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THE PROPERTY OF AN ENGLISH LADY
A magnificent pair of rare Qianlong double-gourd vases with auspicious designs
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art, CHRISTIE’S
蘇玫瑰 國際亞洲藝術部學術總監 佳士得
This magnificent and rare pair of vases belongs to a very small group of Qianlong famille rose enamelled double-gourd vessels decorated with exceptionally well-painted butterflies and flowers. Only four other single vases of this type appear to have been published. One of these was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1998; another was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in 1991; a third, which had previously been sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1979, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in 2000; and a fourth, which had previously been sold by Christie’s in 2003, was sold again by Christie’s Hong Kong in 2007. Sale of the current vases appears to represent the first time that a pair of these rare Qianlong vases has been offered at auction. The pair was recently discovered in an English country house. The vases were collected in the 1930s by an English lady from a noble family, and have passed by descent to the current owner.
The combination of flowers and butterflies to decorate Chinese porcelain can be seen as early as the Yongle reign (1403-24) on blue and white vessels such as the pear-shaped vase in the Percival David Collection (illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, Percival David Foundation, London, 1992, p. 38, no. 25), and the Chenghua reign (1465-87) on polychrome doucai wares, such as the globular jar also in the Percival David Collection (illustrated ibid. p. 64, no. 61). However, the combination of butterflies and flower sprays painted in overglaze enamels on porcelain became particularly popular at the imperial court in the Yongzheng reign, following the development of the famille rose palette of enamel colours. The choice of this combination of decorative motifs can be seen on the famous 'butterfly bowls' of the Yongzheng reign, which bear butterflies and flowers in the form of roundels. An example of this Yongzheng bowl type is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 39, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 78-9, no. 68), and another, from the Yuen Family Collection, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 30 April 2000, lot 588. Interestingly, although the current vase, like the Yongzheng bowls, has a pure white ground, the butterflies and flower sprays which decorated it display many similarities with those on the exceptional Qianlong vase with pink graviata ground from the Ping Y. Tai Foundation, which was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in December 2008. Indeed a number of the same flowers and types of butterfly appear on both vases.
The current vases and the Ping Y. Tai vase relate to a small number of Qianlong porcelain vases decorated in 琺瑯彩 falangcai enamels with designs of butterflies and flowers on coloured graviata grounds. The colours of these graviata background enamels vary. An example of deep pink enamel with lattice graviata designs forming the background for the butterflies and flowers can be seen on a Qianlong vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum (illustrated by Rose Kerr in Chinese Ceramics - Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1986, p. 116, pl. 99). However, on the Victoria and Albert Museum vase the flowers grow from the lower part of the band, rather than appearing as small sprays - as on the current and Ping Y. Tai vases. Three very similar Qianlong vases, one in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and a pair in the Baur Collection are decorated with butterflies and floral sprays on a deep pink ground with graviata scrolls (illustrated in Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 197, no. V-34; and by John Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in The Baur Collection, volume 2, Collections Baur, Genève, 1999, pp. 128-9, no. 236 and 237, respectively). Another Qianlong vase in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing has a blue enamel ground with graviata lattice design, which forms the background for a design of butterflies, floral sprays and flower heads (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 39 Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, op. cit., p. 37, no. 30.
As is usually the case with pairs of Chinese vases, the designs on the two vessels are not identical, but are complementary. The minor bands are the same on each vase and the choice of motifs is the same, but the disposition of the flowers and butterflies differs slightly. The butterflies and flowers are exquisitely painted, and most of the latter can be identified with a reasonable degree of confidence. Those painted around the main body of the vessels are shown as flower sprays, while those around the upper bulb are painted simply as flower heads. The effect is elegant and harmonious, and the choice of the flowers has been made not only on the basis of their beauty, but also for their auspicious symbolism.
Amongst the flower which can be identified is crab-apple (Malus spectabilis 海棠花haitang hua). The second character in the Chinese name棠 tang provides a rebus for 堂, literally a ‘hall’, but often used to represent ‘family’ or ‘family home’. Flower heads of both crab-apple and peony appear to be depicted on the upper bulbs of the current vases, suggesting the phrase 滿堂富貴 mantang fugui ‘May the whole family achieve wealth and honour’. Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa, 牡丹 mudan), which are also painted as luxuriant sprays on the main body of the vases, are often known in Chinese as 富貴花 fugui hua, the ‘flowers of wealth and honour’. The prominence accorded to peonies on the current vases also reflects their position as the ‘King of Flowers’, beloved of Chinese artists and poets, and traditionally associated with the imperial family, who, as early as the Tang dynasty, grew peonies in the palace gardens. The herbaceous peony (Paeonia lactiflora 芍藥 shaoyao) is of ancient origin in China and is mentioned in the 9th century BC Book of Odes (詩經 Shijing). It was traditionally a token of love and was exchanged as a farewell gift. While the tree peony is the ‘King’ of flowers, the herbaceous peony is regarded as the ‘Prime Minister’.
Painted with equal prominence on the current vases is another pink flower, which could be mistaken for a peony, were it not for the shape of its leaves. This is hibiscus, specifically Hibiscus mutabilis, which in China is known as 木 芙 蓉 mufurong or sometimes 拒霜花 jushuanghua (literally ‘resisting frost flower’). This particular species, which is the most celebrated in China, is famous for the fact that it is white when it opens in the morning, but gradually becomes pink as it fades towards the evening. This feature gives rise to another name in Chinese 醉 酒芙 蓉Zuijiufurong – drunken hibiscus. The combination of hibiscus and rose is auspicious, suggesting the phrase 長春 榮華 changchun ronghua – May you have wealth and glory in addition to long life. Roses are also painted in the vases to provide this wish, as well as being highly decorative. These are the Chinese Rose, Rosa chinensis 月季 yueji (monthly rose or four seasons rose). The name monthly rose derives from the plant’s long blooming season – it blooms almost every month. This quality leads to its other name 長春花 changchunhua, eternal spring flower. Since the roses on these vases also appear with peonies, they provide the suggestion of another auspicious phrase 長春 富貴 changchun fugui – May you enjoy eternal spring (longevity), wealth, and honour.
Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium, 菊花 juhua) are also prominent on the current vases. Along with lotus, orchid and bamboo, the chrysanthemum is regarded in China as one of the ‘four gentlemen of flowers’. Like peonies, chrysanthemums are also mentioned in such early classical literature as the Book of Odes, and are symbols of longevity and wealth as well as being the flowers representing autumn. The reason they are associated with longevity is because the word for chrysanthemum 菊 ju sounds similar to the word 久 jiu, meaning ‘long enduring’, and also because infusions made from chrysanthemum petals have medicinal properties, while other parts of the plant are also edible. With its profusion of similarly slender petals the blue China aster (Callistephus chinensis) painted on the vases is known in China as cuiju 翠菊 or kingfisher chrysanthemum. Some scholars have identified China aster amongst the plants mentioned in the Book of Odes, and certainly it is a flower that has been a favourite amongst artists since at least the Song dynasty. With the advent of a vivid blue overglaze enamel in the early part of the 18th century, China asters became a popular motif on imperial porcelain.
Perhaps the most vibrant flowers depicted on the current vases are camellias. While more than two hundred species of camellia are native to China, it is invariably Camellia japonica 山茶 shancha, which is depicted in Chinese art. As seen here, the blossoms of this plant have five deep red petals with a projecting dense cluster of yellow stamens in the centre. Their red colour is associated with joy and protection, and is thus regarded as auspicious. As this species blooms around the time of Chinese New Year, its blossoms are among the flowers used to decorate homes, in order to secure prosperity in the coming year, as expressed by the phrase 花開富貴 huakai fugui.
Jasmine is one of the flowers most highly prized for its fragrance in China, and Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac 茉莉花 moli) with its dainty white blossoms is, not surprisingly, another flower painted on the current vases. Such fragrant jasmine flowers were used in the 18th century to decorate and to perfume the emperor’s apartments. It was, and still is, highly valued for scenting tea, as well as syrups and sweetmeats. Jasmine was used to perfume clothes, and ladies were known to wear its flowers in their hair. Another flower prized for its exquisite fragrance and worn by ladies in their hair, and used to perfume their cosmetics and incense, may also be depicted on the vases. This is gardenia (gardenia augusta 梔子花 zhizihua), which some scholars have suggested was so valuable in the Han dynasty that the income from 66 hectares of gardenias would have been the equivalent of the taxes from 1000 peasant households. Gardenias roots, as well as their leaves and fruit were used in Chinese medicine, while the fruits were also traditionally used to produce a yellow dye. Gardenia floribunda was also amongst the auspicious plants included in the special still-life paintings executed for the annual Duanwu Festival (端午畫題 Duanwu huati), held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar.
The only vine included amongst the flowers on the vases is convolvulus or morning glory with its striking blue trumpet-like flowers. Ipomoea convolvulacae has been known in China for generations, and appears in paintings such as the Song Hundred Flowers in the Palace Museum, Beijing. It is found on certain early 15th century blue and white vases made at the imperial kilns, but is relatively rare as decoration on Chinese porcelains. One of its names in Chinese is 牽牛花 qianniuhua – literally lead ox flower. This derives from the story of a farmer, who was cured of an illness by eating the seeds of this flower and who subsequently led his oxen into the fields in order to give thanks to the plant which had saved his life. Morning glory is also a symbol of marital bliss. All these flowers, with their auspicious references, and other such as pinks (Dianthus chinensis 石竹 shizhu), gerbera (Gerbera jamesonii - 扶郎花 fulang hua and 千日菊 qianriju are among gerbera’s Chinese names), etc., are harmoniously disposed over the main body of the vases and visually complemented by the variety of butterflies fluttering above and between them.
Around the bases of the vases are vibrant bands of overlapping pink-tipped lotus petals. Similar, richly painted, bands of overlapping lotus petals can be seen on imperial porcelains of the Yongzheng reign – as in the case of those around the foot of an imperial famille rose circular box with pierced lid in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, (illustrated in Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 90-91, no. 79). Similar bold lotus bands, highlighted by fine deep pink outlines and veining on the petals, can also be seen on a small number of especially fine Qianlong porcelains, such as the current pair of vases. The lotus is a popular theme for the Chinese decorator, since it has attractively shaped leaves as well as beautiful flowers. Lotues (Nelumbo nucifera) are associated with Buddhism and are also symbols both of feminine beauty and of purity - the latter because the blossoms rise unsullied from the mud. One word for lotus (荷 he) is a homophone for the word for harmony (和). Another word for lotus 蓮 lian sounds like the word for ‘successive’ (連), and so the motif of a boy holding a lotus – either the flower or the leaf - is a pun for continually giving birth to boy babies. However, an extension of this term for lotus is 青蓮 qinglian, which provides a rebus for 清廉 qinglian, meaning incorruptible.
In the style of their painting, it may be that the flowers on imperial Qing porcelains of this type were influenced by the work of artists such as 惲壽平Yun Shouping (1633-1690), an early Qing artist who is regarded as one of the ‘Six Masters’ of the Qing dynasty. Inspired by the masters of antiquity, Yun Shouping became known for his elegant flower paintings, which combined his ability to capture the essence of each flower with a willingness to use the natural, vibrant, colours sometimes eschewed by other artists. Yun Shouping’s scroll painting of A Hundred Flowers After Xu Chongsi [徐崇嗣, Northern Song dynasty], dated by inscription to AD 1666, which was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in April 1997, demonstrates this particularly well, and includes the majority of the flowers painted on the current vases.
A wide variety of different butterflies are painted on these vases - executed with exceptional delicacy, which emphasises the fragile, shimmering, beauty of their wings. Butterflies are often included in Qing dynasty decoration in order to suggest duplication of an auspicious wish, since the word for butterfly in Chinese 蝶 die is homophonous with a word 疊- meaning to repeat. It also sounds like 耋 - a word meaning over seventy or eighty years of age, and thus expresses a wish for longevity. When combined with plum blossom, butterflies provides a rebus for beauty and longevity. Butterflies are also seen as symbols of happiness in marriage, as well as everlasting romantic love. The latter interpretation is due to a number of traditional Chinese stories in which butterflies play a significant part. The most famous of these is by the Ming dynasty writer 馮夢龍 Feng Menglong (1574-1646), in which the so-called ‘butterfly lovers’ 梁山伯Liang Shanbo and 祝英台Zhu Yingtai are transformed after death into butterflies. Additionally, in Daoism butterflies are associated with dreamlike reflection and the freedom of the soul.
These extremely rare vases are thus not only vessels of great beauty, but also bear a wealth of auspicious messages, which would have rendered them suitable for presentation on the occasion of an important birthday or similarly significant celebration.