A MAGNIFICENT AND VERY LARGE BLUE AND WHITE ‘DRAGON’ JAR
This monumental dragon jar comes from a private French family collection. It was passed by descent through the family to the current owner, a distinguished Swiss lady. The jar was in the collection of her grandmother, Mrs. M. Legrand (1883- 1978), who lived most of her life in Paris but was originally from Northern France. Mrs. Legrand had herself inherited the jar in 1926. The jar was passed to Mrs. Legrand’s son (the current owner’s uncle – 1908-1997) and appears in an inventory of 1981. It was inherited by the current owner from her uncle, following the latter’s death in 1997. In the present owner’s home the jar until recently stood in the hall and held walking sticks. For this latter use, the jar was protected by a fitted metal liner, which can clearly be seen in a contemporary photograph.
The jar was made in the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1426-35), a period which is generally regarded by connoisseurs as the highpoint of Chinese blue and white porcelain production. In this reign enthusiastic imperial patronage, technical ingenuity, and inspired artistry combined to create some of the most impressive blue and white porcelain vessels in China’s long ceramic history.
Production at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen was considerable in the Xuande reign, and it has been estimated that at one time there were 58 kilns working for the court. The Da Ming Huidian (Institutions of the Great Ming Dynasty) notes that in 1433 some 443,500 items of porcelain with dragon and phoenix decoration were made for the court. Records also state that in 1430 a request was made to increase production, but that this was then deemed too wasteful and production ceased in the 9th month, and did not resume until 1433. Thus there appears to have been a two year gap in production. Since the Xuande reign is only ten years long, this means that all the wares now preserved in international collections were produced in an eight year period, which is quite remarkable.
There was strict quality control at the Imperial kilns in the Xuande period. Indeed the reason that there have been such rich archaeological finds from the Xuande strata at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, is because if a piece failed to satisfy the rigorous criteria for acceptance by court officials, it was deliberately broken and the pieces thrown into a waste pit. The quality and variety of the porcelains made for the Xuande emperor are a testament to his patronage. The body of Xuande porcelains was low in calcium and high in potassium, which facilitated an increase in translucency. The glaze was rich and lustrous, while the underglaze decoration
demonstrated complete mastery of painting in cobalt on a porous porcelain body. The painting of dragons, such as that on the current vessel, was particularly powerful in the Xuande reign, and many connoisseurs would argue that it has never been surpassed. The Xuande reign is unusual for the fact that both large and small pieces were equally well made. The range of shapes was also considerable, and historical texts mention so many forms produced in this period, that it has not yet been possible to identify all of
them. Those Xuande porcelains that have survived in international collections, or have been excavated, range from large fish
bowls and large jars, such as the current vessel, to tiny bird feeders.
While a limited number of Yongle porcelains bore marks in an archaistic seal script, the porcelains of the Xuande reign more frequently bore reign marks in regular script. The placement of reign marks on Xuande porcelains was very variable - under the rim, inside the vessel, on the base, or on the shoulder, as on the current vessel. The format of the marks also varied. Sometimes these were written inside a double circle; sometimes unframed; sometimes written in a single horizontal line; sometimes in one or two vertical lines. In some cases the reign marks contain four characters, as on the current jar, while more often the reign marks contain six characters. Some scholars have suggested that the style of the majority of the reign marks on Xuande porcelains was based upon the emperor’s
own calligraphy. This seems to be borne out by comparison of the xuan and de characters inscribed on a painting by the emperor - Dog and Bamboo (dated by inscription to 2nd year of Xuande  and now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City) - with the characters as they appear on porcelain. However there is also a limited number of pieces, predominantly stem
bowls, on which an archaistic seal script was used for the reign mark.
The current large jar belongs to one of two small groups of imperial vessels with fourcharacter Xuande marks, which appear to have been made for special occasions. All the vessels in these groups are unusually large and all are decorated with powerful dragons amongst clouds and masks. On one group the dragons have five claws, like the current jar, and on the other group the dragons have three claws. On the latter group the dragons face forwards, while on the group to which the current jar belongs, the heads of the dragons, twist around to face backwards. Two vessels are particularly close in style to the current jar. These are two meiping vases
from the collection of William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, which were included in An Exhibition of Bluedecorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1949, exhibits 48 and 49 (illustrated The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – A Handbook of the Collection, New York, 1993, p. 66). This pair of meiping vases shares all aspects of the current jar’s design. They are large (54.4 cm. high), the style of the lotus petal band around the foot is identical to that on the jar, the style of the clouds isthe same, the shape and paintings style of the dragon – including the five-claws and the turned back head – and the style of the masks on the shoulder, as well as the rendering of the four-character marks are also the same on all three vessels. It seems entirely possible that the current jar and the pair of meiping in Kansas City once formed a set, which was made for a special imperial ritual or ceremony. Two other large jars with similar decoration have been published. These represent the second group. One is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York – height 48.3 cm. (illustrated by A. Hougron, La céramique chinoise ancienne, Paris, 2015, p. 96) and the other was sold by Sotheby’s on 15th December 1981, and is now in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo (illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, colour plate 169). This jar is 51.7 cm. in height. The jar in the Metropolitan Museum is illustrated and discussed by Geng Baochang in Ming Qing ciqi jianding, Beijing, 1993, pp. 53-4, fig. 96, where Professor Geng mentionsa similar jar in a Western European collection. The Metropolitan and Idemitsu jars differ from the current jar and the pair of meiping in the form of the petal panels around the foot, the fact that the dragons
have only three claws and face forwards, and the fact that the masks do not have the horizontal extensions on the mane seen on
the current vase and the pair of meiping.
A smaller meiping vase (height 34.3 cm.) from the collection of Fritz Low-Beer, was included in the 1949 Philadelphia exhibition, as exhibit 72. This smaller vase also has a four-character mark on the shoulder and a five-clawed dragon, but the dragon is facing forwards. The petal band around the foot is of the same style as that on the current jar and the Kansas City meiping, but there are no masks on the shoulders, and this vase cannot be considered part of either of the groups discussed above.
Interestingly, a shard from a large jar with masks and dragons has been excavated from the Xuande strata at the site of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen (illustrated in Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1998, no. F-17), which clearly shows parts of masks, clouds and dragons painted in the same style as those on the current jar. A damaged jar, apparently belonging to the same group as the current jar, has also been excavated at the imperial Jingdezhen kilns. This jar does not yet appear to have been published, but comparison of the current jar with the excavated vessel indicates that they belong to the same
The use of four-character marks on Xuande imperial porcelains, seems to have been largely confined to certain types of vessel. In addition to the meiping vases and large jars discussed above, underglaze blue four-character Xuande marks appear on the base of monk’s cap ewers, such as the ewer with Buddhist emblems and Tibetan inscription in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, pp. 114-5, no. 30), and a similar ewer excavated at Jingdezhen (illustrated Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at
Jingdezhen, op. cit., no. 30-2). There are also a number of stem cups and stem bowls bearing four-character marks – some in regular script and some in archaic seal script; some written in underglaze blue and some incised into the body of the vessel under the glaze (illustrated ibid., nos. 50-2, 50-3, 52-1, and 52-5, and in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains
of the Ming Dynasty, op. cit., nos. 85, 95, 96, 102, 103 and 105) Two of the most interesting are a stem bowl decorated in underglaze blue with lotus petals and a Tibetan inscription (illustrated ibid. pp. 266-67, no. 106), and another stem bowl decorated in underglaze blue with dragons amongst lotus scrolls and with a Tibetan inscription inside (illustrated ibid., pp. 268-69, no. 107). All of the underglaze blue-decorated stem cups and stem bowls mentioned above have their fourcharacter marks written in regular script
on the exterior base, inside the foot. Both the underglaze blue and incised marks on monochrome pieces, with white, copper
red or sky blue glazes, are usually on the interior of the vessel, and are often in archaistic seal script. The National Palace Museum also has a small blue and white bowl with a four-character Xuande mark on the base and the character tan (壇altar) written on the interior (illustrated ibid., 290-91, no. 118). In addition there is a large dish in the collection of the National Palace Museum, which is decorated in underglaze blue with the Eight Buddhist Emblems, and has a four-character Xuande mark written in a horizontal line under the rim (illustrated ibid. pp. 422-23, no. 184). In view of the shapes on which four-character marks appear, as well as the decoration applied to some of the pieces, it is possible to speculate that four-character marks were often associated with vessels to be
used in rituals or ceremonies.
The current jar has a distinctive firing mark on its base – a cross-shaped mark left by the setter on which it was placed in the kiln. These cruciform marks appear on a number of large jars and planters excavated from the Xuande strata at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, as well as on the Idemitsu jar. In particular such marks can be seen on the unglazed bases of two large blue and white covered jars excavated in 1982, illustrated in Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., nos. 1-2 and 1-3, and on a large white-glazed covered jar, also excavated in 1982, and also illustrated ibid., no. 2. It seems probable that, due to their large size and the thickness of their bases, the potters at the Imperial kilns thought it prudent to raise the vessels a little in the kiln, in order to allow better circulation of air around them during firing, and minimize the likelihood of cracking.
International Academic Director,Asian Art
THE PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED SWISS LADY
This truly outstanding blue and white porcelain jar originates from the collection of a distinguished French Swiss family and was inherited by the current owner in 1997 from her uncle, and godfather. The jar has been in the same private collection since the beginning of the 20th century, when it was acquired in China by a French gentleman.