The Three Perfections
The eminent Chinese art historian Yang Boda has said of the porcelains produced in the period AD 1728-35 of the Yongzheng reign:
'The porcelain of this period has a pristine purity, and jade-like luminosity, and the painted design gives the piece a luxuriance reminiscent of brocade. Nianyao (1) empitomize the classic refined style of Qing imperial ware, and they are rated by commentators as the best among the imperial wares of the entire Qing dynasty. (2)
It should also be noted that in the second half of the Yongzheng reign falang enamels reached their point of perfection and a wealth of especially skilled painters were employed to paint the designs on these exquisite porcelains. A very few of these extraordinarily fine porcelains bore further adornment in the form of anhua decoration on the interior. While applying anhua (secret decoration) to finely potted porcelains was always difficult, it was even more risky when the piece was to be decorated with overglaze enamels and required a second firing in a muffle kiln. Palace archives contain details of an early attempt at this type of decoration:
'The fourth day of the second month, 1724, Prince Yin-hsiang handed over five white egg shell wine cups, two of which had a veiled d/aecor [anhua] of dragons on the interiors. Obey the order to decorate them with enamel. By Imperial Command. On the twenty-third day of the second month, two pieces were broken during the firing process; the supervising eunuch informed Prince Yin-hsiang of this matter. Under order from the Prince, the remaining three pieces should be fired with the utmost caution. By Imperial Command. On the eighteenth day of the fifth month, the Prince presented three white porcelain wine cups with enamel decor' (3)
The production of anhua decoration on these fine porcelains was probably an attempt to recreate anhua porcelains with tianbai (sweet white) glaze from the Yongle reign, To combine this technique with overglaze enamelling was an even more difficult process, as can be seen from the archives quoted above. However, one such bowl in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing has been published (4). The Beijing cup has an anhua design of egrets and lotus around the interior as well an a four-character anhua Yongle mark in seal script. The exterior is covered with rouge red enamel with three reserved panels. The panels are painted with designs in falang enamels and there are multicoloured roundels painted on the rouge red ground. On exterior the base of the bowl is a peach containing a four-character Yongzheng mark. The Beijing catalogue mentions that another, similarly decorated, bowl bearing two reign marks is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. A small number of other bowls with rouge enamel on the exterior and anhua dragon decoration on the interior are known. An example, formerly in the collection of Paul and Helen Bernat was sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 27 October 2003, lot 701. Another of these small bowls was sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 29th April, 2002, lot 564, while a further bowl, formerly in the Jingguantang Collection, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 3rd November 1996, lot 561. The current sapphire landscape bowl, with its delicate interior anhua design of two phoenixes and clouds appears to be the only surviving example combining anhua decoration on the interior with blue enamel painting on the exterior. In view of the difficulty of firing such pieces, it is perhaps not surprising that such pieces are so rare.
It is probable that the so-called falang enamels were not successfully fired onto porcelain at the imperial atelier until the last few years of Kangxi's long reign - certainly not before 1716, and possibly not until around 1720. In 1720 a surviving letter from the Jesuit Father de Mailla notes the lack of appropriate enamels. Not until the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (1723-35) did the palace glass atelier finally managed to produce nine good-quality new enamel colours. This is recorded in the sixth year of the reign (1728). Until that time the colours had been a mixture of those imported from Europe, those brought from Guangzhou and those prepared in the imperial ateliers in Beijing.
Although he was by no means as well-disposed towards westerners as his predecessor, the Kangxi emperor, had been, the Yongzheng emperor was, nevertheless, a keen admirer of falang enamels and retained a personal interest in production, as evidenced by various documents in the palace archives. Yongzheng also put his favourite, and very able, younger brother, prince Yixiang (1686-1730) in charge of the ateliers. The same memorandum of 1728 which enumerated the enamel colours, suggested making the colours up in 300 cattie (approximately 400 lb.) batches, and also noted that the foreigners used duo'ermen oil (toluene) as a solvent for enamels and ordered that the Essence Storage Room in the Wuyingdian should be checked to see if any was available. It was at this date that enamels were also sent from the Beijing ateliers to Nian Xiyao at the Jingdezhen kilns.
The current bowl, a masterpiece from the apogee of the Yongzheng imperial workshops, has been decorated in three of the most problematic of the enamel colours - blue, pink and black. (5) It is significant that the famille verte porcelains decorated in the earlier part of the Kangxi reign were decorated using underglaze-blue combined with the other overglaze enamel colours, rather than using a blue overglaze enamel. This was for the good reason that they were, at that time, unable to make a good, clear, overglaze blue enamel. The problem that the potters faced was that the overglaze enamels were of the low-firing, lead-fluxed type, and that the Chinese cobalt used to colour blue enamel had a significant manganese content. Unfortunately this manganese affected the colour of the lead-fluxed base enamel, producing a dull purplish tone. For a time the Kangxi potters simply used underglaze blue instead, but later in the Kangxi reign a new glaze was introduced. This new glaze was a low-lime glaze with an increased alkaline content, which gave a beautiful dense white background which provided a perfect canvas for the enamels. The Jesuit Father d'Entrecolle, however, noted a problem in his letter from Jingdezhen to Father Orry of 1712:
'This is a densely coloured glaze and should not be used on porcelain which is to be painted in blue, because after firing the colour will not show through the glaze.' (6)
The need to produce a good overglaze blue enamel therefore became acute. Eventually the imperial workshops did manage to make a blue enamel that was a low manganese lead-alkali-silicate. It seems likely that in this they had the help of the craftsmen working with cloisonn/ae enamel, since the new porcelain enamel was strikingly similar in composition to that used in cloisonn/ae. (7) By the end of the Kangxi period a good overglaze blue enamel was being used within the famille verte palette, but the blue on the current bowl shows the added clarity produced by further refinement of the enamel during the Yongzheng period.
The pink enamel used for the seals on the current bowl also seems to have appeared right at the end of the Kangxi reign. It is interesting to note that this pink is not made in the same way as the so-called 'purple of Cassius', used in Europe (8), but may point to the influence of the specialists in the glass atelier, which was set up in 1696 under the German Jesuit Kilian Stumpf, as the method used by the Chinese enamel makers resembled that used to make ruby glass. The Chinese rose enamel was produced by making a red glass, coloured using colloidal particles of gold, and then grinding it up and immersing it in a clear lead-potassium-silicate glass. It is worth noting that this too is close in composition to the enamel used for cloisonn/ae. The result used less gold than the European 'purple of Cassius' and, in addition, it was easier to achieve an even colouration within the enamel. It was this clear rose-pink that was adopted as the characteristic colour to be used for the reproduction of seals on the fine falang wares decorated in the palace workshops in the Yongzheng, and often also in the Qianlong reign. Since the cheaper and easier overglaze iron-red would, in fact, have produced a colour closer to the normal vermilion seal paste, the use of the gold-derived pink indicates both an aesthetic choice and a decision to spare no expense on these exquisite porcelains.
The beautiful palace porcelains, of the type which used to be known as Guyuexuan, are characterised by the inclusion of poetic inscriptions as part of their decoration. The sapphire landscape bowl has such a calligraphic inscription in glossy black enamel. This was another new enamel, which had not been available to the Kangxi decorators. The latter had to be content with an under-enamel black. This was an enamel, coloured with iron-oxide, which was painted on top of the glaze, but, since it was neither glossy nor did it adhere properly to the fired glaze beneath, it had to be covered with another enamel - either pale green or pale aubergine - to 'fix' it to the surface and give it a good glossy texture. The fine calligraphic inscriptions, and indeed the 'ink' paintings of landscapes and flowers, produced on porcelains in the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns could only be achieved because of the development of a real glossy black enamel. This good black enamel, and a related sepia enamel, appear to have been developed at the beginning of the Yongzheng reign.
Ink landscapes on silk or paper with little or no use of colour had long been highly esteemed in China, and it is not surprising to find that, once the necessary enamels were available, ceramic decorators sought to reproduce these on porcelain. What should be remembered when looking at the porcelain examples, however, is that, unlike the painter on silk or paper, the porcelain painter was applying his landscape to a 'canvas' that was curved in two planes. It is a testament to the skill of the painters in the imperial ateliers that when the landscapes and calligraphy on these bowls is reproduced photographically in handscroll format, such perfectly harmonious compositions are revealed. A Yongzheng bowl with a sepia landscape, with some similarities to the sapphire landscape of the current bowl and bearing the same seals, is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan. (9)(fig.1).
At least since the Tang dynasty the so-called 'three perfections' of poetry, painting and calligraphy, had been regarded as the ultimate accomplishments. Their combination on porcelains of the highest quality for an emperor renown for his refined tastes is, thus, not so unexpected. In order to produce such porcelains, painters were required who had been properly trained in these areas. The Yongzheng emperor had no compunction about ordering painters used to painting in ink or colours on silk and paper to come to the ateliers to paint in enamels on porcelain, as we can see from the following edict:
'The twenty-ninth day of the fourth month, 1732: For Grand Minister Hai Wang to transmit the following edict: The enamel paintings in sepia are all exceedingly fine. Employ the two painters Tai Heng and T'ang Chen-chi as enamel painters and remove the paintings brought as samples of their works. Also remove the sample paintings by T'ang Tai. The work of the others is all fine, and they may remain. By Imperial Command. Have the painters Tai and T'ang transferred to enamel painting.' (10)
It seems, however, that while sepia landscapes were appreciated, the Yongzheng emperor's search for novelty combined with refinement demanded something new and even more striking - blue landscapes. It is noteworthy that the palace archives record that the Yongzheng emperor made specific reference to the merit of these new porcelains with blue enamel landscapes on two occasions in 1732.
'The twenty-eighth day of the tenth month, 1732 The enamel landscape in blue is quite well done. Give ten taels of silver in reward for the enamel paintings done by Tsou Wen-yu.' (11)
'The twenty-seventh day of the eleventh month, 1732: By Imperial Command, in future paint fewer of the dishes with ink chrysanthemums. The teacups and winecups with landscape decoration in blue are all quite fine, paint more of these.'(12)
It is not known when the first blue landscapes were fired, but it is unlikely to have been before 1728. Very few of these blue landscapes have survived even in the palace collections. One bowl with the same seals, but a different calligraphic inscription in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, has been published (13) (fig. 2). Another is in the collection of the Freer Gallery (14) (fig. 3), A third bowl, bearing not only the same seals, but also the same inscription as the current bowl, is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan (15) (fig. 4). This inscription may be translated as:
'Shades of mists swirl above the blue river waters,
Waves lap by the shores of the verdure clad peaks.'
It is interesting to note that while the inscriptions on the current bowl and the Taiwan example are arranged differently - the inscription on the current bowl is written in seven lines of two characters each, while the Taiwan bowl has four lines of four, three, four, and three characters - the calligraphy on the bowls is very similar, suggesting that both inscriptions were written by the same hand. It is not unusual to find the same poetic inscription arranged differently on different vessels, as can be seen on a number of examples in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan (16). There are also two dishes with blue landscapes and calligraphic inscriptions and the same seals in Taiwan (17) (figs. 5 & 6).
There are rare examples of blue landscapes being applied to teapots. One such Yongzheng teapot is in the collection of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm (18) (fig. 7). This teapot, like the bowls and dishes has a calligraphic inscription and seals, and the landscape covers the whole of the vessel, with the exception of the spout and handle. Another teapot in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan combines a blue enamel landscape with borders of multicoloured flowers (19) (fig. 8). Although this teapot has both calligraphic inscription and seals included in the design, the landscape takes on a different spirit when accompanied by the colourful borders.
It is probably fair to say that, of the four known blue landscape bowls, the one in the current sale is the most painterly, with perfect control over the brush and the enamel. The delicate lapping waves beneath the inscription and the dramatic cliffs are equally well rendered, and one may speculate that they may have been painted by Cou Wenyu [Tsou Wen-yu], who was mentioned in one of the 1732 edicts quoted above. Certainly Cou's work continued to find favour with the emperor, as along with painters such as Dai Heng [Tai Heng] he was promoted to the rank of Court Painter, becoming active in the Imperial Academy.
The type of landscape painting that appears on the bowls is quite distinctive, and refers back to the great landscape painters of the Five Dynasties and Northern Song dynasty. Elements reminiscent of landscape paintings such as Jing Hao's Mount Kuanglu, (ca. 900), in the National Palace Museum, Taibei (fig. 9); Yan Wengui's Pavilions and Mansions by the River (ca. 1000) in the Osaka Municiple Museum (fig. 10); and Xu Daoning's Fisherman on a Mountain Stream (ca. 1050) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (fig. 11), can be seen in the painting of the landscape on this porcelain bowl. This, perhaps, is to be expected, since the works of these great painters, as well as those of other masters like Fan Kuan, Guo Xi and Li Tang (fig. 12) were greatly admired in the Qing period and examples of their work was to be found within the Imperial collections.
The painting at once encapsulates the idea of the grandeur of nature and the insignificance of man by comparison, in keeping with Confucian ideals. At the same time it provides a reference to the ideal of the scholar-poet, who dreamed of living as a simple fisherman, at one with nature and untroubled by the 'red dust' of the world. The monumental cliffs at the centre of the landscape on the bowl provide a perfect counterpoint to the little hamlet and tiny fisherman at either end of the composition. It would have been a perfect bowl for an emperor of Yongzheng's refined tastes and interests.
In the Qianlong reign blue enamel landscapes were painted inside dishes, which had exteriors covered in rouge or yellow incised enamel grounds (20) (figs. 13 & 14), and even rose pink landscapes were applied to similar dishes (21) (fig. 15) but although these were very fine, they never reached the heights of artistic achievement of the Yongzheng blue landscape bowls, in particular the extraordinarily beautiful bowl that is the subject of this essay.
(1) 'Nianyao' refers to those pieces made under the supervision of Nian Xiyao. Although Nianxiyao was appointed by the court to supervise the Jingdezhen kilns from 1726 until he was removed from office at the beginning of the Qianlong reign, during his tenure he had many other official responsibilities and could only visit the kilns occasionally. In 1728 Tang Ying was appointed by the court to act as resident assistant at Jingdezhen.
(2) Yang Boda, 'Imperial Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty', The Tsui Museum of Art - Chinese Ceramics IV. Qing Dynasty, Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 40.
(3) National Palace Museum, Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, p. 13.
(4) Palace Museum, Beijing, The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum - Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Commerical Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 24-25, no. 21.
(5) For discussion of the development of enamels see R. Scott, '18th century overglaze enamels: the influence of technological development on painting style', Style in the East Asian Tradition, Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia No. 14 (R. Scott G. Hutt eds.), SOAS University of London, 1987, pp. 149-68.
(6) Quoted by R. Tichane in Ching-te-chen: Views of a Porcelain City, New York State Institute for Glaze Research, painted Post, 1983, pl. 120.
(7) J. Henderson, et. al., 'The Relationships Between Glass, Enamel and Glaze Technology: Two Case Studies', Proceedings of the American Ceramic Society: Ceramics and Civilization, vol. 4, American Ceramic Society Inc., Columbus, Ohio, 1989, pp. 315-46.
(8) Discovered by the German Dr. Andreas Cassius working in Leyden in 1670.
(9) National Palace Museum, Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, pp. 82-3, no. 30.
(10) National Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 12-13.
(11) National Palace Museum, op. cit., p. 16.
(12) National Palace Museum, op. cit., p. 16-7.
(13) Palace Museum, Beijing, op. cit., p. 17, no. 14.
(14) John A. Pope, et. al., Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, vol. 9, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Kodansha International, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1981, no. 123.
(15) National Palace Museum, op. cit., p. 78-9, no. 28.
(16) For example National Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 124-5, no. 55, and pp. 208-9, no. 105.
(17) National Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 158-9, no. 78, and pp. 164-5, no. 81.
(18) Bo Gyllensvard, Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, vol. 8, Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, Kodansha International, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1982, no. 64.
(19) National Palace Museum, Porcelain of the National Palace Museum, Fine Enamelled Wares of the Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng Period, I, Cafa, Hong Kong, 1967, pl. 3.
(20) National Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 222-5, nos. 112 and 113.
(21) National Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 220-1, no. 111.
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN