A massive pair of Chinese porcelain cranes, Jiaqing period, circa 1810. Estimate $400,000 – $600,000. Price Realized $389,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2014
Powerfully modeled in mirror image with sinuously curving necks and long, tapering beaks, standing on tall, brown-glazed legs supported on craggy, mossy tree trunk bases that sprout large, green-tinged lingzhi sacred fungi above smaller fungi shading to yellow, pink and blue, their white bodies carefully incised with feather detail and their folded wings above curling tail feathers, each head with a knobby red ‘crown’, together with mid-18th century German polychrome and silvered carved wood bases adapted to fit – 26 in. (66 cm.) high, the cranes; 24 3/8 in. (62 cm.) high, the bases
Provenance: With Cohen & Cohen, London
THE JAMES E. SOWELL COLLECTION
Literature: M. Cohen & W. Motley, Mandarin & Menagerie, Chinese and Japanese Export Ceramic Figures, Cohen & Cohen, Reigate, Surrey, England, 2008, pp. 248-249.
AUSPICIOUS SYMBOL FOR IMPERIAL PATRONS
The crane has been an auspicious symbol of longevity, harmony and filial respect from the earliest times in China, closely associated with the Imperial family. In 1112 AD the Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song dynasty himself painted a flock of cranes that had been sighted winging above the palace, to record what he felt was a significant event. In the 18th century the Qing Imperial household commissioned numerous paintings of cranes, either alone or alongside members of the ruling family. Among those paintings preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, are Shen Quan’s (1682-1760) hanging scroll, Pine, Plum and Cranes, dated by inscription to AD 1759, and Yu Xing’s (1692-after 1767) hanging scroll, Cranes against Sky and Waters, c.1747, which bears an inscription by the Qianlong Emperor and twelve Qianlong seals.
A hanging scroll with red-capped cranes by an anonymous court artist, Empress Xu Serves Food, dating to the early Qianlong reign (1736-95), used to hang in the Palace of Concentrated Purity during the New Year Festival. It was accompanied by a poem by the Qianlong Emperor, commending the Han dynasty Empress Xu for her filial conduct in personally served food to the Emperor’s mother and exhorting his empress and concubines to follow her example. In the foreground of the painting large cranes are shown wandering about the steps of the palace, as wishes for longevity and also representing the harmony achieved by such filial behavior. Indeed many 18th century informal court portraits include cranes somewhere in the landscape.
Even the famous Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), known in China as Lang Shining, painter to the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, painted a number of representations of cranes. Among these are the hanging scroll, Cranes and Flowers, which featured two crane chicks, as well as the impressive Pines and Cranes. Castiglione often painted the cranes with flexed necks in a way copied by other court artists, and seen in the famoustrompe l’oeil painting on the north wall of the theatre hall in the western part of Emperor Qianlong’s Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service or Lodge of Retirement) in the Ningshougong (Palace of Tranquillity and Longevity).
In the Qing period large pairs of metalwork cranes frequently flanked the Imperial throne in the many important halls of the Forbidden City. Wang-go Weng and Yang Boda illustrate a pair (The Palace Museum: Peking, New York, 1982, pp. 44-45) that stand on either side of the throne in the Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony), the largest and most important building in the Forbidden City, popularly known as the Throne Hall, and note that these cloisonné censers and the others scattered about the hall “…emitted fragrant smoke that spiraled upward to envelop the Son of Heaven in an ethereal haze.” Large cloisonné cranes also stand on either side of the throne in the Qianqinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity), another major throne room in the palace during the 18th century. A highly important and exceedingly rare pair of Imperial cloisonné double crane censers were in the Fonthill Collection and sold by Christie’s Hong Kong, 1 December 2010, lot 2983, the pair possibly commissioned by the Prince Hongli (later the Qianlong Emperor), probably as a birthday gift for his father.
CHINESE PORCELAIN CRANES
Far fewer large pairs of cranes were made in porcelain, a much more difficult achievement technically. It is known that there was an Imperial Order to create pairs of porcelain cranes in the early Qianlong period, as noted in theZaobanchu Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department. According to these records Bai Shixiu, Supervisor of the Imperial Storerooms, announced in 1742 (second day of the fifth month in the seventh year of Qianlong) an imperial decree, transmitted by Eunuch Gao Yu, for Tang Ying, Superintendent of the Imperial Kilns, to produce ceramic cranes and deer, the cranes facing each other, the deer directly facing forward. It would take three years for a successful production of such figures to be recorded: in 1745 (tenth day of the fifth month in the tenth year of Qianlong) Bai Shixiu, Supervisor of the Imperial Storerooms, handed over to Eunuch Hu Shijie “cranes and deer of the first quality”, all made by Tang Ying in Jiangxi. This commission proved so difficult to execute however, with so much waste of material before achieving success, that Imperial cranes and deer were apparently not attempted again until late in the Tongzhi Emperor’s reign.
Smaller scale pairs of porcelain cranes continued to be made throughout the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods for the very high end export market. Tall, elegant porcelain waterbirds – of about half the size of the present pair – were found in the Gubbay Collection at Clandon Park, Surrey and in the famous Estate of Morgan sale of 1772 (“First Day’s Sale, lot 197”), as recorded by W.R. Sargent in The Copeland Collection, Salem, 1991, pp. 164-167. Mr. and Mrs. J. Richardson Dilworth owned a pair about 11 inches tall but similar in form to the present examples and also dating to the later Qianlong or Jiaqing period, sold Christie’s New York, 26 January 2006, lot 171.
THE CRANE IN CHINA
Cranes – probably the bird most closely associated with China – are symbols of longevity and also harmony. The Chinese word for crane is he, a homophone for the word for harmony, and thus cranes represent peace. Their long legs were described as resonating with the harmonies of nature and heaven. Cranes are also known to live for many years and thus have become associated with long life; they are often depicted amongst the familiars of the beloved Star God of Longevity, Shoulao. Folk tales tell of cranes which lived for more than 600 years and carried souls to paradise. Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, is supposed to have ridden on the back of a crane when she travelled across the sea. In repose the crane appears contemplative, and so it has also become a symbol of wisdom, and because it responds to the calls of its parents it is also regarded as a symbol of filial piety.
The red-crowned crane or Grus japonensis breed in Siberia and northeastern China, migrating in flocks for the winter, mainly to Korea and mideastern China but also as far as Taiwan and Japan. Among the largest cranes, the species is now endangered, with a declining population.
The present pair of red-crowned cranes are not only of unique size but also quite dramatically modeled, their heads turned in animated pose above a profusion of sacred fungus sprouting from their mossy trunk bases. Clearly this pair was an extremely important commission, accomplished by masters of the potter’s art.
CHRISTIE’S. THE EXCEPTIONAL SALE, 11 December 2014, New York, Rockefeller Plaza.