The floral designs on early Ming lacquer boxes represent some of the finest decoration found in the Chinese decorative repertoire, as evident in the exquisite carving on the present box. This example is additionally remarkable for its large size. The rendering of the peonies is characterised by the deep naturalistic carving, and as Clarence F. Shangraw observes in his article 'Chinese Lacquers in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco', Orientations, April 1986, pp. 22-41, "The lacquer style of the Yongle era echoes that of the underglaze-blue decorated porcelains and continued into the subsequent Xuande reign (1426-35)."
The exacting standards of the Yongle lacquer workshop are demonstrated by craftsmen in the Xuande reign who sometimes struggled to keep up with the high standards and on occasion carved bold Xuande marks on Yongle pieces to suggest that they were made during the Xuande period. An example of this phenomenon is the lacquer dish with a very similar design to the present lot and with a Xuande mark incised over the original Yongle mark, sold in these Rooms, 2 November 1999, lot 760. Pieces made in the late Yongle reign were also sometimes reassigned with Xuande marks.
Boxes with the same configuration of a central peony blossom with foliage surrounded by four more major peonies at the cardinal points are known, the most comparable one being the large splendid example sold in our London Rooms, 5 June 1995, lot 16. Others include a slightly smaller (26.8 cm. diam.) box in the National Palace Museum, Taibei, employing the same arrangement of peonies on the lid and combination of peonies and chrysanthemums around the sides, illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Carved Lacquer Ware, col. pl. 3; and a Yongle box (21 cm. diam.) incised with a Xuande mark, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo Qiqi Quanji, vol. 5, pl. 22.
The style of floral decoration also includes camellia, chrysanthemum and hibiscus. Cf. the box illustrated by H. Garner, Chinese Lacquer, pl. 32; one by M. Feddersen, Chinese Decorative Art, fig. 190; the example from the Nezu Art Museum, exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum, Exhibition of Oriental Lacquer Arts, 1977, Catalogue, no. 506; and one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo Qiqi Quanji, Vol. 5, pl. 27. Dishes with similar designs include two in the Nezu Museum, Nezu Bijutsukan, Mei hin shusei, 1986, nos. 491-492; one illustrated by Garner, op. cit., pl. 34; and another from the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated by Wang Shixiang, Ancient Chinese Lacquerware, no. 123.