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Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 October 2009: Lot 1824 
     

1824
A MINIATURE IMPERIAL IVORY WRIST REST BY HUANG ZHAO
PALACE WORKSHOPS
QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD, DATED 1763
modelled on a section of bamboo-culm with corners forming a low hoofed feet on the underside, the front masterfully carved in low-relief with a group of boys flying a kites, one boy controlling the kite as another un-spools the string, with three others looking on and a sixth boy running naked trying to raise a second kite, the underside exquisitely carved in the round with the 'Eighteen Luohan', each animatedly holding his attribute and riding various mythical animals, one of the figures, the Buddhai seated on a cloth held aloft by three demons, another a luohan seated on a horse tossing a cymbal in the air, and another holding a Buddhist staff with four loose rings, signed on the side Qianlong guiwei zhongqiu xiaochen Huang Zhao qing gongzhi ('Respectfully made by your insignificant servant Huang Zhao in the mid-autumn of the guiwei year of the Qianlong reign'), Perspex case (fitted box)
9.4 CM.

PROVENANCE
C.C. Tih, Hong Kong, prior to 1986.
Sydney L. Moss, Ltd., London 1986.
EXHIBITED
Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Fung Ping Shan Museum, Hong Kong, 1986, cat. no. 96.

The inscription on the present wrist rest reads and can be translated as follows:

Qianlong guiwei zhongqiu xiaochen Huang Zha gongzhi
Respectfully made by your humble servant Huang Zhao in the mid-
Autumn of the guiwei year (equivalent to 1763) of the Qianlong reign.

Huang Zhao was one of the most talented and important ivory carvers working in the Palace Workshops during Qianlong's reign. A native of Guangdong, where most of the talented ivory carvers for the Palace Workshops were recruited from, Huang was summoned to the Palace in 1749 and worked there until his retirement in 1790. Yang Boda in his work on ivory carvings in the Palace Museum collection for the exhibition Tributes from Guangdong in the Qing Court ,Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1987, p. 64, notes that Guangdong ivory artisans were in complete control of the Imperial Workshop and monopolized the production of ivory items in the Palace. He also mentions Huang Zhao as one of the key carvers who worked in the Imperial Ivory Workshop for 41 years and was renowned for his carvings of Buddhist figures. Yang concludes that it is 'evident that the Qianlong Imperial Workshop was made up mainly of Guangdong artisans and that the Imperial ivory style was basically evolved from Guangdong.' However, carvings of Imperial Workshop pieces were much finer than those made in Guangdong. They were made under the watchful eyes of the emperor and strictly following his orders. Furthermore, while Guangdong carvings were usually heavily stained with colours, those of the Palace Workshop were generally left to display their natural colouration and texture. On the rare occasion that staining was required, they were done with great subtlety and finesse – achieving quite different results from Guangdong examples.

The technical virtuosity of the carved decoration along with the inscribed characters used by Huang Zhao, in which he refers to himself as chen or 'your servant', indicate that the wrist rest was made for the emperor and possibly for his personal use. Remarkable attention is paid to the smallest detail of the composition making this a piece equal to none. The detailing of the Buddhist staff of one of the luohan is a perfect example, where four loose rings are carved out of the solid piece of ivory to hang from the twin loops of the upper staff, which are possibly no more than a millimetre in diameter with each ring thin as hair. The same level of extreme control of the artist's tool is displayed by the free-standing plumes of drifting smoke, flying ribbons, pouring water and the details of both figures and animals. Craig Clunas in Chinese Carving, London, 1996, p. 23, mentions that traditionally such level of craftsmanship in China was called gui gong which can be translated as 'devil's work' or 'supernatural craftsmanship' and is particular to the Guangdong carvers.

The present wrist rest is also unusual for its well preserved condition. The carving has survived without any damage suggesting that the piece was possibly made as a showcase rather than for daily use and that it was generally stored away safely when not handled. An almost identical wrist rest, of the same size, subject matter and composition, from the Qing Court collection, is illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Miniature Crafts in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1971, pl. 23 (fig. 1), signed by another renowned ivory carver in the Palace Workshop, Yang Weizhan. Yang's carving is dated to 1738 which suggests that Huang was familiar with the earlier carving and had based his work on Yang's design. As carvings were made on imperial command we can also assume that the emperor ordered a copy of the original for his great fondness for the piece.

Compare another small wrist rest, also of bamboo form with four legs and furniture detailing as the present piece, also from the Imperial collection and now in Taipei published ibid., pl. 24, made by Huang Zhenxiao and dated to 1739. A larger wrist rest of this type carved with the motif of Eight Immortals crossing the sea is published in Masterpieces of Chinese Writing Materials in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1971, pl. 46; three from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing are included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carving, Shanghai, 2001, pls. 155-157; and one decorated with a scene of scholars in a garden setting is illustrated in The Palace Museum Collection of Elite Carvings, Beijing, 2004, pl. 119. From Western collections see two related larger wrist rests, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, published in Craig Clunas, op.cit., figs. 12-13.

The tradition of the making of miniature handicraft in the Palace Workshop was possibly started with Prince Yinxiang, twenty-second son of the Kangxi Emperor and brother of Yinzheng, who was in charge of the Palace Workshops in 1724. Xia Gengqi in Masterpieces of Snuff Bottles in the Palace Museum ,Beijing, 1995, p. 18,mentions that Prince Yinxiang issued an instruction that Workshops were to produce some small handicraft work to present in time for the Dragon Boat Festival, the Emperor's Birthday and the New Year celebration. According to Xia this became a yearly practice from then on. The theme of 'Eighteen Luohan' conveyed an auspicious message and good wishes, making this wrist rest a suitable birthday gift for the emperor.



Fig. 1 A carved ivory wrist rest, by Yang Weizhan
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period and dated to 1738
From the National Palace Museum, Taipei

 

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