This extraordinarily fine brushwasher belongs to an extremely limited number of similar bracket-lobed examples dating to the late Yongle period of the Ming dynasty. Compare with three examples of blue and white 'dragon' brushwashers: the first, without a mark on the base, in the collection of the Capital Museum, Beijing, see Shoudu bowuguan zang ci xuan, Wenwuchubanshe, Beijing, 1991, pp. 30 and 110, no. 90, fig. 3. The other two examples are each decorated with a dragon on the exterior base, the first in the the Millikin Collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, illustrated in the Catalogue of the Severance and Greta Millikan Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1990, no. 27, col. pl. 2; and the other sold in these Rooms, 26 April 2004, lot 960 (see fig. 1). As with the cited latter two examples which continue the dragon theme on the exterior with ascending and descending dragons, the present washer follows the same format with its 'dragon and phoenix' medallions.
The floral shape itself is known to have originated during the Yongle reign, as indicated by a washer of this form, undecorated and covered in the 'sweet white' or tianbai glaze, which was excavated from the Yongle stratum at the Imperial kilns at Zhushan in 1982; see Chang Foundation, Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Taiwan, 1996, pp. 262-3, no. 100 (fig. 2). Although the excavated shards from the Yongle period are primarily 'sweet white' monochrome wares, it has been mentioned that the motif of the five-clawed dragon only appeared in the late Yongle stratum, cf. Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods, Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1989, p. 168.
An example of this lively, upright, dragon with both forelegs stretched out to each side of the body, in a very similar stance to that depicted on the interior of the present washer, is found painted on a bottle vase, illustrated, ibid., p. 169, no. 43 (fig. 3). Furthermore, it is also interesting to note comparable characteristics of the phoenix with tasselled tails to those rendered on a stemcup from the late Yongle stratum, discovered in 1984, illustrated op. cit., Chang Foundation, Taiwan, 1996, pp. 284-5, no. 111 (fig. 4).
An identical washer of this pattern also without a mark, dated to the Xuande period, is illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press Hong Kong, 2000, p. 136, pl. 128.