Twenty times estimate for unusual wooden vase sold at Chiswick Auctions

143 wooden vase

A surprise twenty times the lower estimate was paid yesterday at Chiswick Auctions for an unusual wooden vase offered together with a wooden tray. The hammer price of £2,000 (estimate £100-200) was realised despite the loss of a section of the wood at the neck and rim of the meiping-style vase, and severe warping to the tray

The vase was, in fact, a Shen Shao’an lacquered vase, according to the auctioneers’ cataloging. Although it was suggested it was late Qing Dynasty, it may have been rather earlier and, indeed, it would have to have been if actually produced under the direction of the original master. In our view, the vase was rather earlier than the tray.

The vase was delicately painted with a watery landscape scene populated with figures, the vase 37cm H, the tray 38.5 x 61cm. (2) The style of decoration was very much of the body-less technique pioneered by Shen Shao’An.

This lacquer technique traces its origins back to the work of Shen Shao’an, lacquer master craftsman active during the Qianlong era. The technique substitutes the use of a coarse linen base with much thinner silk in a technique sometimes referred to as ‘bodiless’ lacquerware. It also introduced gold and silver foil into the paints to create a wider range of colours and silky glow to the image. The technique is a specialism of Fuzhou and was sent to Beijing as a form of Imperial tribute.

Chiswick Asian Sale Sept 6 2016

The scene at yesterday’s Chiswick Auctions Asian Sale

The founding father of Fuzhou bodiless lacquer ware was Shen Shao’an (1767 – 1835), a lacquer ware craftsman from Houguan County (today’s Fuzhou City) of Fuzhou Prefecture during Emperor Qianlong’s reign in the Qing Dynasty.   Shen Shao’an opened a shop named after himself around Shuangpao Bridge in Yangqiao Road in Fuzhou, processing lacquer at the same time as making and selling small commodities like lacquer chopsticks, lacquer bowls, lacquer plates, and so on.

Once when he was doing odd jobs in an ancient temple, he found the wood of the inscribed board at the temple gate had rotten, while the base mounted by lacquer ash and grass linen remained in perfect condition. Enlightened by the phenomenon, Shen Shao’an followed the making method of the inscribed board. He designed a model with clay first, then mounted grass linen outside the model, and painted with lacquer. When the lacquer was dried, he removed the clay model, and painted with lacquer again. After testing and improving over and over again, Shen Shao’an finally created the earliest bodiless lacquer ware.

The bodiless lacquer ware making technique created by Shen Shao’an caused quite a stir when it was discovered. The bodiless chrysanthemum-shaped red lacquer bowl with cover Shen Shao’an offered to the imperial court measuring 10 cm high and 10.8 cm in caliber was thin as a piece of paper, less than 1 mm thick. Emperor Qianlong was overjoyed to see the tribute and wrote in official script a poem inside the lid and in the centre of the bowl respectively. This piece of lacquer ware is now preserved in the Palace Museum.

The prrovenance of the vase sold at Chiswick was rather good: something that always helps a lot along these days. The two pieces both came from the Collection of Herbert Dixon Summers (1871-1953), Secretary Directorate General of Posts Peking, and family, thence by descent to the present owner. 清晚期 沈绍安黑漆描金山水漆瓶及托盘

For comparable examples see Debenham and Freebody, The Famous ‘Shen Shao An’ Gold Lacquer of Foochow China. An Account of its Origins and Curious Characteristics, London: Debenham and Freebody, 1914, p 5.