A Pair of Fine and Rare Imperial Engraved Ivory Bowls
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art
These rare imperial ivory bowls are a perfect combination of smooth carving and perfectly balanced proportions ideally complemented by delicate decoration. The technique of ivory decoration seen on these bowls, comprised of incised lines filled with black ink or lacquer to resemble ink painting, has a long history in China. A rectangular plaque with the image of a tiger in finely incised lines on its upper surface was excavated in 1968 from a Han dynasty tomb at Mancheng in Hebei province. This is now in the collection of the Hebei Provincial Museum (see Zhongguo meishu quanji, Gongyi meishu bian 11 zhu, mu, ya, jiao, qi, Beijing, 1987, no. 82). Tang dynasty ivory rulers preserved in the Shoso-in, Nara, Japan were also decorated using this technique (illustrated by R. Soame Jenyns and William Watson in Chinese Art III, New York, 1982 edition, p. 159, no. 112). However, between the Tang and the Qing dynasties this technique of ivory decoration appears very infrequently. A rare Ming dynasty ivory brushpot decorated with an incised design of the Three Friends of Winter, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji, Gongyi meishu bian 11 zhu, mu, ya, jiao, qi, op. cit., p. 78, no, 90. In the Qing dynasty, however, two versions of the technique were used. One of these had the fine lines of decoration against an uncoloured ground, as on the current bowls. The other version had a dark, usually black or red lacquer, ground on which the designs appeared in reserve with fine line details. An example of this latter type of decoration can be seen on an ivory table screen dated to AD 1771 in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (illustrated in Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing, London, 1984, p. 146, no. 162).
An 18th century brushpot belonging to the Sir Victor Sassoon Chinese Ivories Trust, which is decorated with a delicate landscape with figures, and an early 18th century archer's thumb ring from the Sloane Collection at the British Museum, which is also decorated with figures in landscape, are closer to the current bowls in both style and technique. Both these comparative pieces are illustrated in Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing, op. cit., p. 153, no. 181, and p.177, no. 239, respectively.
This type of decoration as applied to the current ivory bowls is specifically designed to resemble fine Chinese ink painting. The continuous landscapes on the bowls are reminiscent of those on traditional hand scrolls painted on silk or paper, and this impression is reinforced by the ten-character calligraphic inscriptions and the two red 'seal' characters incorporated into the decoration of each of the bowls.
The figures, landscape and buildings on these ivory bowls are delicately and beautifully rendered. The poetic inscriptions are lines from the works of famous Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) poets, and reflect aspects of the pictorial decoration. One comes from a poem by Wang Wei (701-61) and can be translated as:
'The heavenly cup of wine suggests the hint of chrysanthemum,
The delicious food carries an aromatic taste.'
The other inscription comes from the 8th century poet Zhang Zirong, and can be translated as:
'Dipping my paintbrush into ink with the lantern lights shining bright, I raise my wine cup in the cold air with clouds above me.'
As if to reinforce the imperial origins of these bowls, the calligraphic inscriptions on the sides align perfectly with the Gong zhi (made for the palace) seal mark incised into each base and coloured red.
The theme of both decoration and inscriptions on these bowls is the life of the Chinese literati, while both bowls also carry connotations of Daoist reclusion. The scholar drinking wine while seated on a terrace beside a table bearing antiques may be intended to represent the celebrated poet Tao Yuanming (AD 365-427), who is known for his love of chrysanthemums. Not only does the vase on the table beside him contain chrysanthemums, but they are also mentioned in the poem inscribed on this cup. The two red 'seal' characters appended to the poem are qing, meaning noble or propitious, and yue, meaning moon.
On the other bowl, a scholar is shown inside a thatched pavilion, which may be a reference to the eminent Tang poet Du Fu (AD 712-770), who lived for a time in a caotang (thatched hut) in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where he wrote some of his most famous poems. However it is significant that the thatched pavilion on the bowl is shown to be high up in the mountains amongst the clouds. One of the seal characters appending the poem is an anchaic version of the character gan. This character refers to a tree known as the Lang Gan tree, which grew in the Kunlun mountains, where the immortal Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, is believed to have had her palace. The medicinal uses of the Lang Gan tree are discussed in the famous Bencao Gangmu (Collection of Materia Medica), compiled by Li Shizhen (1518-93) and published in 1602. The form of the gan character seen on the bowl is no longer used, but appears in the Kangxi Cidian (Kangxi Dictionary), which was published in 1716, having been compiled following a 1710 order from the Kangxi Emperor, which required that the dictionary be completed in five years. The other red seal character appended to the inscription on this bowl is yin, which in this case probably refers to 'retirement' or retreat from public duties, and the tranquillity to which many Chinese literati aspired.
The shape, size of these bowls, coupled with the style and execution of their decoration, and the choice of decorative themes, suggests that they may originally have been part of the same set as two others still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 44 - Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, pp. 165-6, nos. 143 and 144), and a third, formerly in the collection of Robert Blumenfield, which was sold in our New York Rooms on 25 March 2010, lot 846. This set of exquisite bowls was probably made in the palace workshops for the Kangxi emperor (AD 1662-1722). The esteem in which these bowls were held by the Qing court is reflected in the fact that one of the bowls in the Palace Museum has been given a gold lining, while the other has a silver lining. The two current bowls and the Blumenfield bowl also appear to have formerly been fitted with metal linings. Such linings not only confirm the extent to which the ivory bowls were prized, but also suggest that these bowls may have been used on some special occasion, as opposed to being merely decorative.
A PAIR OF FINE AND RARE IMPERIAL ENGRAVED TURNED IVORY BOWLS
18th Century, Daoist, All other categories of objects, bowls, ivory, China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
CHINESE CERAMICS AND WORKS OF ART
3¾ in. (9.5 cm.) diam. (2)
The poems read:
(on the bowl with scholar holding a wine cup):
'Xian bei hai fan ju, bao zhuan qie tiao lan'
which may be translated as 'The heavenly cup of wine suggests the hint of chrysanthemum, the delicious food carries an aromatic taste'.
Seal marks 'Qing Yue'.
(on the bowl with a pavilion):
'Ran han deng hua man, fei shang yun qi han'
which may be translated as 'Dipping my paint brush into ink with the lantern lights shining bright, I raise my wine cup in the cold air with clouds above me'.
Seal marks 'Gan Yin'