Next week, during Asian Art in London, auctioneers Bonhams mount no less than half a dozen sales in their New Bond Street and Knightsbridge premises, which puts them well ahead of the pack in the energy stakes.
Particularly interesting, in our view, is the 153-lot auction of the collection of Mr Roy Davids. Although the period over which he collected Chinese porcelain was not particularly long (the first items were acquired around the late 1990s and the final accessions in 2012). The selective quality of the items in his collection cannot be doubted and they are particularly strong in the areas of famille verte, blue and white and Imperial yellow.
A fine porcelain vase showing the ‘Four Elegant Accomplishments’, important cultural activities suitable for Chinese scholar gentlemen, but most unusually seen here with women taking part in these activities, heads the sale of the Roy Davids Collection on November 7th.
This striking vase, lot 54, estimated to sell for £80,000-110,000, is a fine and rare famille verte baluster vase from the Kangxi period 1662 to 1722 with the body finely enamelled with a continuous scene of elegant court ladies engaged in the four activities – painting, calligraphy, playing the qin, a stringed musical instrument, and engrossed in weiqi, a board-game in which strategy is key.
In later Imperial Chinese society, women were confined to the home and were not encouraged to be educated. During the late Ming dynasty, however, against a background of social change and economic prosperity, some women managed to challenge these conventions. The famous late Ming philosopher Li Zhi (1527-1602) even declared in his ironically titled Book to be Burned that women were equally intelligent as men and took female students, much to general surprise. Celebrity courtesans accomplished in the genteel arts of music and literature entered male society, heralding a new model of feminine identity almost equal to the male literatus. The present vase reflects this unusual emergence of accomplished females, and celebrates them as being knowledgeable and intellectually engaged, whilst still being refined, delicate and attractively feminine.
The women are exquisitely detailed, their delicate features offset by richly patterned robes and extravagant gilt jewellery, revealing their high cultural status and wealth. The scenes are also extraordinarily dynamic, with the tall figures filling the surface, and very actively involved in their chosen pursuits, whether dipping the brush in the ink for the next stroke of a half-finished painting, or reaching into a pot for another weiqi counter.
Roy Davids, a former Marketing Director for Sotheby’s, has an eye for a beautiful object, be it a superbly illustrated book or a striking Chinese vase. He bought both at auction and from dealers like Marchant.
The vase has been widely exhibited, including a show in a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and was on loan to the Denver Museum of Art from 1995 to 2005.
Colin Sheaf, International Head of Asian Art at Bonhams, says: “Roy is a shrewd judge of excellence and this Chinese porcelain Collection is another endorsement of his taste. The works mostly cover a period of 300 years during which Chinese ceramics led the world in sophistication of design and decoration. Doubtless the vast majority will be snapped up by Chinese buyers keen to repatriate their national cultural heritage.”
National Museum of Scotland Photo Paul Harris
We wrote last week at some length about the opening of the magnificent new exhibition at The National Museum of Scotland Ming The Golden Empire. In the coming weeks, we shall have a look in more detail and with pictures at some fascinating aspects of the new exhibition.
Several exhibits relate to the role of women in Ming society. As may be discerned from the quotation below from Dong Qichang, incorporated in the exhibition signage, women’s liberation, let alone political correctness, had, in the early days at least, made virtually no impression on Ming society.
Today, this would hardly be described as politically correct! From National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire
Traditional Confucian thinking defined women in terms of The Four Virtues: womanly work, womanly speech, womanly virtue and womanly deportment. Fair enough! But Confucian ethics also viewed a woman as subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband during marriage, and to her son after her husband’s death. The lives of elite wives and concubines tended to be highly restricted and they were largely confined with the women’s quarters.
But things improved somewhat by the late Ming. The domestic, social and public role of women had seen some expansion, with greater access to education and social opportunity. Women of the gentry learnt to read classical Chinese and books were even produced specifically for them. They formed literary and, even, religious groups, and began to participate in cultural activities as musicians, writers, poets and painters.
The piece of cloisonné in the foreground was designed for the dressing table of a Ming lady. Such pieces of frippery were not regarded as being nearly substantial or interesting enough for the male of the species. From The National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire. Photograph Paul Harris