A Rare Ruby-Ground Famille Rose Covered Bowl
by Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
This rare and exquisite covered bowl is not only a particularly finely-made product of the imperial workshops, it also bears a poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor himself. Only one other covered tea bowl with the same decoration appears to have been published. This was sold by Sotheby’s London in December 1994 and is now in the Wang Xing Lou collection (see Imperial Perfection – The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors, Hong Kong, 2004, no. 56). Both the present cup and that in the Wang Xing Lou collection have overglaze ruby enamel grounds which are decorated with fine sgraffiato feather-like scrolls. Both have two reserved panels on the body of the bowl, outlined in gold enamel, one of which contains the well-written poem, while the other depicts a scene, in famille rose enamels, in which a scholar in plain brown robes is shown seated within a waterside studio, while in the next room his servant boils water for tea. Another servant approaches across a bridge holding a tea pot in one hand, while in the other he struggles to hold an umbrella with which to shield himself from the rain. The reeds by the riverbank and the willow trees beside the buildings are shown buffeted by the wind and rain.
The poem inscribed on the panel of the two tea bowls is entitled:
‘Composed while boating in the rain and the tea is brewing’
It may be translated as:
‘The haze over the stream and the rain in the mountains appear as mist
I sit alone in simple robes listening to the wind in the willow trees.
The bamboo stove and the bowl of tender tea leaves – floating towards clear rapids
Which even the paintings of the Mi family cannot capture.
The wind blowing through the pine trees seems to produce ‘fish-eye’ bubbles.
Why is it necessary to distinguish between the fountain of Zhongleng and the Three Gorges?
The fresh fragrance of this immortal dew exudes poetic inspiration.
As I sit here, I am not aware of the embankment passing by.’
The decoration on the cups faithfully reflects the poem, not only depicting the effect of the wind and the rain, but even the swathes of mist created by the ‘haze over the stream and the rain in the mountains’.
According to palace records, this poem was composed by the Qianlong Emperor in the seventh year of his reign [AD 1742], when he was travelling in the rain, on his way back to the Yuanming Yuan (see Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 39, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 124). It is noted that the emperor then gave the order for the poem to be inscribed on a teapot. A teapot with this inscription is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Porcelains with Cloisonne enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, op. cit., p. 124, no. 108). The teapot, which is decorated with a ground pattern of minute iron-red scrolls, has two reserved panels – one with a scene of a scholar sitting in a pavilion while his servant makes tea; the other containing the inscribed poem. Interestingly, the poems on the current lidded tea bowl, and on the tea bowl in the Wang Xing Lou collection, bear an additional four characters at the end of the poem, which do not appear on the teapot, reading ‘Qianlong yuzhi’. Both the teapot and the bowls bear the same two iron-red seals following the poem, reading ‘Qian’ and ‘Long’. The painting in the panel on the teapot also depicts a scholar in a waterside studio accompanied by a servant making tea, but the atmospheric depiction of rain and wind, which is so successful on the bowls, is not evident on the teapot.
Both the bowls and the teapot have underglaze blue six-character seal-script Qianlong reign marks in on their bases inside squares reserved against a turquoise ground. In the case of the bowls a second, similar, mark appears inside the circular finial of the lid. On the interior of the lids are five red bats – symbolising the ‘Five Blessings’. When enjoying ‘steeped’ tea, lidded tea bowls of this kind enabled the drinker to employ the refinement of using the lid to strain the tea as he drank and thus prevent the tea leaves from entering his mouth.
Sgraffiato grounds, such as those seen on the current bowl were a feature of a small group of fine imperial porcelains of the Qianlong reign, and were created using a limited number of different coloured enamels. One of the most successful was the ruby enamel seen on the present lidded tea bowl. Similar ruby-enamel ground, with similar sgraffiato feather-like scrolls can be seen on a larger bowl, without a lid, in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated Porcelains with Cloisonne enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, op. cit., p. 120, no. 104). The Beijing bowl has four round reserved panels containing landscapes, while the ruby ground is decorated with elaborate multi-coloured floral scrolls, similar to those seen on the current lidded tea bowl. This type of sgraffiato decoration was only possible on Qing dynasty porcelains after the development of the famille rose palette, which did not flow when fired. Thus the design could be finely incised through the enamel before firing, and the decorative lines would still be crisply visible after firing, creating a ground of richness and elegance.