This bench belongs to a group of champlevé enamel pieces commissioned by the officials in Guangdong as tribute to the Qing court. During the whole of the Qing Dynasty, Guangzhou was the centre of the champlevé enamel production and the quality and quantity of its output was second to none. It has been suggested that the artisans in Guangdong learned the techniques of champlevé enamel from foreign pieces, and indeed the Guangdong piece share with examples made in Limoges and Köln the same pale grey-blue ground. From records we learn that most of these pieces were massive in size and many of them, because of their idiosyncratic, European-influenced appearance, were commissioned to decorate European-style buildings in the Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan. Few of these pieces are extant after the sacking of the palace, making the current example especially rare.
The colour scheme of the Guangdong pieces is a distinctive and subtle palette, with its very pale blue ground enriched with darker blue, pink, orange, yellow and green. The outlines of the designs are clearly and regularly cut, and its finess often leads people to mistake it for cloisonné enamel. For examples of Guangdong champlevé enamel pieces in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see the catalogue of Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court exhibition, Chinese University of Hong Kong 1987, nos.36-39, pp.80-81.
It seems probable from the size and shape of this piece, that it was intended as a two-seater bench, errendeng. A late 16th, early 17th century undecorated huanghuali bench of approximately the same size and proportions was illustrated by Wang Shixiang in 'Additional Examples of Classical Chinese Furniture', Orientations, vol.23, no.1, January 1992, p.40, no.1. The style of the current bench is, however, quite different to the huanghuali example. Not only does it have elaborate surface decoration, it also has aprons with edges shaped like foliated petals on the longer sides. The legs too are enlivened by hoof feet and a protrusion two-thirds of the way up reminiscent of those seen on wooden or lacquered tables, some of which have variable height legs.
A turquoise-ground cloisonné enamel stool, which shares with the current bench a similarly waisted construction is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong 2002, p.160, no.152. The Beijing stool shares with the current piece an edging band on the upper surface composed of dissolved archaistic dragons, while the red bats that are prominent on the top of the stool, can be seen on the apron of the bench.
Blue archaistic dragons similar to those seen on the top of this bench also appear in the background of a turquoise ground cloisonné teapot with reserved landscape panels in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Op. Cit., p.110, no.10). Stylised dragons also provide the central decoration for a 17th century Qing dynasty square cloisonné table with inset legs in the Uldry collection (see H. Brinker and A. Lutz, Chinesisches Cloisonné - Die Sammlung Pierre Uldry, Museum Rietberg, Zurich 1985, no.182).
Compare the current bench with the exact same one from the Fonthill Collection sold in our London Rooms, 9 November 2004, lot 53.