This magnificent ewer is of a very rare form created in ruby red glass of exceptional brilliance and complemented by richly decorated and gilded bronze handle. The form appears to have been moulded, and then very fine decoration has been skilfully carved in low relief on the surface.
The vessel has a phoenix head spout and relatively naturalistic bird's feathers are depicted on the neck, back and breast. However, the body of the vessel has concentric hoop-shaped flutes decorated with scrolling designs while the central panel on each side bears an archaistic dragon design. The ewer stands on a base formed of swirling waves. It is interesting to speculate on the origins of this form, since it appears to have no direct antecedents. Certainly so-called 'chicken-head' ewers were made in stoneware at the Yue kilns of Zhejiang province as early as the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD 317-420), but these merely had a spout in the form of a bird's head attached to the shoulder of an otherwise normal vessel (see Zhongguo taoci quanji 4 Yueyao, Kyoto, 1981, no. 85). In the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), under the influence of Persian metalwork, so-called 'phoenix-head' ewers with sancai glazes were made at northern Chinese kilns (see Porcelain of the Jin and Tang Dynasties, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 31, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 226-7, no. 208). Once again, however, the depiction of the bird is restricted to the head, and in the case of these vessels there is no shoulder spout and only the opening is on the top of the vessel. Thus, while these vessels show the early establishment of bird-headed ewers in China, neither the Yue nor the sancai ceramic models are convincing as the prototype for this glass ewer. Much closer in concept are two blue and white porcelain flasks dating to the Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368). One was excavated in Xinjiang province in 1998, while the other was excavated at the site of the Yuan capital, Dadu, in Beijing in 1970 (see Yuan qinghua, Beijing, 2009, pp. 66-69). These two porcelain flasks share with the current glass example flattened globular bodies, although the porcelain vessels are considerably more flattened, while phoenix-head spouts are to one side of the shoulder, and the depiction of the feathers of the phoenix continue onto the sides and upper part of the flasks.
However, the involvement of European Jesuit missionaries at the Imperial Glassworks in the late 17th and 18th centuries should also be born in mind. It is perhaps significant that the shape of the spout on this glass ewer bears a stronger resemblance to those seen on European silver jugs of the 18th century, than to previous Chinese vessels. It is also perhaps significant that silver drinking cups in the form of birds were popular in Germany in the 17th century (see British Museum registration numbers: AF 374, 375, 376).
The hooped ribs on the sides of the ruby glass ewer also bear examination. These do not appear to have easily related antecedents in China, but do call to mind the curved ribbing seen on rococo shell-form European silver sauce boats of the 18th century, such as those made by Nicholas Sprimont in London (see Victoria and Albert Museum number M.41-1993). Spiral and vertical fluting can of course be seen on many 18th century silver vessels made in England and Germany. For the hooped ribs, or fluting, on the current ewer, a link can perhaps also be seen with 18th century European wrythen glass. However possible inspiration from western countries such as Iran cannot be discounted, as concentric ribs can be seen on some earthenware vessels from that area. An example is the 17th or 18th century purple-glazed jug in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has concentric pear-shaped ribs on the side of its flattened globular body (see Victoria and Albert Museum number 642-1889).
Another interesting feature of the form of this ewer is the fact that the handle loops over the top of the vessel from spout to back. This is not a common feature on Qing dynasty vessels, but does have antecedents amongst Liao vessels of somewhat similar body shape to the ruby glass ewer. A handle looped over the top of a slightly flattened, round-bodied vessel can be seen, for example, on a 10th century Liao dynasty stoneware flask from the tomb of Yelu Yuzhi and Chonggun at Hansumu Township, Aluke'erjin Banner, Inner Mongolia (illustrated in Gilded Splendor - Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1125), Hsueh-man Shen (ed.), New York, 2006, pp. 176-7, no. 39). The handle on the current glass ewer is extremely well made in gilded bronze with low relief plant scroll decoration against a textured ground.
The decoration on the side of the ruby glass ewer is purely Chinese in origin. It is comprised of archaistic kui dragons in a style related to designs inlaid in precious metals on bronzes of the Warring States (475-221 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties. The archaistic dragons have been particularly skilfully carved in relief. Such archaistic decoration was greatly admired by the Qianlong emperor and appears on a number of the decorative arts made for his court. The Qianlong emperor's love of ruby glass can also be gauged from the fact that the first entries in the Palace Archives relating to glass in the first year of the Qianlong reign were for a bright red glass vase, a vase with red overlay kui dragons on clear glass and a vase with red overlay on opaque white glass (see Luster of Autumn Water - Glass of the Qing Imperial Workshop, Beijing, 2005, p. 74).
Only one other ewer of this type appears to have been published (illustrated The Grandeur of Chinese Art Treasures: Min Chiu Society Golden Jubilee Exhibition, Hong Kong, 2010, p. 418, no. 272) (see fig. 1). This ewer, in the collection of C.P. Lin, is also brilliant ruby red and is almost identical to the current vessel, except for the inclusion of an archaistic phoenix, in addition to the dragon, in the decoration on the side panels. The C.P. Lin ewer also has a gilded bronze handle with plant scroll decoration. A similar handle can also be seen on a Qianlong ruby glass jug of European form offered in London in 2002 (A & J Speelman, Chinese Sculpture and Works of Art, London, 2002, p. 123, no. 58). The appearance of this handle on a jug of European form adds weight to the suggestion that the form of the current ewer may have derived inspiration from European silver.