This charming pair of Chinese enamelled porcelain deer, which was formerly in the famous collection of Mrs. Nellie Ionides, characterises the naturalistic, style of the 18th century. Deer were a favourite subject for Chinese artists, particularly during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722), when they appeared in the decoration on many famille verte porcelains and as occasional three-dimensional models, and in the Qianlong reign (1736-95) when they were a popular theme in paintings . Deer are familiars of the Star God of Longevity, and are thus symbols of longevity. They also provide a rebus for prosperity, especially through an official salary, since in Chinese the word for this and for deer are pronounced the same.
These deer are, however, unusually realistically rendered, both in form and in posture, indeed noted deer expert Raymond Chaplin, former Chairman of the British Deer Society, has expressed the view that these deer could only have been modelled by someone who had seen them at close hand, since not only their characteristic tapered muzzle and markings but also the way they sit with forelegs drawn up to their chests and head turned are typical of the Seika deer. Chaplin has also pointed out that the likeness must have been taken in July or August, as the antlers are at the stage of growth known as 'velvet', rather than being fully developed. The form of the antlers has been meticulously depicted with thick lower section and textured prongs.
While it is possible that the artist who modelled these deer had seen them in the wild, it is more likely that they were seen in one the royal menageries or parks, which in the 18th century were stocked with a variety of animals. The Qing dynasty Summer Palaces were set in grounds which were usually stocked with deer of different species. One of these Summer Palaces was some 150 miles north-east of Beijing, at Chengde. There, in 1703, the Kangxi emperor began the construction of a summer retreat, called Bishushanzhuang (Mountain Hamlet Far from the Heat) in a vast valley among the mountains which had a large natural lake. This walled park contained picturesque pavilions and halls and later, in the Qianlong reign, a specially built library to house one of the seven copies of the 36,000 volume imperial collectanea, the Si ku quan shu (Complete Treasury of the Four Storehouses). However, the main function of the imperial retreat at Chengde was as a hunting ground and the park was kept well-stocked with game, particularly deer. It was at the Summer Palace at Chengde that Lord Macartney first met the Qianlong Emperor in 1792. John Barrow, who was Lord Macartney's secretary was enchanted by the place. He wrote:
'It is one of the finest forest scenes in the world; wild, woody, mountainous and rocky, abounding with stags and deer of different species and most of the other beasts of the chase, not dangerous to man'.
(John Barrow, Travels in China, London, 1804, quoted in F. Wood and N. Tilley, Oriental Gardens, London, pp. 83-4).
Deer were not only favoured as animals of the hunt, however, and they appear in a significant number of court paintings in the 18th century, particularly those associated with the Qianlong emperor. One of these is a portrait of the emperor painted before he ascended the throne. The painting is by the Italian Jesuit artist Castiglione (Chinese name Lang Shining), and is a hanging scroll in ink on paper entitled Plucking Lingzhi, which shows the young Prince Hongli in the guise of a Daoist (illustrated in Nie Chongzheng, et al., The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Dynasty, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 146, no. 25). He stands with his hand resting on the deer's back, while a smaller figure dressed as the Daoist immortal Lan Caihe looks up at him. This painting was executed in 1734, a year before Hongli became emperor to reign as Qianlong. The lingzhi fungus, the deer and the immortal all refer to longevity, and it may be noted not only that the deer is a Seika deer, but that the spots along its spine have been given a similarly dramatic treatment to that seen on the current porcelain deer.
Another painting by Castiglione, which also bears three inscriptions composed by the Qianlong emperor, is the painting entitled Calling for Deer, painted in 1741 and preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Zhang Hongxing, The Qianlong emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City, National Museums of Scotland Publishing Ltd., Edinburgh, 2002, pp. 74-6). The title refers to the Manchu practice in deer hunting of going into the forest and blow a specially designed deer horn to imitate the call of the stag. This painting has added importance since it records the first imperial hunting expedition at Rehe after the emperor's decision to resume such expeditions in 1741. One of the emperor's inscriptions written in on the painting in 1749 notes that those involved in hunting deer should display the five Confucian virtues of kindness, righteousness, decorum, wisdom and trust.
Deer thus became a symbol of both Manchu and Han Chinese virtues, and this pair of exquisitely modelled porcelain deer show the lengths to which the 18th century Chinese artist went in order to portray them with all their beauty and grace.