Country Life

Here be dragons (and cats)

Last month’s Asian art sales provided a cornucopia of delightful animal-themed objets–and some amusing lessons in alternativ­e natural history

- Huon Mallalieu

DURING winter nights, most of us who are allergy free will, at some time, have been grateful to have had a cat curl up beside us on the bed. Perhaps there was a hint of that in the decoration on a 12th- or 13th-century Northern Song glazed stoneware pillow (Fig 3), one of the highlights of Eskenazi’s exhibition of 12thto 14th-century Chinese ceramics, lacquer and gold that closed last month. It was painted with a cat and a butterfly in black-brown slip on a grey glaze ground. Was it a reference to the beneficent cat-deity Li Shou or merely a reminder of the truth that a cat will always occupy the most comfortabl­e place available? The ruyi shape of the headrest also indicates that the user will have what they desire— that is to say, sleep. Unsurprisi­ngly, it sold during the exhibition, although I am unable to tell you the price.

A number of traditiona­l Chinese beliefs about birds and beasts were evident in auctions both in this country and in Hong Kong that more or less coincided with London’s autumn Asian Arts Week. For instance, a pair of blue-and-white, shallow-lobed quatrefoil tea trays (Fig 4), measuring 6½in across, appeared at Lyon & Turnbull of Edinburgh early last month. They were marked for 1797 in the reign of the Jianqin Emperor and were inscribed with a poem by him, which offers some intriguing natural history:

A lively fire glows in the bamboo stove,

The water is boiling in the stone griddle,

Small bubbles rise like the ears of fish or crab…

News, perhaps, to ichthyolog­ists. The trays came from a Scottish family that had worked and travelled in Asia during the 1920s and sold for £65,200.

Shortly afterwards, at Roseberys in London, there was a doucai bowl (on which the outlines are in underglaze blue and other colours added in overglaze enamels), which dated from the same reign (1796–1820). This was decorated with mandarin ducks (Fig 2).

Although ornitholog­ists tell us that the flamboyant mandarin drake is quick to abandon the nest once his ducklings have hatched, the Chinese and Koreans believed that the birds mated for life and thus symbolised fidelity. This bowl had been bought for $20 at a garage sale by an American retired general; now, it sold for £39,000.

At the end of the month, Bonhams was in action in Hong Kong, as well as London. With a 3,000-year history, the zither or qin is one of the oldest Chinese musical instrument­s and a fine example (Fig 5) dating from the 43rd year of the Southern Song Jiajing Emperor (not to be confused with Jianqin 233 years later) sold for HK$3.56 million (£359,357). The only animal connection­s here were allusive and mythologic­al: the oblong sound holes are known as dragon and phoenix pools and the string pins as goose feet.

Actual dragons, as it were, were cavorting across a mark and period Yongzheng (1722– 35) jar about 7in-high (Fig 1), which sold for HK$893,000 (£90,249). It was unusual in that it had no cover, either by accident or design, and the vivid green-glazed dragons were also unusual in that they were not chasing pearls of wisdom. As this phrase is thought to have arrived in English only in the early 19th century, was it perhaps an immigrant from China?

To stay with the animal theme, albeit not with China, late last month the West Sussex auctioneer Bellmans held a large mixed antiques sale and one of the higher prices was paid for a rabbit. Given the liking of some Chinese emperors for ingenious toys, this French ‘Rabbit-in-cabbage’ musical

automaton (Fig 7) might perhaps have appealed to them, had it been made of rather more eye-catching materials. Made in about 1880 by Roullet & Decamps, the toy was 7in high when the rabbit was asleep in the cabbage; when activated, it rose with twitching ears to 11in to nibble the leaves. Estimated to £1,800, it sold for £11,875. There is another in the Science Museum.

I had a good look at a second lot in this sale when highlights were on view at 4, Cromwell Place, in London’s South Kensington. It was a carved limewood relief portrait of an elaboratel­y bewigged man set in a frame of scrolling foliage, flowers and fruit measuring 19in by 21in (Fig 6). The portrait reminded me of the work of the Huguenot ivory carver David Le Marchant, but I don’t know of him ever working in wood. Furthermor­e, the provenance was against that and in favour of an attributio­n to Grinling Gibbons and his workshop. In 1914, it was recorded by COUNTRY LIFE’S Architectu­ral Editor H. Avray Tipping as hanging with members of the family in the inner library at Cassiobury House, Hertfordsh­ire, where Gibbons worked for the Earl of Essex. Possibly, it was the 2nd Earl. Tipping was convinced that it was by Gibbons, as was the furniture historian R. W. Symonds. The contents of Cassiobury were sold in 1922, before the house was demolished. The buyer was Frederick Poke, whose descendant­s sent it to Bellmans, where it made £5,000 against an estimated £1,500. We should hear more of it.

December 27 Picks of the year

 ?? ?? Fig 3: A Northern Song glazed stoneware pillow. Sold by Eskenazi
Fig 3: A Northern Song glazed stoneware pillow. Sold by Eskenazi
 ?? ?? Fig 4: A pair of shallow-lobed quatrefoil tea trays dating from the reign of the Jianqin Emperor. £65,200
Fig 4: A pair of shallow-lobed quatrefoil tea trays dating from the reign of the Jianqin Emperor. £65,200
 ?? ?? Fig 2 right: A doucai bowl, from the reign of the Jianqin Emperor, decorated with mandarin ducks. £39,000
Fig 2 right: A doucai bowl, from the reign of the Jianqin Emperor, decorated with mandarin ducks. £39,000
 ?? ?? Fig 1 above: A rare 7in-high Yongzheng jar bearing green-glazed dragons. HK$893,000.
Fig 1 above: A rare 7in-high Yongzheng jar bearing green-glazed dragons. HK$893,000.
 ?? ??
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 ?? ?? Fig 6 above right: A carving attributed to Grinling Gibbons. £5,000.
Fig 6 above right: A carving attributed to Grinling Gibbons. £5,000.
 ?? ?? Fig 5 above left: A qin, a Chinese musical instrument. HK$3.56 million.
Fig 5 above left: A qin, a Chinese musical instrument. HK$3.56 million.
 ?? ?? Fig 7 right: A rabbit automaton. £11,875
Fig 7 right: A rabbit automaton. £11,875

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