ARTISTIC INGENUITY - A YONGZHENG FAUX BOIS PAIL
ROSEMARY SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART
This very rare porcelain pail is an exceptional example of the ability of the ceramic decorators in the Qing dynasty to imitate a range of different materials using enamel colours on porcelain. A new array of glaze and enamel colours were developed in the Imperial workshops during the Kangxi and Yongzheng periods, thus the craftsmen had a vastly enlarged palette with which to create new designs and effects on porcelain. The 18th century fascination with imitating other materials through the use of glazes and enamels on porcelain can clearly be seen in a set of nine thumb rings in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, each of which imitates a different material, including wood, bamboo, marble, pudding stone, inlaid bronze, malachite and turquoise (see Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, p. 199, no. V-36). While the largest number of porcelains decorated to imitate other materials were made during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, the few examples that have survived from the Yongzheng reign are of particularly high quality, and mostly feature the imitation of wood.
Two of the colours that particularly facilitated the imitation of wood were two orangey reds, both created using iron oxide. Iron-red enamels had a long history on Chinese ceramics, but in the 18th Century the craftsmen discovered that if they replaced some of the lead oxide used as a flux in the original iron-red enamel recipe with potassium nitrate, they could achieve an orangey red that was good for imitating both lacquer as well as the grain of certain woods. They also discovered an orangey red glaze that could be fired at high temperatures, which was probably produced using a highly feldspathic low-lime porcelain glaze with a low iron oxide content, and which could be applied thinly, fired in reduction and cooled in oxidation. The wide range of colours available, including an extremely subtle range of browns and orangey reds, have allowed the ceramic decorator to create the very realistic wood effect on the current pail.
A number of porcelains with faux bois decoration from the Yongzheng reign are items for the scholar's desk, and are only partly decorated in faux bois. A Yongzheng brush pot in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, has faux bois on the interior and providing decorative bands top and bottom on the exterior, while the main exterior band is decorated with a landscape in sepia enamels (illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong - Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Forbidden City Publishing/Woods Publishing, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 239, no. 68). Another Yongzheng brush pot, of similar proportions to the example in the Palace Museum, but with famille rose design of figures in landscape as the main exterior band, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (illustrated by Ke Meigui, Weiduoliya he A'erbode guoli bowuyuan cang - Zhongguo Qing dai ciqi, Guangxi meishu chubanshe, 1995, p. 159, no. 99). A brush holder with its integral stand decorated in faux bois, and bearing a Yongzheng mark, is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (illustrated by He Li in Chinese Ceramics, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, p. 305, no. 659).
The imitation of wood on porcelain seems to have become a fascination during the 18th century and a small number of porcelain vessels has been preserved on which the faux bois effect have been achieved with particular success and applied on most, or all, of the surfaces of the vessel, as in the case of the current pail. Two shallow, unmarked, bowls with faux bois exteriors and gold interiors are in the Shenyang Palace collection and the collection of the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in The Prime Cultural Relics Collected by Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum - Chinaware volume, second part, Shenyang, 2008, no. 5; and in Qing Imperial Porcelain, Nanjing Museum and Art Gallery, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1995, no. 73, respectively). A similar bowl with faux bois inside and out is also in the Shenyang Palace collection (illustrated Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum - Chinaware volume, second part, op. cit., no. 6). A duomuhu ritual vessel, dated to the Qianlong reign, which has faux bois on the exterior with imitation gilt bronze bands, is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Catalog of the Special Exhibition of K'ang-his, Yung-cheng and Ch'ien-lung Porcelain Ware from the Ch'ing Dynasty in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, no. 111). In the same way in which the rattan strapping depicted on the current pail is in low relief, so are the gilt bronze bands depicted on this ritual ewer.
A Yongzheng marked basin standing on three small feet with faux bois on the exterior is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong - Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, op. cit., p. 317, no. 146). The skilful depiction of the wood grain and separate planks on this vessel, as well as the low relief and careful painting of the two bands of plaited rattan strapping around the basin are very similar to those seen on the current vessel. An unmarked faux bois bucket without handles from the Meiyintang collection was included in the exhibition China - The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, pp. 304-5, no. 235), where it was dated to the Yongzheng-Qianlong period. However, unlike the current pail and the Yongzheng marked three-footed basin in the Palace Museum, Beijing, the rattan strapping on the Meiyintang bucket is only painted onto the vessel, rather than also being in low relief.
Traditional wooden pails were made in different proportions in China, but were usually made from planks of wood held tightly together by two bands of plaited rattan strapping, as depicted on the current Yongzheng porcelain pail. The handles were of different types, sometimes of wood, sometimes of rope, and sometimes a mixture of the two. One of the famous album leaves of Portaits of Emperor Yongzheng Ploughing and Weaving, in which the Yongzheng emperor is shown taking part in horticultural and sericultural scenes from the Yuzhi Gengzhi tu, shows him with two pails which have raised, pierced lugs on either side to which the rope handles are attached (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 14 Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 77, no. 11-8), while another leaf in the same album shows the emperor transferring water using a pail with a wooden crossbar (see ibid, p. 79, no. 11-14). The latter pail is a simpler version of the current form, which has a more elaborate, closed, extended handle.
Only one other Yongzheng faux bois porcelain pail of the same shape and size as the current vessel appears to have been published. An almost identical pail in the collection of the Shanghai Museum is illustrated by Wang Qingzheng (ed.) in Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Sun Tree Publishing, Singapore, 2002, p. 228, lower right, and illustrated again in Masterpieces of Beauty (3) East-West Exchange and Imperial Culture - Ceramics of Yuan, Ming and Qing, 1991, p. 145, no. 158, where it is noted that the Yongzheng mark is in underglaze-blue (see fig. 1).