One of Sotheby’s best prices last week was for ‘a rare iron-red and underglaze-blue nine dragon charger Yongzheng mark and period’. It was formerly the property of collectors George and Cornelia Wingfield Digby.
Despite considerable historic damage, and an unconvincing repair job, it made £218,500, inclusive of buyer’s premium. It is, of course, not the only one around: there are almost identical ones in The Shanghai Museum in People’s Square, Shanghai, and in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. There are also a few, rather later copies in circulation . . .
Sotheby’s include a very good explanatory note in the catalogue. ‘Dishes of this magnificent size and formidable decoration were made to impress. Such wares were used at Imperial banquets and on special celebratory occasions, such as the ‘Thousand Elderly Banquet’ held in honour of senior citizens when thousands of invited guests were served a great feast. The Manchu custom of banqueting closely followed the Mongolian and Tibetan tradition of shared communal dining.A Yongzheng dish of this design and large size in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, vol. 3, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 223; another in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, was included in the exhibition Seikado zo Shincho toji. Keitokuchin kanyo no bi [Qing porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of the Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, cat. no. 53; and another in the Meiyintang collection is published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1723. Compare also a Yongzheng dish sold three times in our rooms, once in London in 1995, and twice in Hong Kong, in 2005 and 9th October 2012, lot 125, from the collection of Dr Alice Cheng; another sold in our London rooms, 6th December 1994, lot 179; and a third, with a slightly reduced rim, sold at Christie’s London, 10th April 1978, lot 49.’
This piece would have been made in Jingdezhen and the decoration is a Yongzheng interpretation of an early-Ming pattern. The Yongzheng emperor is reputed to have sent porcelain from the palace to Jingdezhen in order to establish rather better production standards as well as to serve as models and inspirations for designs. This dragon design follows after a Xuande prototype, where dishes were painted with a side-facing five-clawed dragon amongst crashing waves in the centre, the side decorated with three dragons striding amid clouds. An example of this Xuande dish, excavated at the waste heap of the Ming Imperial Kilns in Zhushan, was included in the exhibition Xuande Imperial Kiln Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 87. (Source: Sotheby’s)
Sotheby’s give some excellent well-researched background to the piece. ‘The creative ingenuity of the Yongzheng potter is evident from the successful transference of a pattern that was originally made for much smaller vessels. The different design elements on this dish are perfectly composed to give no hint of overcrowding or spatial gaps that could hinder the overall harmony. While maintaining the essence of the original design, the artist created a motif that is familiar yet fresh: the side-facing dragon has been replaced with a frontal dragon and the crashing waves no longer cover any part of the dragon’s body to give a greater sense of the creature’s dominance and strength. The use of red heightens the contrast between the dynamism of the background and that of the dragons while endowing the scene with further auspicious meaning. Moreover, the extent of the Qing craftsman’s proficiency is evident in the additional crested rolling wave band encircling the rim of the dish which frames and draws the expansive design together, an element that was not necessary for the smaller Ming dishes.
‘Yongzheng dishes of this type continued to be favoured by the Qianlong emperor who commissioned the making of very similar vessels. Examples of dishes from both periods are illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [Ming and Qing art], Tokyo, 1982, pls. 154 and 172; and another Qianlong example in the Nanjing Museum was included in the exhibition Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 81, and also illustrated on the dust jacket.’