With beautifully carved catfish swimming lazily around a central chrysanthemum flower on its interior, an elegant scrolling lotus on the exterior and engagingly carved bats as handles, this magnificent spinach jade 'marriage' bowl perfectly expresses the wishes of a newly married couple. The lotus (he) provides a rebus for harmony, the chrysanthemum is a symbol of longevity, the bats (fu) are a rebus for happiness, and the pair of catfish (nian nian) provide a rebus suggesting 'year after year'. As if harmonious long life and happiness year after year were not enough for the fortunate recipients, the word for fish in Chinese (yu) provides a homonym for 'abundance', so the bowl also promises them prosperity.
The bowl is a so-called 'marriage' bowl, and such bowls, with their carefully chosen auspicious decoration, were popular in Qing dynasty China (1644-1911). However, the size and fine colour of the current example is exceptionally rare. No other spinach green jade 'marriage' bowl of this large size (41.2 cm. wide across the handles) appears to have been published. A number of considerably smaller vessels, sharing with this one the shallow, flat-based, form and elaborate protruding handles from which loose rings hang, have been preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. These smaller vessels are usually described as brush washers. One of these Palace bowls in pale green jade (see: Zhongguo yuqi quanji, vol. 6, Hebei meishu chubanshe,Shizhiazhuang, 1991, p. 216, no. 316) shares with the current green bowl a similar approach to decoration in that the interior design is carved in high relief, while the exterior decoration is in much lower relief. On the pale green bowl, the lotus flowers appear on the interior of the vessel and the handles are in the form of butterflies, providing a rebus for die 'duplicate'. Another, also smaller and dating to the Qianlong reign, of white jade and bearing the 'double happiness' wedding symbol on the exterior is in the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (illustrated by S.C. Nott in Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, Tuttle, Rutland, Vermond & Tokyo, 2nd edition, 1962, pl. CXXIX). The combination of two catfish with chrysanthemums can be seen on the interior of a dark green 'marriage' bowl exhibited at the Minnesota Museum of Art (illustrated in Jade as Sculpture Minnesota Museum of Art, 1975, no. 52) although this bowl is less than half the diameter of the current example. The theme of chrysanthemums, but without the catfish, can be seen on a dark spinach jade 'marriage' bowl in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (illustrated by René-Yvon Lefebvre d'Argencé in Chinese Jades in the Avery Brundage Collection, the de Young Museum Society, 1972, p. 138, pl. LXII), which is also considerably smaller than the Kitson bowl.
The colour of this bowl is particularly fine, being the rich green jade that was so admired by the influential 16th century cultural arbiters, such as Gao Lian, and was described by the latter as resembling spinach - hence it is known as 'spinach jade'. The Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-95) also greatly admired this deep green jade, which, he noted in the Qing court records, came from the river beds of Khotan. Despite the distance that this heavy material had to be transported, every spring and autumn, from 1760 onwards, raw jade, including the famous deep green Khotanese nephrite jade, was presented to the Qing court as tribute from the Xinjiang region, while additional quantities found its way to the commercial lapidaries workshops.
Qianlong was particularly fascinated by jade, and during his reign took a personal interest in the jade carving undertaken by lapidaries from the Imperial workshops of the Ruyi Guan in Beijing and from the Imperial Silk Manufactury in Suzhou. Suzhou was then the most important jade centre in China. Qianlong was anxious to ensure the highest standards of jade carving and critically examined each piece entering the court. His expressed view was that jade carving could not be rushed, and that patience and meticulous craftsmanship were the key, if the finished jade item was to have all the Five Virtues. Jades from Emperor Qianlong's reign are thus characterised by fine quality,and a 'Qianlong style' came to be recognised.
Before entering the prestigious Bulgari Collection in Rome, this bowl was in the famous Thomas Binks Kitson Collection, which was amassed by a particularly discerning British lawyer during the first half of the 20th century. The collection was auctioned in three parts between 1960-61, and the marriage bowl was in part II, sold as lot 305 on the 21st of February, 1961. The Kitson Collection has been described by one of today's foremost jade collectors as "the very best collection of jades and cloisonné ever assembled in the West". A number of pieces from the Kitson Collection are believed to have originally been part of the Chinese Imperial Collection, and to have left China in the 19th century. There seems good reason to suppose that this exceptional bowl is one of these. Another exceptional spinach jade piece from the Kitson Collection, a brush pot, was sold in our New York Rooms on 20 September 2002 (lot 208).