A rare pair of Chinese porcelain imperially inscribed wall vases, Qianlong marks and of the period, the flat-back vases finely potted with rounded rectangular bodies on a slightly splayed foot, with pair of blue-enamel decorated dragon handles, the central white rectangular panel inscribed in clerical script (lishu) with a poem followed by two iron-red seals, Qian and Long, inside a border decorated with meandering flowering lotus scrolls on a ruby ground extending to the back, the interior and countersunk base glazed turquoise, iron red four-character reign mark to bases, 20.5cm high
Provenance: Private London collection, inherited circa 1950
Note: Towards the end of the Kangxi emperor’s reign a new decorative innovation found its way to China, travelling on the ships of European Jesuit missionaries and craftsmen - yangcai enamels. This famille rose palette opened up new possibilities for artistic decoration in China, and the new enamels, named yangcai (‘foreign colours’), were used to create beautiful, intricate designs for the imperial court. Developed during the Yongzheng period and further-refined during the Qianlong period, yangcai enamels allowed for the technique of shading, an aesthetic innovation inspired by Western artists - in particular Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), whose masterly compositions combined Western and Chinese traditions, and were greatly-admired by the Qianlong emperor.
The present pair of sedan vases are rich with symbolic imagery. The finely-painted lotus blooms connected by twisting scrolls that adorn the ruby bodies of the vases are potent symbols of purity. Emerging from the murky waters of the marshes and blossoming into a pure white flower, the lotus flower is a popular motif due to the various homophones that each bear special meaning - the words lián 廉 (incorruptible, modest), lián 连 (join, continuous, successive) and lián 联 (unite, join) all combine to give rich, auspicious meaning to the lotus symbol.
During the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) many advances in the decorative arts were made, and the period saw many new innovations in the field of ceramics. One of these new shapes was the sedan vase, which was first created in 1742 after Tang Ying (1682-1756), the imperial kiln superintendent, received instructions from the emperor to make a hanging vase suitable for a sedan chair. These vases were often hung in pairs and filled with fresh flowers, providing the occupant of the sedan with something to admire and study whilst travelling, as well as creating a welcome distraction from the smell outside. The emperor even wrote a poem about this pleasant effect, composed in 1742 and included in the Qianlong yuzhi shiji (Imperial Compositions of Qianlong), which described how the fragrance of the flowers could be enjoyed, whilst the ‘red dust’ from the outside could not reach him.
The Imperial poem inscribed on the offered pair of vases, titled ‘The Hanging Bottle’, is documented in Siku Quanshu (The Complete Library of the Four Treasures). The Qianlong emperor composed this poem in 1758, the 23rd year of his reign, to express his delight upon viewing a sedan vase filled with fresh flowers hanging in his sedan chair on the way to a hunting trip. The poem reads as follows:
大邑冰瓷巧就模，撷芳随处贮琼敷。 邮程水陆延群玉，风月三千护蕊珠。 不是文殊命童子，定为长吉背奚奴。 一尘弗染诸缘静，岂识寻常有苑枯。
The Qianlong emperor’s literary productivity is well known, and it is said that he composed an estimated 40,000 poems during his lifetime. As the young prince Hongli he did not have much freedom when it came to panegyric poetry, however after ascending to the throne as the Qianlong emperor he utilised poetry as a way to explore his own political thoughts, wielding it as a political tool as evidenced by the poems he composed on New Year’s Day. His poetry was also a vehicle for artistic expression, and the pursuit of artistic brilliance was notably championed by the Qianlong emperor, who regarded the appreciation of art not solely an aesthetic endeavor, but also a spiritual one.
A similar example from the same period, this one on lime-green ground, was offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 5th October 2011, lot 1904. Another example, on a ruby sgraffiato ground, was offered at Christie’s London, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 12th July 2005, lot 162. A group of Qianlong wall vases of different forms can be seen at the San Xi Tang (The Hall of Three Rarities) in the Palace Museum, Beijing, as illustrated in the exhibition catalogue China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, p. 44, fig. 15.
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