Hu Wenming was a celebrated Ming-dynasty metalworker who specialized in scholar's objects. Active in the late 16th to the early 17th century, his works are mainly cast or chased bronze, or beaten copper, many in the style of archaic bronzes. Examples of such archaistic vessels are illustrated in G. Tsang and H. Moss in Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, nos. 73, 103, 230, 231 and 237.
The depiction of the many boys on this jardinière stems from the theme of a 'hundred boys', or baizi tu, that is found on many Chinese decorative arts, and reflects the wish 'may you have many sons'. On many works the children are shown at play, while some of them are also depicted engaging in scholarly pursuits, suggesting that one day they would become successful officials. Both instances appear on this jardinière. Besides simply playing together, the boys on this piece play musical instruments and weiqi, pastimes enjoyed by scholars. On one side the scene depicts a boy dressed as a scholar on a hobby horse leading a procession of children over a bridge, pretending to be a successful scholar returning from his exams. A similar scene appears on a beaten copper hand warmer, also by Hu Wenming and decorated on the sides with further boys, illustrated by Tsang and Moss, ibid, p. 253, no. 246.
Another gilt-bronze hand warmer by Hu Wenming depicting related scenes and workmanship to this jardinière was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 1 December 2009, lot 1967. Similar figures appear on both, including the boy with the lion, the boy on the hobby horse leading the procession (although not over a bridge on the hand warmer) and the boy leaning out of a window. It seems likely that these two pieces may have been part of a set of objects intended for a scholar's desk, where they would invoke thoughts of the successful advancement of many sons.
The latter jardinière was formerly in the collection of Richard de la Mare (1901-1986), who was the son of the poet Walter de la Mare, and also T.S. Eliot's publisher. He lived at Much Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire, the contents of which were sold by Sotheby's on 30 September -1 October 1980. His collection included a range of Asian porcelain and objects, including a rare blue and white jar, also decorated with the 'hundred boys' motif, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2009, lot 1809.
The base of the present jardinière is inscribed in ink with the date 1709, perhaps indicating an old inventory number or a shipping date to the West.