This exquisite and unique pair of lidded jars represent the ultimate refinement of a decorative technique that appears first to have entered the repertoire of the imperial Jingdezhen kilns in the reign of the Ming dynasty Xuande emperor (1426-35). The technique of using raised lines to provide outlines and colour divisions on ceramics decorated with enamel colours seems initially to have been developed in the Yuan or early Ming dynasty by kilns in Shanxi province associated with the tile-making industry. This technique, which came to be known as fahua, was often combined with either a cobalt blue or a turquoise ground, but, to date, the earliest example recovered from the imperial kilns is a dish from the Xuande stratum decorated with green five-clawed dragons on a yellow ground (Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1998, p. 78, no. 73). Similar pieces have also been found in the mid-Chenghua (1465-87) stratum at the imperial kilns (Tsui Museum of Art, A Legacy of Chenghua, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 148-9, no. B30). By the end of the 15th century, however, handsome jars and vases decorated in this technique were being made at the Jingdezhen kilns, usually with cobalt blue or turquoise grounds and frequently bearing bird and/or flower motifs. See for example the famous jar from the Ataka Collection, Osaka illustrated by R. Fujioka and G. Hasebe in Sekai toji Zenshu 14 Ming, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1976, p. 134, no. 135 (fig. 1)
A similar decorative technique appeared in metalwork during the Yuan dynasty and gained popularity during the early Ming (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum -43 - Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, pp 6-7, no 5 and p. 19, no. 17). This technique, known as cloisonne, involved the application of fine wire to the surface of the metal (usually bronze) vessel to form discrete areas, or cloisons, and providing the outlines for the decorative elements. The areas within and surrounding these elements was filled with enamel, which was fired and then the surface polished smooth, the exposed top of the wires often being gilded. The ground colour for these metal-bodied cloisonne enamels was most frequently turquoise, but sometimes cobalt blue, white or occasionally yellow.
One of the most popular, and most successful, designs seen on the highest quality fahua porcelains of the Ming dynasty was the lotus pond. A jar in the Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo, for example, has as its main decorative band a scene of a lotus pond with small white egrets against a cobalt blue ground, illustrated by R. Fujioka and G. Hasebe in Sekai toji Zenshu 14 Ming, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1976, p. 135, no. 136 (fig. 2). A similar lotus pond, including broad-leaf arrowhead, can also be seen on a circa AD 1500 jar from the Salting Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see J. Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Philip Wilson, London, 1980, no. 158). A vase, formerly in the Eumorfopoulos Collection and now in the Baur Collection (J. Ayers, The Baur Collection Geneva - Chinese Ceramics, vol. 2, Geneve, 1969, no. A 152), has a simpler lotus pond design. There are two fahua vases with lotus pond motif in the collection of the British Museum (J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics, British Museum Press, 2001, p. 411, nos. 13:4 and 13:5) - one of temple vase form with dragon-head handles, and the other a meiping. The lotus pond was also a design seen on Ming dynasty cloisonne, for example on a 16th century metal-bodied meiping in the collection of the National Palace Museum (National Palace Museum, Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, p. 78, no. 10) and on a 16th century ewer in the Uldry Collection (H. Brinker & A. Lutz, Chinese Cloisonne - the Pierre Uldry Collection, Asia Society Galleries, New York, 1989, no. 97). A lotus blossom and leaf, as well as broad-leaf arrowhead, are also among the auspicious plants included on a 16th century cloisonne meiping in the Uldry Collection (ibid. no. 41).
Both the porcelain fahua wares and the metal-bodied cloisonne wares of the Ming dynasty were much admired by the Qing dynasty Qianlong emperor (1736-95), who ordered similar items in both media made for his court. A Qianlong cloisonne metal-bodied guan jar with a lotus pond design is in the National Palace Museum (see National Palace Museum, Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, p. 158, no. 71). This includes ducks on one side and egrets on the other. Among the porcelain wares of the Qianlong vessel closest in appearance to the Ming fahua porcelains is a lidded jar in the National Palace Museum (see National Palace Museum, Qing Kang Yong Qian mingci tezhan, Taipei, 1986, p. 111, no. 81). This has a deep cobalt blue ground with mottled translucency similar to the Ming vessels, and the enamel palette used on this piece has been restricted to the translucent green, yellow and white of the Ming. On both the body and lid however, small egrets have been included, as on the current jars.
A small number of Qianlong jars have survived, which were decorated using the fahua technique but the famille rose palette. There are two slightly larger jars without lids - one in the Palace Museum (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 39 - Porcelain with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 167, no. 148) (fig. 3), and another formerly in the R.C. Bruce Collection (illustrated by Soame Jenyns in Later Chinese Porcelain, Faber & Faber, London, 1951, pl. CII). A somewhat larger lidded jar, formerly in the J.T. Tai Foundation was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 21 May 1985, Lot 26 and again at Sotheby's New York, 28-9 November 1994, lot 375; it is also illustrated in Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Qing Dynasties, The Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1990, pp 370-1, no. 166 (see fig. 4). These large jars have gold enamelled reign marks on their turquoise bases. A similar but smaller jar, without lid, in the Baur Collection has, like the current jars, an ungilded, impressed mark under the turquoise enamel (J. Ayers, The Baur Collection Geneva - Chinese Ceramics, vol. 4, Geneve, 1974, no. A 634).
All these jars share with the current pair of lidded jars their decorative technique, the choice of a lotus pond as major decorative motif, and the use of the famille rose enamel palette. They also share the feature of having gold enamel on the mouth rim and having the raised outlines also picked out in gold enamel - undoubtedly as a reference to metal-bodied cloisonne enamels. The current pair is especially rare, however, not only in the fact that both have survived in excellent condition and with their lids, but for a variety of other reasons. Most other examples have distinctly opaque, rather bright blue grounds. The current vases have very attractive grounds in rich translucent blue enamel, which has a softly speckled texture - probably the result of the enamel having been blown onto the surface of the vessel. This ground is interesting since it is somewhat closer to that of the Qianlong Ming-style fahua jar in the National Palace Museum. The other Qing examples have relatively large beaded designs on their shoulders. The current pair has a smaller, precisely drawn, band of ruyi lappets. This allows a greater space for the main decorative band and enabled the ceramic decorator to produce a more complex and coherent design, including not only the flying and standing egrets, but also naturalistic clumps of broad-leafed arrowhead (saggitaria latifolia) with both leaves and flower stalks. This pair of jars is also the only published example that has around the foot a beautifully composed petal band that clearly has its origins in fine Ming fahua, such as the jar in the Baur Collection (J. Ayers, The Baur Collection Geneva - Chinese Ceramics, vol. 2, Geneve, 1969, no. A 151). The difference on these jars is that the petal band is formally composed and has been given a rich imperial yellow ground, which refers back to the yellow grounds of the first imperial fahua porcelain vessels made in the Ming Xuande reign. The yellow-ground petal band on the jars is complemented by red and turquoise details and gold outlines. A similarly rich treatment has also been given to the bud finial on the lids, which is topped by a red-petalled chrysanthemum with turquoise stamens in the centre. The rim of the lids, the mouth rims and the foot rims of the jars are also covered with gold enamel adding to their jewel-like quality. It seems clear that this remarkable pair of jars must have been made for a special imperial order.