TREASURES OF IMPERIAL AUSPICIOUSNESS
International Academic Director Asian Art Departments
This exquisite pair of Yongzheng peach bowls ranks among the masterpieces of overglaze enamelled porcelain from the Chinese Imperial kilns. The painting on the bowls is so skilful that the artist has managed to achieve not only effective contrasts and complements of colour, but also of texture. The peaches are painted to appear luscious; fully-ripened fruit, hanging heavy on the bough. Their skin is carefully depicted using enamels that have been blown onto the surface of the glaze, as well as those that have been painted, in order to produce the correct softness of texture, and effective shading from pale green to rose pink. The blossoms are painted with the utmost delicacy achieving an impression of fragile beauty, fluttering in the wind, and providing an effective contrast to the peaches. Other elements of the design complement and contrast with the peaches and blossoms. The bats are painted with great vitality, and even a little humour, appearing to swoop and play together. The bark of the branches is also rendered with considerable skill to provide yet another contrast of texture and colour.
The design of six peaches and five bats has been particularly skilfully disposed over the surface of the bowl, and the skill of the artist in taking the decoration from the foot, up the sides, and then extending it over the rim to the interior of the vessels is especially impressive. This challenging composition has been beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed by the ceramic artist. It seems probable that this particular type of decorative scheme, in which a flowering branch, was shown continuing from the exterior of a dish or bowl and into the interior, first appeared in the latter years of the Ming dynasty - the second quarter of the seventeenth century. A blue and white example of ko-sometsuke ware was published by in Toji Zenshu, Vol. 15, plate 4. This design concept was known as guozhihua (flowering branch passing over [the rim]) or guoqiangzhi (branch passing over the wall).
It was not until the Qing dynasty that this style of decoration seems to have gained popularity, and specifically appears to have won imperial favour. One of the earliest Qing dynasty examples of guozhihua can be seen in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum has a rare white porcelain bowl, which, like the current pair of enamelled bowls, was formerly in the collection of Paul and Helen Bernat. The white bowl, which has been dated to the late seventeenth century, bears the name of the legendary potter ), Hao Shijiu and is illustrated by Wu Tung in Earth Transformed - Chinese Ceramics in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MFA Publications, Boston, 2001, p. 149. This Boston bowl, which probably belongs to the early Kangxi reign, has a white slip design of prunus blossom running up the outside walls and into the interior of the vessel.
Such a decorative device, which involves taking the floral branch(es) from the exterior of a vessel into the interior, requires consummate skill on the part of the ceramic artist if it is to appear natural, as on the current bowls, rather than contrived. Because of the complexities of the scheme, guozhihua was more often used on dishes, where the more open surfaces made the task of painting it a little easier. Bowls, especially relatively small, delicate, bowls like the current examples, would have rendered the task more difficult because of the restricted working space, and thus required artists of exceptional talent. A bowl from the E.T. Chow collection, discussed below, has two red bats and five peaches on a branch on the exterior, with only the blossoming branch extending into the interior with three more red bats. The ceramics artist painting the current bowls, however, has taken on the added challenge of painting a pair of fully developed peaches inside each of the bowls. Given the varied painting techniques and the complexity of the design, the achievement of producing such a wonderfully accomplished depiction, while working in the confined space of the interior of these small and delicate bowls, is remarkable.
The Yongzheng reign saw the peak of guozhihua decoration on enamelled porcelains, in terms both of the excellence of painting and also of appreciation at the Imperial court. A number of finely enamelled dishes 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. A dish in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, decorated with flowering and fruiting peach, tree peony and bats, is 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 smaller dishes can be seen in the fine example sold in these Rooms on 28 October 2002, lot 611. Undoubtedly because of the restrictions imposed in trying to paint on the interior of a bowl, the guozhihua scheme appears on more rarely on that form.
The body material of the current bowls is particularly white and well-refined, and the delicacy and purity of the body, covered with a smooth, unctuous glaze, is especially well complemented by the clarity and richness of the enamel colours. It seems likely that these enamels were sent from the imperial glass ateliers in Beijing, as palace records for the Board of Works in the Yongzheng reign indicate that some of the enamel colours used at the Imperial kilns were prepared in the court glass workshop and thence sent to Jingdezhen.
Three of the enamel colours on these bowls are of special interest. The rose pink, for example, has been used to excellent effect. Nowadays most scholars agree that this rose pink enamel, which gave its name to famille rose, seems first to have appeared in the Chinese palette at the end of the Kangxi reign (1662-1722). American scientists have examined the rose-pink of a piece of Yongzheng famille rose porcelain under a high-powered microscope, and saw that there were red particles immersed in a clear lead-potassium-silicate glass. The rose colour was due to tiny colloidal particles of gold (ranging in size from 200-600 Angstroms). Two major differences may be noted between the Chinese rose enamel and the European colour known as the 'purple of Cassius'. Firstly the actual gold content of the Chinese enamel is significantly lower than that of the European colour, and secondly the Chinese enamel appears to have been made in a different way. The European 'purple of Cassius' was made using colloidal gold particles precipitated from an aqueous solution usually of gold chloride with stannous-stannic chlorides. The Chinese enamel has a much lower tin content, and it has been concluded that it was not made by precipitation, but by making up a ruby glass and grinding this up as a pigment to be dispersed in the clear enamel. This method was widely used by glass makers. The advantages of the Chinese method was that it not only used less gold, but it was also easier to achieve an even coloration within the enamel and it could be used to create a wide range of beautiful tones, as can be seen on these two peach bowls. In addition to the delicate pink blossoms, the rose enamel has been used by the porcelain decorator to achieve a wonderfully natural texture on peaches. This was done by blowing the enamel through a tube with fine gauze over the end in order to achieve a souffle effect.
Although the yellow enamel has been used sparingly on these bowls it has a subtly enlivening impact on the overall decoration. This opaque yellow was also a relatively new colour in the enamel decorator's palette, and it is interesting to note that it too was made in a different way to European yellow enamels. The latter were coloured with antimony, while the Chinese opaque yellow enamel owed its colour to lead-stannate. Unlike the earlier Chinese translucent yellow enamel, this opaque yellow enamel did not flow to any significant extent when fired, and so could be used, for example, for the stamens of the blossoms, which even after firing would retain their shape and stand in slight relief on the surface of the porcelain. Both the yellow and the opaque white enamel have also been blended on these bowls to achieve more subtle gradations of colour. Like the rose and yellow enamels, the white enamel was made in a different way to its European equivalent - using lead arsenate, rather than tin oxide. Although it is easy to overlook the white enamel, it is in fact crucial to the appearance of the decoration on the current bowls and many other fine enamelled porcelains. On these bowls, for example, white provides the base colour onto which yellow can be added on one type of blossom, while being delicately blended with rose pink on the other. All the enamels on these bowls have been made to the highest standard, and have been applied by artists of extraordinary skill.
Many aspects of the design on the current bowls are significant and very auspicious, and suggest that the vessels may have been intended to celebrate an imperial birthday. One of the names for the decorative scheme is quoqiangzhi, which suggests the sound of Guochang zhi, long peace under good government, which would provide both a compliment to the emperor and a wish for his reign to be a long one. The peach tree was traditionally regarded as sacred in China, and in ancient times wood from the peach tree was used to make charms against evil. The peaches themselves symbolize longevity, and the fact that there are six (liu) peaches suggests liu to keep or retain longevity. Peaches are associated with the Daoist Star God of Longevity, Shou Lao, and are also associated with the legendary peaches that that were grew in an orchard belonging to Xiwangmu, The Queen Mother of the West. Xiwangmu's peach trees were believed to bear fruit only once in three thousand years and to take a further three thousand years to ripen, but if eaten would confer immortality. Numerous paintings depict the immortal Dongfang Shuo escaping from Xiwangmu's orchard with the peaches that he has stolen for just this purpose.
Peach blossoms are seen as symbolizing Spring and hence renewal, as well as the beauty of young women since the colour and delicacy of the petals resemble their complexions. The five red bats are among of the most popular themes in the Chinese decorative arts. Not only do red bats provide a rebus or visual pun for vast good fortune, but five bats provide a rebus for wu fu, the Five Blessings of longevity, health, wealth, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Those bats painted upside down provide a further rebus, since the word for upside down dao is pronounced similarly to the work for arrived, and thus an upside down bat signifies 'happiness has arrived'.
A pair of similarly sized Yongzheng bowls with a design of peaches and bats are in the Baur Collection, illustrated by John Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, vol. 2, Geneva, 2000, pp. 108-9, no. 224 (A594). A further bowl from the Eisei Bunko Foundation, Japan is illustrated in Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol XII, Tokyo, 1955, col. pl. 11. A Yongzheng bowl of the same size, formerly in the collection of Edward Chow (illustrated by M. Beurdeley and G. Raindre in Qing Porcelain - Famille Verte, Famille Rose, Thames & Hudson, London, 1987, p. 101, pl. 137) has a similar design, but, as noted above, there are no peaches on the interior, only blossoming branches and bats. A Yongzheng bowl of the same size and decorated as the current example is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and is illustrated by Terese Tse Bartholomew in Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2006, p. 204, no. 7.44.1. A similar bowl is in the Meiyintang collection (illustrated by R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. II, Asimuth, London, 1994, pl. 960. A further pair of bowls is published in The Tsui Museum of Art, Chinese Ceramics IV, Qing Dynasty, Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, no. 155. The current pair of bowls has been in several eminent collections, including those of J. D. Chen (Chen Rentao); Paul and Helen Bernat; and T. Endo.
These bowls with their superb quality and their powerfully auspicious designs would have been perfect birthday commissions for the Yongzheng emperor, during whose reign some the finest enamelled porcelains in China's long ceramic history were made.