with 'Red Books', so called because they were bound in red leather, in which he provided 'before' and 'after' drawings and watercolours of their estates. A surviving painting of the Panshanger estate provides an indication of how well the current deer vases would have suited their surroundings (Fig. 1). The painting shows deer in the park with trees, water, and the house in the distance.
The family finally sold Panshanger in 1952. However, a number of photographs of the interior of the house, taken in the 1930s, provide a good indication of the way in which the remarkable art collection was housed within its crenellated walls. Two rooms - the China Room and the Dairy were given over to the display of porcelain, but photographs also show Chinese porcelains in the Picture Gallery, Library, Drawing Room and Small Dining Room, and it seems likely that porcelain would have been displayed in other rooms.
Even amongst the other remarkable treasures in Panshanger, these large famille rose 'deer' vases would have been spectacular. They reflect the taste of one of China's great imperial collectors and patrons, the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), and would have been made for his court at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. While the whole of the bold pear-shape of their bodies is given over to depiction of deer in landscape with rocks, pine trees and blossoming trees, the scheme is complemented by the handles on either side, which are in the form of archaistic dragons and are enamelled in iron red with gold details. Such archaistic details were very popular at the Qianlong court.
The picturesque scenes of deer in rocky, tree-strewn landscapes were probably intended to represent deer in the imperial gardens and hunting parks. Indeed, one of the reasons for the popularity of deer in Chinese art is associated with a favourite imperial pastime - the creation of gardens and hunting parks, which were frequently stocked with deer. Even the last rulers of both the early Bronze Age dynasties of Xia and Shang are traditionally believed to have expended considerable sums from the treasury on the construction of gardens and parks. The first Qin dynasty emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (221-207 BC), is credited with the initial design for the Shanglin Park to the west and south-west of the capital Chang'an (modern Xi'an), and the Upper Grove Park near his palace was used partly as a leisure park and partly as a hunting park. The Han dynasty Emperor Wudi (140-87 BC) expanded this park and had artificial lakes created within it. Some of the pools were specially dug for the deer, which were among the animals and plants brought to the imperial park from all over China (see N. Titley and F. Wood, Oriental Gardens, British Library, London, 1991, p. 72). The second Sui dynasty emperor (AD 598-618) ordered the construction of a similar park outside his capital at Luoyang, into which he too brought deer. The Northern Song emperor Huizong (AD 1101-26) was another enthusiastic builder of gardens, and the imperial garden at Kaifeng contained many different types of deer among its varied animal inhabitants. The Southern Song emperors also enjoyed gardens at their capital at Hangzhou, and Marco Polo's Travels mentions a large park on the shores of West Lake containing many types of deer. Thus deer became well established in Chinese imperial gardens for their visual attractiveness and interesting variations, as well as to provide sport for imperial hunting parties.
The Manchus of the Qing dynasty were proud of their heritage and encouraged equestrian and hunting skills. The Qianlong Emperor revived the tradition of the annual Autumn hunt, and the Summer Palace at Chengde was largely a hunting park kept stocked with game, particularly deer. Deer and deer hunts were favourite themes in Qing dynasty court painting. A handscroll of 'One Hundred Deer' by Ai Qimeng (the Jesuit artist Ignatius Sichelbarth, 1708-80), now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, shows a similar approach to the deer in landscape as seen on the current vases, including the wide river at the end of the scroll, and the inclusion of colourful leaves on some of the trees (Fig. 2). The subject of deer was obviously one close to the Qianlong emperor's heart, as can be seen not only in the numerous court paintings dating to his reign, but in the appearance of deer on porcelain. Vases such as the current examples with their large decorative areas provided an ideal 'canvas' for the creation of enamel paintings of deer in landscapes on porcelain. Qianlong's appreciation of the theme was also expressed on a cloisonné plaque, formerly in the collection of S. Soames, decorated with a river landscape through which wander the so-called 'hundred deer' (see Sir Harry Garner, Chinese and Japanese Cloisonné Enamels, Faber & Faber, London, 1962, p. 93 and pl. 77). The plaque is inscribed on the back with a somewhat disingenuous Qianlong poem in which the emperor refers to the deer with their young in the royal park, and how they are free from fear because they are safe-guarded by imperial decree from attack by archers shooting arrows.
Deer also have a number of auspicious meanings in Chinese culture. Shoulao, the Star God of Longevity, is usually depicted accompanied by a spotted deer, crane, peach and pine tree. Thus each of these, including the deer, has come to represent long life. Deer are also believed to be the only animals that can find the fungus of immortality, seeking them out as pigs in France can locate truffles. In addition, deer may represent Luxing, the God of Rank and Emolument. The Chinese word for deer, lu, sounds like the word for emolument or an official salary, thus deer are symbolic of the rank and wealth that are associated with such a salary. Finally, Chinese herbalists traditionally grind up deer antlers and include the resulting powder in certain medicines, believing it to have health-giving effects.
Vases with this type of decoration are often known as 'hundred deer vases' (although in most cases the number a hundred is used loosely simply to mean 'many'). In Chinese a hundred deer is bai lu which suggests the wish shoutian bailu 'May you receive the hundred emoluments from heaven' with the implication of a multiplied wish for wealth and rank, as well as longevity. The number one hundred is implied using two other rebuses within these designs, one is by including white deer amongst the brown or red deer, since the word for white in Chinese is bai - a homophone for the word for a hundred. The other rebus is provided by the inclusion of a cypress tree in the design, since the name for cypress in Chinese is also bai.
Two slightly different versions of this design exist. The one on the current vases is the much rarer type, on which the river is a more dominant feature of the landscape, and the artist has given greater attention to the creation of coherent recession in the scheme. The dominance of the river on these vases is particularly appropriate when one compares them with the painting of Panshanger from the 'Red Book' (Fig. 1). On the porcelain vases the artist has used the river very effectively to create a greater feeling of space in the composition, and allow a more effective impression of recession in the landscape. One other vase of this type also with iron red and gilt handles and the same lay-out is in the Chang Foundation (fig. 3).
The other published examples of Qianlong 'hundred deer' vases have a more crowded scheme, without the wide river, and with none of the deer viewed in the far distance. A 'hundred deer' vase of this second type, from the Qing Court Collection, with iron red handles similar to those on the current vases is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 4). A pair of similar 'hundred deer' vases with iron red handles is in the Shanghai Museum (illustrated in Selected Ceramics from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Hu, Shanghai, 1989, pl. 67), while a single example, also in the Shanghai Museum, is illustrated in Chogoku Toji Zenshu, vol. 21, Kyoto, 1981, pl. 103. A further red-handled vase is in the Osaka Museum (illustrated in Ming and Qing Ceramics and Works of Art, Japan, 1980, p. 43, pl. 195), A similar vase was included in the Hong Kong Museum of Art exhibition The Wonders of the Potter's Palette, 1984, and is illustrated in the catalogue as no. 71, while another from the Grandidier Collection is in the Musée Guimet, Paris (illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, Kodansha Series, Tokyo, 1981, vol. 7, pl. 190).
A Qianlong 'hundred deer' vase with blue handles and a deer vase without handles are in the collection of the Seikado Bunko Art Museum (illustrated in Qing Dynasty Porcelain, Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, p. 68, no. 58 and p. 69, no. 59, respectively). A further 'hundred deer' vase with blue handles is in the collection of the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Nanjing Museum/Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1995, no. 86).
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN