Palace Bowl with Melons
'Palace bowls' are the pride or else the desideratum of any museum collection. The term designates blue and white bowls of the Chenghua period (AD 1465-87) of the Ming dynasty, probably used at court for food, which are unsurpassed in their potting, porcelain quality and tactility, soft and subtle painting, and unobtrusive fruit and flower designs. Chenghua porcelains are the rarest Chinese imperial porcelains. Not only does the volume of fragments recovered from the site of the Ming imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, is less than half that unearthed from the stratum of the much shorter Xuande reign (AD 1426-35); this scarcity of recovered sherds is mirrored also by a rarity of surviving examples. The largest number of Chenghua porcelains is today preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, from the former imperial collection, and only some two dozen pieces of Chenghua mark and period of any type are recorded by Julian Thompson to remain in private hands (The Emperor's broken china. Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, Sotheby's, London, 1995, pp. 116-29).
Chenghua porcelains developed their identity gradually and the excavations at the imperial kilns have brought to light three different stages in their development: the first still much indebted to the style of the Xuande reign; the second where some new ideas were realized; and a third – most mature – phase from AD 1481 to 1487, when the potters developed porcelains of a very distinct character both in terms of their material and their style of decoration. Those seven years, – or perhaps even less – represent the only period when palace bowls were created.
The porcelain itself with its clear, but not harsh white tone and its ultra-smooth surface texture is unrivalled in beauty and tactility. Compared to the crisp and glossy glazes of the best Xuande wares, those of the Chenghua reign are more muted, covering the blue design with a most delicate veil. Chenghua blue and white may be considered the finest blue and white porcelain ever produced at Jingdezhen. The sensual pleasure of handling a Chenghua porcelain vessel is unmatched by porcelains of any other period, and to be fully appreciated, a Chenghua vessel must not only be seen, but touched.
Chenghua decoration is of a striking artlessness and immediacy that inevitably focuses attention on the material. The cobalt pigment is much more even than it was in the Xuande period, without any 'heaping and piling'. Its attractive soft tone, one of the trademarks of Chenghua blue and white, was apparently achieved by a deliberate admixture of local cobalt to the imported variety previously used.
What has become known as 'palace bowls' are bowls that are finely potted, of pleasing proportion, painted in underglaze blue with flower or fruit designs which at first glance appear very simple. Palace bowls come in about a dozen different patterns, of which the present is the only one with fruit, all others being flower designs. Bowls decorated in cobalt blue with flowers or fruits were of course also made in the Yongle (AD 1403-24) and Xuande reigns, but those of the Chenghua reign are unique in introducing deliberate irregularity into seemingly regular patterns, which makes these otherwise subdued designs vibrant and original. With the melon design this was achieved by a varied composition of each of the three vines, with four or six fruits.
Melons evoke in China the name of Shao Ping, whose personality became a symbol of loyalty. Having held the title of Marquis of Dongling during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), he lost his rank and became poor, when the Han overthrew the Qin. Rather than associating himself with the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), he reverted to growing melons outside Chang'an, the capital, which became famous for their fine quality and became known as Dongling melons after his former title. He was immortalized in a poem by Tao Yuanming (AD 365-427) (quoted in the translation of William Acker, from John Minford and Joseph S.M. Lau, An Anthology of Translations. Classical Chinese Literature, vol. 1: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 502):
Fortune and misfortune have no fixed abode;
This one and the other are given us in turn.
Shao Ping working in his field of melons
Was much as he had been when Lord of Dongling.
More popularly, the melon design is understood as a symbol for prosperity and a long lineage of sons and grandsons, as illustrated in the saying guadie mianmian, 'continuously spreading like melon vines'.
Melon vines were a popular subject of paintings in ink and colour at least since the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), and are also depicted on blue and white porcelain since the Yuan (AD 1279-1368), and repeatedly in the early Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644). An album leaf of the late Yuan or early Ming dynasty depicting a fruiting and flowering melon vine, with seals dating back to around the Chenghua period, was included in the exhibition Seven Classical Chinese Paintings, Eskenazi Ltd, London, 2009, cat. no. 7, illustrated also on the dust jacket (fig. 1).
A fragmentary Chenghua melon bowl was recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, see the exhibition catalogue A Legacy of Chenghua: Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. C 82 (fig. 2). Twelve complete bowls appear to be preserved of the present design, but none seems to be remaining in the Palace Museum, Beijing, the National Palace Museum, Taipei, or any other museum in China.
A pair of such bowls was originally in the collection of Sir Percival David, of which one is remaining in the collection and now on display in the British Museum, London, where another example is kept, from the Seligman collection; for the former see Fujioka Ryoichi and Hasebe Gakuji, eds, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14, Tokyo, 1976, pls 45 and 46 (fig 3); for the latter, Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pl. 6: 3. The second bowl from the David collection, included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, cat. no. 1493, and sold in our London rooms, 15th October 1968, lot 97, later entered the Ataka collection and is now in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, see Tōyō tōji no tenkai/Masterpieces of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1999, pl. 47. A bowl from the Nora Lundgren collection in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, Sweden, was included in the exhibition Mostra d'Arte Cinese/Exhibition of Chinese Art, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, 1954, cat. no. 656.
A melon bowl from the Frederick M. Mayer collection, sold at Christie's London 24th June 1974, lot 98, is now in the Tianminlou collection, illustrated in Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, pl. 31; one from the Charles Russell collection, published in R.L. Hobson, Bernard Rackham and William King, Chinese Ceramics in Private Collections, London, 1931, fig. 314, sold in our London rooms, 6th June 1935, lot 83 and in these rooms, 1st November 1994, lot 40, and illustrated in Sotheby's. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 245, is now in the Au Bakling collection and was exhibited at the British Museum, London, 1998.
A bowl from the collection of Major L.F. Hay was sold in our London rooms, 16th June 1939, lot 101; one from the collections of Herschel V. Johnson and Mr and Mrs R.D. Pilkington, illustrated in Adrian M. Joseph, Ming Porcelains. Their Origins and Development, London, 1971, pl. 38, was sold in our London rooms, 21st February 1967, lot 38; one from the R.H.R. Palmer and K.S. Lo collections, illustrated in Soame Jenyns, Ming Pottery and Porcelain, London, 1953, pl. 63 A, was sold at Christie's London, 14th June 1982, lot 79 and is now in the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong; and one from the collection of T.T. Tsui, illustrated in The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1991, pl. 73, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 8th October 1990, lot 424.
The porcelains of this period were always greatly admired and remained highly treasured throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ts'ai Ho-pi relates many anecdotes recorded in the historical literature attesting to the value and esteem of Chenghua wares in later periods (The Emperor's broken china, op.cit., pp. 16ff). A copy of the design, perhaps executed by one of the commercial kilns, can be seen on a slightly later bowl without reign mark, but from the Qing court collection and still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. 2, pl. 48, attributed to the Hongzhi period.
15.4 cm., 6 1/8 in.
Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 2, no. 677.
Zie Soey Koo, Beijing.
Messrs John Sparks, London (1929).
Collection of R. Wemyss Honeyman.
Thomas Love and Sons Ltd, Perth, England, 24th February 1970 (one of a pair).
Bluett & Sons Ltd, London.
Collection of Leandro and Cecilia Locsin, Manila.
J.J. Lally & Co., New York.
Eskenazi Ltd, London.