The workmanship of the present brushwasher carved in high relief to depict a complex pattern of dragons, writhing and partially emerging out of dense clouds, is particularly successful amongst carved jades of the early Qing period. The interior of the vessel is well-hollowed whilst the thick rounded sides are carved in high relief on the exterior to provide the viewer with a sense of depth created by the multiple layers of clouds. It is interesting to note that the artist utilised the natural shape of the original boulder which would have been of considerable size.
The most notable aspect of the present brushwasher is the treatment of the whirlpool underside where it forms the base of the vessel (fig. 1). This unusual wave-base is found on a number of jade carvings that have been dated to the 16th/17th century Ming period, such as the white jade mythical dragon-tortoise shaped water container, included in the exhibition, Arts from the Scholars Studio, University of Hong Kong, 1986, p. 158, no. 131; on a celadon jade basin from the Hartman collection, illustrated by R. Kleiner, Chinese Jades from the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, Hong Kong, 1996, no. 45; and a large spinach-green jade bowl from the Bamble North collection sold at Sotheby's London, 18 June 1968, lot 150.
The earliest example of this form of wave-base on jades is a massive wine basin measuring 493 cm. across the body, carved in shallow relief with mythical sea creatures on the exterior, known as the Dushan dayuhai, the 'Du Mountain Wine Sea'. This basin was believed to have been commissioned by Khubilai Khan, who placed it in the Guanghan Palace on the Hill of Myriad Years, located on an island in Beihai Lake, Beijing. The vessel disappeared during the turbulent transitional years between the Yuan to Ming dynasty, although its existence was known during the Ming period. The basin was later rediscovered by Emperor Qianlong in 1745 who found priests using it as a container for preserved vegetables. Qianlong was so impressed with the basin that he composed three poems based on the vessel and had the text inscribed onto the vessel. For similar dragon basins dated to the Qianlong period, cf. a large green jade vessel, formerly from the H. R. Bishop collection and now in the Metropolitan Museum, illustrated in Chinese Decorative Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 30; and two examples sold at auction, the first sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19 November 1985, lot 48; and the other sold in these Rooms, 3 June 1993, lot 58. Compare also two related examples dated to 17th/18th century, a spinach-green bowl carved with plain mouth rim, sold at Sotheby's 24 June 1958, lot 158; and the other of white jade in the collection of Lady Lever, illustrated by S.C. Nott, Chinese Jade, London, 1936, pl. CI.
This ethereal imagery of dragons emerging out of clouds is a theme disseminated from Southern Song dynasty paintings traditionally attributed to the renowned artist Chen Rong (circa 1189-1258). Compare a handscroll painting attributed to Chen Rong depicting a single dragon striding out of misty clouds, in the Palace Museum collection, illustrated op. cit., p. 171, no. 132 (fig. 2). Also compare the well-known 'Nine Dragons' handscroll in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, illustrated in Zhongguo Huihua Quanzhi, Zhejiang renminmeishu chubanshe, vol. 4, 1999, pp. 166-9, nos. 127-130. The dragons on the Boston handscroll are variously portrayed rising out of crested waves, clambering on jagged rocks, half-submerged in clouds and in pursuit of a pearl. All these attributes clearly provided the inspiration for later works of art, particularly in scholars' objects, such as present brushwasher.
The dragon-in-cloud subject-matter continued into the early Qing period, and is exemplified by a sepia-enamelled cylindrical brushpot, formerly from the J.M. Hu collection and now in the Art Gallery, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The dragon painting on the brushpot was designed by the famous Imperial ceramics supervisor, Tang Ying (1682-1756), and dated to the first half of the 18th century, illustrated by P. Lam, Elegant Vessels for the Lofty Pavilion, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993, no. 14 (fig. 3).