HARMONY, LONGEVITY AND FILIAL RESPECT
ROSEMARY SCOTT - INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART
These magnificent cranes are a spectacular reflection of the auspicious beliefs attached to red capped cranes by the Chinese court. The Chinese word for crane is he, which is a homophone for the word for harmony, and thus cranes represent peace. Their long legs were described as resonating with the harmonies of nature and Heaven. Cranes are also known to live for many years and thus have become associated with long life, and indeed are often depicted as the familiars of the Star God of Longevity, Shoulao. As early as the 12th century, the Chinese Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25) painted a flock of cranes, which were seen flying above the palace in AD 1112, in order to record such an auspicious event. In the 18th century court artists were frequently required to paint cranes by their imperial patrons.
A hanging scroll by an anonymous court artist, Empress Xu Serves Food, dating to the early Qianlong reign (1736-95), used to be hung in the Palace of Concentrated Purity during the New Year Festival. It was accompanied by a poem by the Qianlong Emperor, commending the Han dynasty Empress Xu for her filial conduct in personally served food to the Emperor's mother and exhorting his empress and concubines to follow her example (1). In the foreground of the painting large red capped cranes are shown wandering about the steps of the palace, as wishes for longevity and also representing the harmony achieved by such filial behaviour. Indeed many 18th century informal court portraits include cranes somewhere in the landscape.
Many court paintings, however, focus solely on the depiction of cranes. Among those paintings preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, are Shen Quan's (1682-1760) hanging scroll, Pine, Plum and Cranes, (see fig. 1) dated by inscription to AD 1759 (2). While, reminiscent of Huizong's 12th century work, Yu Xing's (1692-after 1767) hanging scroll, Cranes against Sky and Waters, c.1747, bears an inscription by the Qianlong Emperor and twelve Qianlong seals (3). Even the famous Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), known in China as Lang Shining, who served the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, painted a number of representations of cranes. Among these are the hanging scroll, Cranes and Flowers, which included two crane chicks (4), as well as the impressive Pines and Cranes (5). Castiglione often painted the cranes with flexed necks in a way copied by other court artists, and seen in the famous trompe l'oeil painting on the north wall of the theatre hall in the western part of Emperor Qianlong's Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service or Lodge of Retirement) in the Ningshougong (Palace of Tranquillity and Longevity) (6). Interestingly, while the majority of extant crane censers have necks rising in a simple curve, the necks on some of the cranes in the current group from Fonthill are more complex in their stance, perhaps reflecting the influence of paintings of this type.
This pair of double crane censers is not only unusually large, and particularly detailed, but also appears to be unique in having two cranes in each group, rather than being a pair of single cranes. All the extant cloisonné crane censers and candle holders published from the palace collections have only a single crane on each base. The current crane censers are comprised of a large crane with two peaches in its beak, and a smaller crane reverently looking up at it. The base is finely wrought in the form of rocks rising from the sea, and then each crane stands on a further rock - the taller crane's rock being higher than that of the smaller crane. There is something in the composition of these crane groups that calls to mind the famous painting by Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining) of the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-35) with Prince Hongli (the future Qianlong Emperor, r. 1736-95) known as Spring's Peaceful Message (7), (see fig. 2). Here the young Prince is shown smaller than the Emperor, bowing slightly, and looking respectfully up at his father as the two men exchange a spray of prunus, while behind and to the side there are bamboo stems. In his later years the Qianlong Emperor's admiration for this painting led him to identified himself as the younger man in an inscription which he wrote on the painting in 1782, when he was 71 years old, and to commission a trompe l'oeil painting of the same subject for one of his favourite private rooms, the Sanxitang (Study of the Three Rarities).
Parallels can be drawn between the cranes, these paintings and a design seen on a small number of imperial Yongzheng porcelains. A blue and white Yongzheng vase in the Beijing Palace Museum (8), for example, is decorated with two dragons amongst waves. The upper dragon has five claws, while the lower dragon, which looks up at him, has only three claws. The five-clawed dragon represents the emperor, while it is believed that the three-clawed dragon represents the crown prince, who is receiving instruction from his father. Like the posture of the smaller figure in the paintings and of the smaller cranes, the attitude of the smaller dragon suggests the respect of the young prince for his father, the emperor, and possibly anticipates the transfer of the mandate of heaven and the responsibility for the good of the empire that went with it.
It seems possible that the current crane censers may have been commissioned by the Prince Hongli (later the Qianlong Emperor), probably as a birthday gift for his father. As previously noted, the cranes themselves symbolise harmony, and represent a wish for longevity. The peaches held by the larger crane also symbolise longevity, and perhaps the implication is that these peaches have been presented by the smaller crane, representing the Crown Prince, to the larger crane, representing the Yongzheng Emperor, as a wish for the latter's long life. It is also significant that, unusually, a beautifully depicted spray of bamboo has been incorporated into the bases of these cranes. Bamboo symbolises integrity, since the word for the joints of bamboo, jie, is the same as the word for integrity in Chinese. Integrity was a virtue that was particularly highly valued by the Yongzheng Emperor. This incorporation of bamboo also provides another link with the Castiglione painting.
It is additionally significant that the workmanship on these crane groups is extraordinarily fine, and exceptionally detailed. This greater detail, compared with Qianlong cloisonné cranes preserved in the palaces, may be seen in the plumage on the body, particularly on the back and wings, where the feather are not only picked out by the gilded wires of the cloisons, but are also in low relief so that each feather appears to overlap the one in the row below. The greater detail is also obvious on the neck and head, and on the legs and feet. The majority of extant large cranes have legs and feet with incised detail and simple gilding. On the current crane censers, however the texture of legs and feet is meticulously rendered in cloisonné enamel, with tiny, perfectly formed, cloisons. The only other cranes to have enamelled legs are a pair of candlesticks in the Shenyang Palace, which have green enamelled legs, but without enamel on the feet (9).
An attribution of the current crane censers to the late Yongzheng reign is based on historic, compositional and technical grounds, but cannot be proven through comparison with extant Yongzheng cranes. In 1962 Sir Harry Garner noted that: '... no pieces of cloisonne are known with reign marks of Yung-cheng (1723-35), but there can be no doubt that many pieces belonging to this reign are in existence, both in China and the West ... almost certainly attributed to the Ch'ien-lung period'(10). Since the 1960s only one Yongzheng marked cloisonné enamel appears to have been published. These are identical dou vessels with phoenix-head handles, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (Bee fig. 3) (11). As one would expect of imperial Yongzheng wares, these two cloisonné dou are exquisitely made with great refinement. Although the dou are decorated using only a single enamel colour - dark green - they are distinguished by the complexity and precision of the cloisons and the exceptional quality of the gilding on the handles and cloison edges. It is significant that the beaks of the current cranes are of the same distinctive green enamel as the pair of dou and even have cloisons of similar small scale, in an unusual, cloud-like form.
A number of crane figures can still be seen in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Perhaps the most famous are the two crane censers that stand on either side of the throne in the Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony), the largest and most important building in the Forbidden City, popularly known as the Throne Hall (12). Large cloisonne cranes also stand on either side of the throne in the Qianqinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity), which was another major throne room in the palace during the 18th century (see fig. 4). Interestingly only one of the cranes is shown in Osvald Siren's photograph of this palace, taken in the 1920s (see fig. 5)(13), but today one bird stands on either side of the throne, as they would have done in the 18th century (14). Large 18th century cloisonné cranes are usually designed either as censers - as in the case of the current examples and those from the Taihedian - or to hold pricket candlesticks, often in the form of lingzhi fungus of immortality. The cranes in the Palace of Heavenly Purity fall into the latter category, as do the cranes which still stand on either side of the throne in the Forbidden City's Changchungong (Palace of Eternal Spring) (15).
The current pair of double crane censers is, in truth, more magnificent than any of those published as being in the current palace collections. The majority of those in Beijing and Shenyang date to the Qianlong reign, and the Chinese scholar Hu Desheng has noted that in the Qianlong reign imperial thrones were set in front of a screen, flanked by two beast-form censers, and slightly in front of these were a pair of 'immortal' crane-form censers, with a pair of cylindrical censers in front of those (16). The current censers, being significantly larger, were perhaps made before these imperial arrangements were so strictly formalised.
(1) Wan Yi, et al., eds., Daily Life in the Forbidden City, Rosemary Scott and Erica Shipley trans., Harmondsworth & New York, 1988, p. 142-3, pls. 193 & 194.
(2) E. S. Rawski and J. Rawson eds., China - The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, p. 362, no. 268.
(3) E. S. Rawski and J. Rawson , op. cit., p. 363, no. 269.
(4) The Selected Painting of Lang Shih-ning (Josephus Castiglione) Volume I, Hong Kong, 1971, no. 13.
(5) Collection of Paintings of Giuseppe Castiglione, Tianjin, 1998, p.114-115, no. 91.
(6) Nancy Berliner (ed.), Juanqinzhai: In the Qianlong Garden, The Forbidden City, Beijing, London, 2008, p. 28, lower image.
(7) The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 145, pl. 24.
(8) Qing dai yuyao ciqi, I, Beijing, 2005, pp. 24-5.
(9) Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum: Shenyang Gugong bowuyuan yuancang wenwu jingcui: Falang, (The Prime Cultural Relics Collected by Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum: Enamel), Shenyang, 2007, p. 87, no. 2.
(10) Sir Harry Garner, Chinese and Japanese Cloisonne Enamels, London, 1962, p. 89.
(11) Enamel Ware in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1999, pp. 101-3, nos. 29 & 30.
(12) The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, no. 247.
(13) C. Ho and B. Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City - The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, London & New York, 2004, p. 95, pl. 103.
(14) The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, no. 248.
(15) Wan Yi, et al., eds., Daily Life in the Forbidden City, Rosemary Scott and Erica Shipley trans., Harmondsworth & New York, 1988, p. 145, pl. 196.
(16) Hu Desheng, Gugong bowuyuan Ming Qing gongting zhu dakuan, vol. 2, Beijing, p. 679.
A HIGHLY IMPORTANT AND EXCEEDINGLY RARE PAIR OF IMPERIAL CLOISONNE ENAMEL DOUBLE CRANE CENSERS
THE PROPERTY OF LORD MARGADALE OF ISLAY
early 18th Century, censer, All other categories of objects, religious icons, enamel, China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
CHINESE CERAMICS AND WORKS OF ART
57 in. (145 cm.) high (2)
By repute, acquired from Henry Brougham Loch
1st Baron Loch (Lord Loch of Drylaw, 1827-1900)
Alfred Morrison Collection
John Granville Morrison (1901-1996), 1st Baron Margadale of Islay and thence by direct descent to the present owner