Believe it or not, this amusing and very charming dental study, seen at Cohen & Cohen in Jermyn Street, was regarded at the time as an erotic artefact: somewhat puzzling for most of us who do not find a visit to the dentist in the slightest bit erotic! However, Will Motley has given us a very thorough rundown on this fascinating piece.
Qianlong, c. 1750
Height: 8 ½ inches (21.5cm)
A figural group of a seated Chinese man having his teeth examined by a standing lady, the man wearing a blue coat with white dragon medallions, the woman in a green coat with red flowers; on a base of blue, pink, and white rockwork.
At first it appears to depict no more than intimate grooming rituals such as ear cleaning, drinking, pedicure, or teeth cleaning. However, scenes of this nature had a veiled eroticism that was very evident to the eighteenth century viewer, Chinese or Western. In fact, these scenes would have been quite shocking to a Chinese viewer—for example, the naked man’s foot in Item 6.2 or the exposed belly and chest in 6.4 would be very risqué in a society where any form of public nakedness was strongly censured. The man’s queue (pigtail) being coiled round his head in this fashion symbolised sensuality. (It is found also in Item 6.2) In all of them, the woman is portrayed as a beauty and the man is always smiling with pleasures.
Western connoisseurs were also used to this sort of coded eroticism; eighteenth-century pastoralism was rich in symbols for love and wooing that filled the paintings of Lancret, Watteau, and others. These scenes often then appeared on export porcelain. Examples include the popular ‘valentine’ pattern, with its flaming hearts burning on an altar of love, cooing doves, drawn back curtains with garlands of flowers, and so on. Another image found in many variations is of a birdcatcher: a woman with an empty cage beside a man holding a bird, which stands for the woman’s virtue. Classical mythology was also widely used as an excuse for depictions of nudity, as seen in the ‘Judgement of Paris’ or the ‘Choice of Hercules’. So these exotic groups would have been very popular with the gentleman collector in Western Europe, stored in a locked cabinet and brought out to show his close friends on special occasions. More explicit items are also known, mainly paintings of erotic scenes on the inside of the lids of snuff boxes.
Such groups were probably private commissions or purchases by supercargoes from the shops in Canton, sold ‘under the counter’ to special customers. They are very rare but, judging by the design of the base or the details of the enamelling, it seems that some of them were made together in a small series. Differences in enamelling indicate that sets were made over a period of about twenty years, from about 1750 to 1770. The ear-cleaning group is much more common than the others and most examples seem to be a bit later than the rest. A separate series of ‘music lesson’ figures of an earlier date is also known; the pieces are of very high quality and even rarer, so they were probably only made at one time (see Sargent 1991, p118).