It is extremely rare to find such large twelve-panel screens with sumptuous decorations and inlaid with fine quality carvings as on the present example.
John Wanamaker published the present screen, A Notable Carved and Painted Twelve-Fold Chinese Screen of the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries from the Imperial Palace in Pekin, New York and Philadelphia, 1928, in which the author stated that the screen was 'made as a gift from a Premier to an Emperor', ibid., p. 3. Based on its massive size and superb quality in craftsmanship, it is likely that the screen was carved by artisans in the Imperial workshops, commissioned by Kangxi as a birthday gift to a high official.
The technique of decorating surfaces with carvings appeared as early as the Western Zhou period with the discovery of an inlaid mother-of-pearl lacquer tray excavated in 1964 at Pangjiaguo, Luoyang, Henan province, cf. Zhu Jiajin, Treasures of the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1983, p. 224. This form of decoration is known as bai bao qian, 'inlays of a hundred treasures', and was transferred to furniture and other works of art in the mid-Ming period with additional inclusion of other materials carved of nephrite jades, rock crystal, agate, hornbill, turtle shell, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and ivory. Inlaid works from the late Ming are rare; see two examples in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing: the first, a square brushpot decorated with ivory, jade, coconut shell, and mother-of-pearl; and a soapstone inlaid circular box, both illustrated in Zhongguo Qiqi Quanji, vol. 5, Ming, no. 198 and 199 respectively; and the embellished zitan box offered in the present sale, lot 539. This form of surface decoration continued into the Qing dynasty, more commonly found on boxes, brushpots and wall panels, although no other lavishly decorated screens appear to have been published.
The present screen is unique in that its embellishment is entirely of carved and stained soapstone, and without the additions of jade, ivory and other such carvings. The only other related example appears to be an eight-fold huanghuali screen sparsely inlaid with stained soapstone and ivory, dated to the late 17th/early 18th century, illustrated by C. Evarts, A Leisurely Pursuit - Splendid Hardwood Antiquities from the Liang Yi Collection, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 173, no. 59. The present lot is exquisitely inlaid with elaborately conceived and brilliantly carved soapstone panels. The frontal soapstone inlaid panels are all Chinese in conception with depictions of Daoist immortals and scholars in landscapes. The scenes on the reverse side, on the other hand, are all depictions of European figures amidst Western architecture, a topical subject-matter for the Kangxi emperor who was particularly interested in European innovations and technical knowledge.
An interesting point of note is the portrayal of visual perspective in the soapstone carvings as seen on the architecture on one of the 'Western' panels (fig. a). The concept of visual perspective was introduced by the Jesuits to the Qing court probably during the mid-Kangxi period. The adoption is evidently seen on one of the earliest Chinese oil paintings depicting court ladies at leisure in a pavilion landscape painted on a six-panelled screen dated to the Kangxi period in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing, illustrated by Tian Jiaqing, Classic Chinese Furniture of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 244-245, no. 109. Although it is known that the Jesuits had given the Kangxi emperor drawings illustrating perspective with explanatory notes, the publication of Shi Xue, which was translated by Nian Xiyao and Lang Shining from Pozzo's Perspective Pictorum et Architectorum, was not published until 1729 during the reign of Yongzheng.
Screens decorated with landscape panels painted by professional painters became popular during the Kangxi period, and were an important part of household furnishings displayed on special occasions for the aristocratic elite, cf. Classical Chinese Furniture in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1999, p. 155. The Minneapolis screen of huanghuali wood is comparable to the present screen as it still retains its original set of paintings depicting a birthday celebration in a garden courtyard scene, illustrated, op. cit. pp-156-157. Longevity appears to be a prominent decorative theme on large screens of this type, as can be seen by the shou characters worked into the openwork panels surrounding the Minneapolis screen. On the present example, the shou characters are more stylised and less overt, and incorporated with the overall dragon design on the pierced zitan panels.
Compare with two similar screens both intricately carved in openwork of huanghuali wood, the first sold in these Rooms, 30 October 1994, lot 419; and the other sold in Important Chinese Furniture: Formerly the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection, sold in our New York Rooms, 19 September 1996, lot 107. Unlike both cited huanghuali examples, the present screen is complete with its period paintings in the court style, which are very likely original to the screen.
The ten paintings depict the scenic landscapes of Hangzhou known as the 'Ten views of West Lake', an inspiration from Song dynasty paintings. Travellers to the area were encouraged to walk around the lake and surrounding district, admiring the various views of temples, caves and waterfalls. The scenes depicted include 'Spring Dawn at Su Dike'; 'Lotus Breeze at Qu Winery'; 'Autumn Moon above the Placid Lake'; 'Remnant Snow on Broken Bridge'; 'Listening to the Orioles by the Willow Ripples'; 'Watching fish at Flower Cove'; 'Sunset on Leifeng Pagoda; 'Twin Peaks Piercing the Clouds'; 'Evening Bell from Nanping Hill'; and 'Three stupas and the Reflecting Moon'.
Other examples of these massive screens are also published, cf. a ten-fold huanghuali screen is illustrated in The Dr. S. Y. Yip Collection of Classic Chinese Furniture, Hong Kong, 1991, p. 144, no. 57; and a related documentary twelve-panel huanghuali screen inset with coromandel panels rather than paintings, bearing a Qianlong cyclical date of 1736, sold in these Rooms, 29 October 2001, lot 738.