Magnificent vases of this type decorated in skilfully painted famille rose enamels with mille fleurs or wanhuajin (myriad flower brocade) design are very rare.
The present lot still bears a sticker indicating that it was one of the Fonthill Heirlooms inscribed no. 586, and indeed when the vase and the succeeding lot were sold by Sotheby's, London, on 23rd July 1968, together as Lot 128, it was noted that they were 'From the Fonthill Heirlooms, no. 586'. The Fonthill collection of Asian art was amassed by Alfred Morrison (1821-1897, the son of a wealthy textile magnate, who inherited the Fonthill estate from his father in 1857, and built upon his father's collection of classical sculpture and Renaissance paintings. Alfred Morrison is believed to have begun collecting in the 1850s, and in 1860 and 1861 he purchased a considerable quantity of porcelain and cloisonné enamels from Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900), who had brought them back from China after the sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860. Morrison also bought a number of further pieces for the collection in the period 1865-68, many of which were purchased from Henry Durlacher and several of which had also come from the Summer Palace. Morrison obviously had a particular fondness for vases of the double gourd hulu ping form seen in the current vessels, since two more vases of this shape with different decoration were sold from his estate in 1971 (Christie's London, October 18th 1971, lots 74 and 86).
The current vase and the succeeding lot are not a pair but have been put together from what were probably two other pairs. The pair to the current vase is in the collection of the Walters Gallery of Art, Baltimore (illustrated by Steven W. Bushell, Oriental Ceramic Art, Frederick Muller, London, 1981 edition (reprint of the ten volume 1896 edition), p. 214, figure 279). The Walters vase has the upper part of its neck missing and this has been bound with metal. Bushell notes that the flowers on this vase are '... painted in natural colors, so that each species may be recognised at a glance by one familiar with the garden flora of China. Among them may be distinguished peonies of several kinds, lotus, chrysanthemum, magnolia, roses, hibiscus (both pink and yellow), orchids, iris, lilies (scarlet and white), asters, hydrangea, wisteria, dielytra, pomegranate, begonia, narcissus, convolvulus, syringa (white and lilac), Pyrus japonica (hai-t'ang) and double peach, Olea fragrans, cockscomb, etc.'
Certainly the vases are a tour de force of the decorator's art and would have been extremely time consuming to produce as well a requiring a painter of exceptional skill. Even with the resources available to the Qianlong emperor, it is not surprising that very few such pieces were made. A large gu shaped vase in the Liaoning Provincial Museum (illustrated by Liu Liang-yu in A Survey of Chinese Ceramics - 5 - Ch'ing Official and Popular Wares, Aries Gemini Publishing Ltd., Taipei, 1991, p. 190) indicates that an altar set must have been made with this decoration. The Liaoning vase, like the current vases, bears a six-character seal mark in iron red against a turquoise ground, but in the case of the Liaoning vase this is written horizontally above the central bulb. A further large vase, this time of simple guan form, decorated with mille fleurs from the Grandidier Collection is in the Musée Guimet, Paris (illustrated by Michel Beurdeley and Guy Raindre in Qing Porcelain - Famille Verte, Famille Rose, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p. 118-9, nos. 164-5). Like the current vases, the Guimet vase has a six-character iron red Qianlong seal mark on white against a turquoise ground.
A much smaller vase of compressed form with this type of decoration and similar mark is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (see He Li, Chinese Ceramics - The New Standard Guide, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, p. 307, no. 665). A somewhat paler mille fleurs tripod censer bearing a Qianlong mark without turquoise surround was sold by Sotheby's, London, on 20th June 2001, lot 25. The sumptuous Qianlong mille fleurs design was much admired by later generations, as can be seen from the Jiaqing marked (1796-1820) vase in the Shanghai Museum (see Qingdai ciqi shangjian, Shanghai kexue jishu chubanshe, Shanghai, 1994, p. 196, no. 251) and the pair of vases offered by Christie's Hong Kong on 29th April 2002, lot 569. Even Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) was so impressed by such porcelains that he had a small box and cover, now in the Percival David Foundation, made in this style with the mark Juren Tang zhi (made for the Hall of Dwelling in Benevolence). This box and cover (illustrated by Ming Wilson in Rare Marks on Chinese Ceramics, School of Oriental and African Studies in Association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1998, pp. 44-5, no. 12) must have been made after 1912 when Yuan Shikai moved into one of the palaces of the Forbidden City and named it Juren Tang. However, while charming, these later examples cannot be compared with the superb Qianlong pieces such as the current vases.