5 minutes with… An 18th-century Chinese porcelain bowl

5 minutes with… An 18th-century Chinese porcelain bowl

Specialist Kate Hunt reveals how she inspects new finds such as this Chinese porcelain bowl, made centuries ago for an Emperor and still in perfect condition

‘We check all of our porcelain under an ultraviolet, or UV light,’ explains specialist Kate Hunt, examining a delicate porcelain bowl for evidence of hairline cracks or signs of restoration, which might otherwise go unseen. ‘The standard of restoration work today can be extremely high — a chip might be filled and painted with such skill that it is almost invisible to the naked eye.’

‘This piece is in perfect condition,’ she continues. ‘It’s particularly unusual, and showcases the ability of the craftsmen who made it, who have replicated the effect of wood, resulting in what’s known as a faux bois ground. Knots and swirls have been incorporated into the glaze, replicating the texture of wood grain. It’s then been fired.’

Though unusual, the practice was not unheard of in the 18th century, when this piece was made. ‘Those who made Chinese porcelain prided themselves on their technical ability, and had great fun imitating other materials on the surfaces of the works they decorated — firing ceramics with the most beautiful celadon green glaze to imitate jade, for example, or copying materials like pudding stone.’

A Famille Rose faux bois ‘Foreigners’ medallion bowl. Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795). The ogee-form bowl is decorated with three roundels enclosing foreigners in a garden setting, all in reserve on a faux bois ground. 7 ⅞ in (20 cm) diameter, wood stand. This piece was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles on 13 May 2016 at Christie’s in London

Illustrations on the bowl show Western figures in a verdant landscape. ‘Westerners are depicted in some of the earliest Chinese art, and are prevalent in pieces which date from the Qianlong period, in the 18th century,’ explains Hunt. ‘European Jesuits visited the court of the Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1736 to 1795, and there was a rise in Western influence.’

Certain characteristics easily distinguish the figures as European. ‘Just as Western artists of the period had their own ways of depicting Asian people at that time, so Chinese artists developed their own clichés,’ says Hunt. ’Westerners were typically shown with bushy eyebrows and slightly large noses. They’re quite comic, animated characters.’

Turning the piece over, Hunt reveals the Qianlong reign mark, indicating that the bowl was made during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong. ‘It is’, Hunt concludes ‘a wonderful piece.’


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