CREATED BY THE LAPIDARY'S ART - CHINESE JADES FROM A EUROPEAN COLLECTION
ROSEMARY SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR ASIAN ART
This sale of fine jades, is the first of three sales which Christie's is honoured to offer from the collection of a European connoisseur. The current exceptional group of jades was amassed by this remarkable collector over a period of more than 50 years. His family had collected European art, and while he carried on the family tradition in this area, he also be came an enthusiastic admirer of Chinese jade, rhinoceros horn and other carvings. However, unlike the majority of his contemporaries he was never particularly interested in Chinese porcelain. In the case of the jades in the current sale, this European connoisseur not only demonstrated a keen eye for the quality of stone and fineness of carving in the pieces he acquired, but also an appreciation of the decorative themes that have traditionally appealed to Chinese connoisseurs, particularly those of the 18th century.
One of the features that by tradition has been particularly appreciated in jade carving is the ability of the lapidary to maximise the use of the jade boulder (lot 1005) with which he begins. A good example of this is the boulder in the current collection on which the majority of the form of the stone has been retained so that the viewer seems to peer through a crack in the rock face in order to view the scene beyond. In this case the well-carved scene depicts the famous story of Laozi, who, having become disillusioned by the decline of the Zhou dynasty, decided to leave the country and become a hermit on the western frontiers. As Laozi was about to enter the Han Gu Pass on the western border, Yin Xi, the official in charge of the pass recognised him and asked that he write a record of his wisdom before he left the empire. The resulting document is said to be the Daodejing. The carving on this boulder shows Laozi on his buffalo, accompanied by an attendant, approaching the gate to the Pass, and also depicts Yin Xi hurrying to meet him. The remainder of the boulder is left largely intact with the exception of some crevices cut into the 'rock', while trees and lingzhi fungus enliven the surface.
One of the enduring interests of the Chinese court in the 18th century was archaism. All the three great Qing emperors - Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong - were keen collectors of antiques, and all evinced an interest in contemporary material made in the style of ancient wares. At first sight this description does not appear to apply to the pair of superb wine cups and cup-stands (lot 1021) with their undecorated bell-shaped cups. However, the exquisite quatrefoil form of the cup-stands is one that can be traced back to Han dynasty lacquers and only slightly later silver and gold vessels. A more obvious and very fine example of the archaistic theme is the very rare yellow jade gong vessel (lot 1017). The lapidary has taken a beautiful piece of yellow jade and has fashioned an elegant version of the original bronze gong form. The craftsman has resisted the temptation to add relief decoration to the surface, but has allowed the beautiful colour of the stone to speak for itself. The only elaborate elements are the archaistic scrolling handle with a small phoenix supporting it, and the scroll finial on the cover topped by a chilong. Another particularly fine and rare archaistic piece is the large white and russet jade rhyton (lot 1018). The substantial vessel is well-carved and its lower section is cupped by a graceful leafy scroll which serves as an integral stand. The majority of the rhyton is undecorated, but there is a finely rendered low-relief taotie mask band around the central area. Thus this vessel combines two aspects of archaism - the rhyton form, which has its origins in ancient horn vessels, and the taotie decoration, which has its origins in ancient bronzes.
Two particularly attractive large covered vases of flattened form with archaistic decoration - one spinach green and one white jade - are included in the current sale. On the spinach green vase (lot 1014) the lapidary has skilfully applied two elegantly elaborated taotie bands, alternating with archaistic bands based upon kui dragons and birds. Archaistic decoration has also been applied to the cover, and the rim of both the mouth and lid has squared spiral bands recalling the leiwen of ancient bronzes. In complete contrast the handles on this vase are formed as a floral spray. The exceptionally fine white jade vessel (lot 1025) also has archaistic decoration but in a different style. Most of the surface of this vessel has been left undecorated, however, there is a very well-rendered low relief band of confronted kui dragons. On the sides of the vase and on top of the cover are beautifully carved high-relief and openwork chilong. The use of the openwork is particularly effective with a stone of this luminosity.
A skill allied to that of openwork carving can be seen on the fine raft group (lot 1035). One interesting feature of this carving is how profligate the lapidary has been with jade stone, cutting away a good deal of the material in order to produce a long raft with well-spaced occupants - from the attendant paddling the raft at the prow to the immortal Magu in the stern of the raft accompanied by a crane beneath a pine branch. The openwork used to create the pine branch is especially effective.
Models of animals, both real and mythological, have been much favoured by Chinese jade collectors for centuries. The current collection includes a number of excellent examples. The most naturalistic of these is a well-carved recumbent buffalo with its legs tucked beneath its body (lot 1009). Jade buffaloes of this type have traditionally been greatly prized in China, where the buffalo is associated with strength, prosperity and tranquillity. The ox or buffalo is one of the twelve horary animals representing one of the twelve branches of the Chinese calendrical system. Buffaloes are also associated with farming and the production of food. One of the favourite images of the rural idyll depicted by Chinese painters such as Li Tang (c. AD 1050-after 1130) showed a small boy either riding or leading a water buffalo. Li Tang's Herd Boy with Water Buffalo and Calf, Song dynasty 11th-12th century, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, for example, is illustrated by Ann Barrott Wicks (ed.) in Children in Chinese Art, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2002, p. 54, fig. 2.6. The poetic view of the buffalo had resonance for Chan Buddhists and Daoists alike, suggesting retreat into a tranquil rural life away from the cities and the responsibilities of public office.
In addition to real animals, such as the water buffalo, a number of auspicious mythological animals have also provided inspiration for the jade lapidaries. Two particularly attractive examples in the current sale are a qilin (lot 1030) and a bixie (lot 1010). The qilin is well-carved with finely detailed scales, and is depicted with its head turned back and vapour coming out of its mouth. The vapour supports a jade book, which hovers just above the animal's haunches. This is a popular stance in which to portray a qilin, since just before Confucius was born his mother is believed to have seen a qilin spitting out a jade book. Thus the image of 'a qilin spitting out a jade book' (lintu yushu) provides a wish 'May you give birth to an illustrious son'. A jade qilin such as the one in the collection would have been given to the newborn son of a wealthy family to represent the wish that he may grow to be an illustrious scholar. The other mythological animal is a bixie which provides the form of a waterpot in this collection. The details of its forelegs and haunches are carved in somewhat archaistic style, and the details of its leonine head are also finely carved. The name of this creature literally means 'avoid evil', and so it is seen as an exorcising presence with the power to protect from evil.
A real animal portrayed for its auspicious symbolism is the bat, which is a great favourite in the Chinese decorative arts - from painting on porcelain to carving in jade. A rare white jade vase in archaistic form, which is included in the current sale, is decorated with bats depicted with unusual realism (lot 1027). There is a bat, apparently suspended from the shoulder of the vessel, at each of the canted corners. The bats face outwards with their wings semi-extended producing an almost shield-like outline. Bats are symbolic of happiness or blessings, since the word for bat in Chinese is a homophone for these. On either side of the neck of the vase is a shou (longevity) character in low relief. Thus the decoration on the vase provides wishes for both happiness and longevity. Chinese characters are combined with another creature to convey good wishes on a fine circular jade box in the current sale (lot 1004). This box was probably made for a wedding since the Chinese character on the top is shuangxi or 'double happiness', which is particularly appropriate for a wedding. The character is accompanied by four butterflies. Butterflies provide very auspicious meanings, and they are special symbols of joy. In addition, the Chinese words for butterfly - hudie - can provide two different rebuses. In some Chinese dialects the word hu is pronounced fu, and is thus a homophone for 'blessings'. The word die is a pun for the verb meaning 'to accumulate' or 'to pile up'. In the case of this box the motif would symbolise an accumulation of happiness. It may also be significant that there are two pairs of butterflies on the box, since a pair of butterflies can symbolise a 'joyful encounter'.
The superb and rare jade table-screen (lot 1036) in this collection reflects a fascination with foreigners, particularly those from the West, which was current at the Chinese court in the 18th century, particularly during the Qianlong reign. On one side of the screen a foreign ship with billowing sales rides the waves while foreigners look out from the decks. On the other side a procession of these foreign 'tribute bearers' ascends a steep mountain path carrying auspicious gifts. Several of the figures carry jars and boxes, which are obviously intended to have precious contents. However, one of the figures carries a hawk, and it should be born in mind that hunting with hawks had been a popular sport amongst the Chinese elite for centuries. Even more significantly, one of the westerners holds aloft a brocade ball with which he entices a buddhistic lion along the path. The suggestion in this subject is that the foreigners are bringing precious tribute to the Chinese Emperor. The depiction of such Westerners with magnificent gifts, including mythical beasts, also appears on the hanging scroll Envoys from Vassal States and Foreign Countries Presenting Tribute to the Emperor in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court , Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 240-1, no. 64. The carved figures on this jade screen were thus intended to represent foreigners paying homage to the emperor.
One of the most enduring themes in the Chinese decorative arts, which reached new heights in both decorative and fine arts in the late 17th and 18th century, was birds and flowers. Several of the jades in the current collection reflect this theme. An intricately carved brush-washer (lot 1002) follows the longstanding Chinese tradition of making a vessel in the form of a flower as well as decorating it with flowers. The bowl of this washer is carved in the form of a closely-petalled peony blossom, which is held on a branch that also forms the foot of the washer. From the gnarled branch grow both leaves and slightly opened flower buds, giving the vessel an attractively naturalistic appearance. Peonies are the most popular flowers in the Chinese decorative arts - not only for their beauty, but also because they are known as 'the flowers of riches and honours'. Peonies are also known as 'the king of flowers' and have traditionally been associated with the imperial family. As early as the Sui and Tang dynasties the emperors grew peonies in the palace, and they have remained a great favourite with artists and patrons alike.
In contrast, a small rectangular brush pot in the collection is not formed as a flower, but is decorated with exceptionally finely carved depictions of flowers in low relief (lot 1007). On each side of the brush-pot one of the so-called 'Gentlemen of Flowers' is carved growing naturalistically from the ground or from amongst rocks. Each depiction is accompanied by an imperial poem inscribed in delicate calligraphy. The 'Four Gentlemen of Flowers' are the cymbidium orchid, the plum blossom, the bamboo and the chrysanthemum. The cymbidium orchid has a delicate fragrance that Confucius called 'the scent of kings'. It also symbolises both friendship and grandsons. Plum blossom symbolises renewal and is the harbinger of spring. It stands for purity and perseverance, while its five petals are auspicious because five is a sacred number, and they additionally symbolise the Five Blessings of longevity, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Bamboo symbolises peace, faithfulness and humility. Since it bends with the wind, but does not break, it is also symbolic of integrity. The chrysanthemum is mentioned in the early Chinese literary classic The Book of Odes, and has remained a much admired flower. It is symbolic of longevity, and its name is a pun for a word meaning 'to dwell'. It is a symbol of autumn and is also associated with recluses such as the famous poet Tao Yuanming, who wrote poetry in honour of chrysanthemums.
The final vessel to be mentioned in the introduction to this fascinating collection is a rare brush washer decorated with both flowers and birds (lot 1023). The bowl of the washer is carved in the form of a prunus blossom on a network of blossoming branches on which perch birds. It is likely that the birds are magpies, which are associated with happiness and provide a rebus for xi, happiness. The prunus flower is mei in Chinese, and the depiction of magpies in the topmost branches of the prunus tree suggests a rebus for the wish xishang meishao 'May you have happiness up to the tips of your eyebrows'.