Wandering around Asian Art in London two weeks ago, we saw a good many desirable things which we would have loved to take home. Here is our selection of what we thought of as the most desirable things to grace our own halls. If we only had the cash, of course!
The first two were found at Ben Janssen’s in Jermyn Street where he had his usual selection of captivating small objects, supplemented by an excellent catalogue. His catalogues go straight to my reference shelves as soon as I get home . . .
A bronze incense burner in the form of an elephant
Ming dynasty, 16th – 17th century
Height: 6 1/2 inches, 16.5 cm
Length: 6 1/2 inches, 16.5 cm
A bronze incense burner in the form of an elephant, standing foursquare with its head turned back and its trunk curled between the tusks. The separately cast, openwork cover is decorated with bunched lotus flowers. The elephant wears a howdah engraved with lotus flowers and is richly attired with caparisons composed of ‘jewelled’ straps and tassels. The rim of the cover is engraved with a six-character mark of Xuande (Da Ming Xuande Nian Zi). The elephant’s fittings were originally inlaid in semi-precious stones.
The elephant (xiang) is known to have existed in China during the Bronze Age. Proof that the animal was a popular subject in art from very early times is provided most spectacularly by a large Shang dynasty zun (12th – 11th century BC) in the form of an elephant in the collection of the Musée Guimet in Paris.[ The elephant became extinct in China soon afterwards, but the animal’s enduring popularity as a decorative motif symbolising strength and high moral standards[ is evident from the many extant representations in practically all available materials in Chinese art. A richly caparisoned elephant is often seen in the presence of the Emperor, either as a bearer of tribute gift or as an exotic animal in the Emperor’s menagerie. The hollow body and the openwork cover suggest that this bronze elephant was designed as an incense burner. Although the cover of the present incense burner is engraved with the six-character mark of the emperor Xuande, who reigned from 1425 to 1435, the piece is unlikely to date from that period, but the compactness of the animal and the fine detail of the casting certainly suggests a Ming dynasty date, albeit of a somewhat later period.
We just love the restrained elegance and delicate proportions of this miniature huanghuali table with marble top which is late Ming to early Qing dynasty, 17th – 18th century.
Length: 13 inches, 33 cm
Width: 5 3/4 inches, 14.7 cm
Height: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm
It is a miniature table made of huanghuali, supported on two pairs of recessed legs located at both ends. The rectangular top is inlaid with a slab of marble and has everted flanges above a shaped, beaded apron. The frontward curving legs are supported by spandrels carved with chi dragons in openwork. The marble slab combines whitish and greyish colours, together with some linear red veins. The wood is well polished and well patinated.
- This piece is a miniature version of a large qiaotouan table with recessed legs, and embodies all the characteristics of the form. Similar small table stands with decorative stone panels are shown in the 18th-century illustrations to the novel Jin Ping Mei (‘Flower in a Golden Vase’), where they support the ‘Three Friends of Incense’ – the incense tool vase, incense burner and incense powder box. Stone panels are especially suitable for incense stands as they resist scorching, and their figuration evokes images that change according to the viewer’s mood or the side from which it is viewed. A comparable 17th-century miniature qiaotouan table made of huanghuali, similarly inlaid with a marble panel on its top, is in the collection of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture.
- Provenance: the collection of Louise Hawley Stone (1904 – 1997), Toronto, Canada. She was the Royal Ontario Museum’s first volunteer and was also a major donor, fundraiser, Board member and committee chair.
 Wang, Shixiang and Evarts, C. Masterpieces from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, Chinese Art Foundation, Chicago and San Francisco, 1995, p. 82
 Wang, Shixiang and Evarts, C. op. cit. no. 86, pp. 182-3
We found this highly unusual blue, straw and amber-glazed model of a recumbent buffalo (Tang Dynasty, 8th century) At Littleton & Hennessey in St James’. It is modelled recumbent on a oblong base with its right foreleg outstretched, glazed in blue with straw-glazed highlights, the base glazed in blue and amber. Dimensions: 18.5 cm wide x 12 cm high
Domestic animals were popular subjects in the Tang tombs, and are amongst some of the most charming and playful examples of sancai-pottery. The current buffalo is unusual in that it is depicted recumbent, while most of the buffalo we see are depicted standing. However, a seated mythical beast in the Tenri Sankokan Museum Collection in Nara, Japan, has very similar modelling, with its left front leg tucked underneath, and right foreleg outstretched. Compare also the model of donkey in the Shaanxi History Museum, which is blue-glazed like the current piece.
Provenance: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection (思源堂藏)
You will note we have not given any prices on these outstanding pieces. As the old adage goes, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it!