The Manchu rulers of the Qing supported Tibetan Buddhism, especially the ‘new’ Gelug sect, for most of their dynasty.
And it’s through this lens that many Chinese works of art from the 18th and 19th century are better understood.
Some good examples emerged across the wide series of Asian art-themed sales held in the UK in November and December around the 25th Asian Art in London event.
Emperor sits comfortably
The sale at Swan Fine Art (21% buyer’s premium) on November 30-December 1 in Oxfordshire included a 9in (22cm) high ‘holy water’ vase decorated in iron red with stylised lotus flowers.
A vase of this distinctive type can be seen in a painting by Giuseppe Castiglione in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan. It depicts the Qianlong emperor seated under a pine tree in a landscape, with a table to his right set with several treasures.
This kind of vase with no reign mark was made only during the Qianlong period as court gifts to Tibetan monks. A decree in the 11th year of his reign (1746) stated that reign marks were not be used on some holy water bottles with iron-red designs.
A number have appeared for sale in the past decade with this example, formerly in a Scottish collection with a note that it used to be in the Hancock collection in Newcastle, selling for a relatively strong £46,000 (guide £8000-12,000).
Long-standing family find
Estimated at £1000-1500, a doucai censer with a Qianlong reign mark sold for £130,000 in Tennants’ (20% buyer’s premium) Autumn Sale on November 11-12 in Leyburn, following a contest between an online bidder and eight phone lines.
The 11½in (28cm) censer was consigned by a North Yorkshire vendor and by repute had been in the family for three generations. Once part of an altar garniture that would have included two gu-form vases and a pair of candlesticks, it is decorated in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels with the Eight Buddhist emblems (bajixiang) arranged among lotus blooms.
A pair of imperial yellow ground Jiaqing (1796-1820) mark and period Tibetan-style altar ewers or penba hu was offered by Woolley & Wallis (25% buyer’s premium) in Salisbury as part of a sale of Chinese Works of Art on November 15.
This distinctive form with its curved spout issuing from the gaping jaws of the head of the mythological sea creature makara was originally produced in metalwork (several examples made in gold were referenced in the cataloguing), with porcelain vessels such as these made across the Qing period. Each is brightly enamelled with the bajixiang arranged in two registers among lotus blooms.
Formerly from the collection of a US lawyer, amassed over the last 50 years, the pair had an estimate of £80,000-120,000 and sold well at £205,000.
Also in the Salisbury sale was a Qianlong mark and period green enamelled ‘dragon’ jar and cover that – like another sold here in the spring – came by descent from the collection of Admiral Robert Coote (1820-98) who served between 1878-81 as commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy’s China Station. With bases located in Singapore, Hong Kong and Wei Hai, it was responsible for overseeing the coast of China and its navigable rivers, the western part of the Pacific Ocean and the waters surrounding the Dutch West Indies.
The pair to this 8in (20cm) jar was sold in these rooms in May for £160,000, prompting the vendors to consign the other. Both pieces carried old paper labels, this one inscribed Green & white jar and stand from Peking Oct.6 1879. Arrived Shales and unpacked Dec. 12. 1879. Very good.
In marginally better condition than its pair, it too made £160,000.
Hotly contested flask
A 9in (22cm) high Qianlong mark and period famille rose ‘dragon’ moon flask or bianhu topped the sale at Dore & Rees (25% buyer’s premium) in Frome, Somerset, on November 7.
Modelled with a pair of chilong handles, it was finely enamelled on each side with an iron-red bat, peaches on a branch and two pink-five-clawed dragons. It had chips to the neck and the foot rim but this was reflected in the estimate of £30,000-50,000.
An identical vase was sold at Bonhams in 2014 for £175,000 and this example, which came from a private collection in Dorset, took the same sum.
“Skilfully potted and beautifully decorated, this was an exceptional example of imperial porcelain”, said Lee Young, managing director. “We expected this lot to have significant attention and, hotly contested on 16 phone lines, we were certainly not wrong.”
Duke’s (25% buyer’s premium) sale in Dorchester on December 9 included a 4¼in (11cm) coral ground bowl painted with flowers in famille verte enamels that carried an underglaze blue Kangxi (1662-1722) yuzhi mark. These special yuzhi reign (‘made for imperial use of …’) items suggest a closer relationship to the imperial court and one of the few instances where the Jingdezhen potters received specific instructions as to the style of the underglaze-blue mark.
They may have been enamelled in the imperial workshops in the Forbidden City of Beijing. Bowls of this type, thought to date from the end of Kangxi’s long reign, are held in important private and museum collections worldwide.
This example, which was ‘acquired by the grandparents of the present owner and thence by descent’, had a paper label for L Wannieck Paris, 158. Léon Wannieck was a Parisian Asian art dealer in the first half of the 20th century.
Duke’s was unsure it was of the period but, estimated at £8000-12,000, it took £170,000 – a sum closer to that achieved by Kangxi mark and period bowls of this type in Hong Kong.
Sworders’ (25% buyer’s premium) Asian Art auction in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, on November 4 was topped by a 20th century polychrome-enamelled porcelain plaque in the style of the celebrated Republican-era artist Wang Qi (1884-1937).
It is painted with a wealthy man and his son clutching tightly to a coin inscribed Xing Ming zhi Bao (Treasures of Life) alongside a poor man reaching out for aid.
The plaque is inscribed with a poem describing the danger of greed plus a dedication to commemorate the anniversary of the Jingdezhen School of Fine Art, the signature of Wang Bizhen and two seals reading Wang Qi Hua Yin and Zengcai Duoli shi Kong Kong (‘Being aggressive for wealth and profit will end in nothing’).
The plaque was acquired at auction in Singapore in 1980 and brought to the UK on retirement in the 1990s. Estimated at £10,000-15,000, it took £29,000.
The Eight Friends
Released from imperial restraints, Republican period porcelain artists developed their own styles – the leading artists forming the group known as the Eight Friends of Zushan.
Yu Wenxiang (1910-93) studied under He Xuren (one of the Eight Friends) for six years from 1925, and is famous for his snow scenes painted en grisaille.
A pair of plates each with a two-line poetic stanza and signed by Yu Wenxiang sold for £14,000 (estimate £5000-8000) at Woolley & Wallis.
Both painted with a snowy mountainous landscape scene, one depicts a traveller on horseback with his attendant walking behind, the other figures on a sampan and a terrace. Four plates of this type sold for £27,000 at Lyon & Turnbull in 2019.
At Burstow & Hewett (20% buyer’s premium) in Battle, East Sussex, on November 17 a 10 x 7in (26 x 18cm) porcelain plaque with a polychrome design of a scholar in contemplation under a pine tree sold for £17,000 (estimate £500-700).
As well as stanzas of a poem it carried the seal of Xiliang Wang – nephew of the celebrated Dafan Wang.