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Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 October 2009: Lot 1828 

1828
A CINNABAR LACQUER ALMS BOWL
QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD
the globular body rising from the rounded base, completely lacquered on the exterior over a metal core and deeply carved with five animated five-clawed dragons writhing in and out of dense swirling clouds, each dragon in a different pose reserved on finely carved clouds made of tight swirls, the bronze metal liner on the interior completely gilded (fitted box)
18 CM.

The present exquisitely designed and carved alms bowl is amongst the finest Imperial lacquer wares produced during the Qianlong period. It is exceptional for the intricate and carefully layered design of five ferocious and animated dragons amongst tumultuous swirling waves - a subject matter much favoured by the Qianlong emperor himself. The dragons are rendered with ferocious expressions, gaping jaws that reveal sharp fangs, bulbous eyes and flaring nostrils. Their intricately modelled scaly bodies appear to thrash through the waves to create a powerful scene of intense strength and energy. Furthermore, the combed lines of the turbulent water provide a striking setting for the dragons. This bowl represents the work of the Lacquer Workshop of the Zaobanchu ('Imperial Palace Workshop') located in the Forbidden City. It is closely comparable with the famous alms bowl, carved with seven Buddha figures seated against similar dense wave background, illustrated in Carved Lacquer in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1985, pls. 354-355 (fig.1).

The subject matter and style of carving can be compared to that found on boxes from the Qing Court collection; for example, see a square form box in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colors. Treasured Lacquerware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, cat. no. 133; another covered box, also from the court collection and still in Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 9. Compare also a lacquer screen meticulously carved with the same motif on one side, from the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the exhibition China. The Three Emperors, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 229; and a covered circular box sold in our New York rooms, 21st September 2006, lot 66.

The decoration is inspired by the traditional story of carp swimming upstream in the Yellow River and trying to leap the rapids of the 'Dragon's Gate.' Those which succeeded in doing so turned into a dragon. The tale came to symbolize the wish for success in passing the civil service examination and becoming a high official. The message conveyed was that with diligence and perseverance one can achieve the impossible.

For the origins of the design see a Ming dynasty jade washer carved with three dragons amid clouds and swirling waves included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 122, cat. no. 89, where it is noted that the vessel is Imperial and is based on a massive wine vessel of the Yuan dynasty with the same subject matter, now in Beijing. The Yuan vessel is mentioned by contemporary writers as one of the wonders of the Mongol Court. It was rescued by the Qianlong emperor from a temple where monks used it as a vegetable container.



Fig. 1 A cinnabar lacquer alms bowl with seven buddhas, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period courtesy of the palace museum, Beijing

 

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Hugh Moss |