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Wall sconces (pair)

Porcelain decorated in overglaze famille rose polychromeenamels and gilt
Jingdezhen, China, and possibly Guangzhou (Canton) after drawings attributed to Cornelis Pronk
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1735-1796), ca. 1740
31.5 x 19.5 x 1.3 cm (each)

Wall sconces (for illumination) in porcelain, moulded in relief and covered with a bright, transparent and slightly bluish glaze on the front and enamelled in white on the underside (no marks or inscriptions; with two double holes for attachment to the wall). With a flat centre panel, each piece has a large crenelated Rococo-style border worked in relief featuring an overglaze copper green translucent enamel ground dotted with small flowering branches in lead arsenate opaque white glaze. It is bordered by fillets enamelled in white and colloidal gold pink of two different hues, a dark pink (made from grounded ruby glass) and a lighter pink obtained through the admixture of white. The decoration on the frame features floral sprays (acanthus-type leaves) and grotesque masks on the sides, enamelled in cobalt and manganese brown translucent enamel (diluted in the vitreous flux), further decorated in gilt highlighted with opaque brown enamel. Rocaille elements combined with Neoclassical-style pink and white entrelacs further decorate the upper part, while a large quatrefoil painted in opaque iron red enamel highlighted in gilt is featured on the lower part, set with a hole at the centre to which the metal lamp would be originally attached. Not unlike the central panel, the decoration of the frame was finely drawn in cobalt black applied over the glaze, a pigment of lesser quality and of local origin containing a large percentage of manganese (on this crude cobalt, see Wood 2007, pp. 235 and 237). Outlined in cobalt black, a large phoenix rising up in flight over flames decorates the central panel. The phoenix was skilfully painted in relief as if it were a European oil painting, making use of transparent, translucent and opaque enamels, a technique only made possible through the introduction of the famille rose palette during the final years of Emperor Kangxi’s reign (r. 1661- 1722) - see Carbert 1980; Kingery & Vandiver 1986; and Wood, 2007, pp. 240-243). While the breast and the remiges (primary and secondary feathers) are painted in opaque aubergine enamel - a mixture of cobalt blue and manganese with colloidal gold pink translucent enamel - highlighted in gilt, the major covert feathers (tectrices) are painted in opaque pink highlighted in ruby pink and opaque lead stannate yellow. The minor covert feathers are painted in cobalt blue translucent enamel (diluted in the vitreous flux) highlighted in opaque blue enamel. The colouring of the head, with the beak painted in white, results from the mixing of two different hues of pink with yellow nuanced in white on the neck feathers. The rolled up tail alternates between two shades of blue and two of pink. The twisted, whirling flames are painted in gilt applied over brown translucent enamel highlighted in opaque brown enamel.

The original drawings that might have served as a model and which allowed for the production by Chinese artisans of this pair of wall sconces are unknown. Nonetheless, from contemporary documents we find that these kinds of pieces correspond to Dutch orders most likely placed from the Batavian branch (in present-day Jakarta on the island of Java) of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or V.O.C., the Dutch East India Company established in 1609. In reality, the authorship of the design may be attributed to the famous topographical draughtsman Cornelis Pronk, or Pronck (1691-1759) who in August 1734 was hired by the company’s Delft chamber to create designs that would serve as models for the production of porcelain in China, particularly at the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, in the Jiangxi province, and also in Japan (Imari and Arita) - on Pronk, see Jörg 1980. On the 31st October 1734 Pronk committed himself before the company leaders to: make and supply all the drawings and models according to our satisfaction of all the porcelain pieces that will be commission from time to time in the East Indies, with their colour schemes perfectly not- ed, not only the blue but also gilt and other colours, and following distinct shapes; of which he will be engaged the whole year and will receive each year 1,200 florins [aanneemt te zullen maken en bezorgen alle teekeningen en modellen ten onze ge- noegen van alle zoodanige porceleinen, als men van tijd tot tijd uit Indië zal komen te vorderen met hare koleuren behoorlijk afgezet, zoo van blauw, verguld als andere koleuren, en van al- lerlei fatsoenen; dat hij het gansche jaar door zijn tijd hiermed zal moeten occupeeren, en daarvoor genieten een som twaalfhonderd gulden courant geld alle jaren] (De Hullu 1915, pp. 61-62). Pronk remained in the service of V.O.C. until 1738 and the company’s records show that four designs were created during those three and a half years of work. Designs that may be seen as chinoiserie, a European interpretation of Chinese models, some clearly recognizable. The first design is known as La Dame au Parasol (1735), the original design of which survives in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. no. RP-T-1967-18) and is here illustrated as one of several versions in porcelain from the same collection, painted in famille rose polychrome enamels (inv. no. AK-RBK-1539) - see Le Corbeiller 1974, pp. 54-57, for the ex- amples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The second is recorded as the Visit to the Emperor by his Physicians (1738), of which there are two versions in Chinese porcelain and also the original design also in the Rijksmuseum (inv. no. RP-T-1967-17), which is here illustrated in its porcelain version (see Jörg 1980, pp. 26-27; and Jörg 1982, p. 191). And while the third model is unknown, the fourth and last is known as the Arbour (Le Corbeiller & Freling- huysen 2003, p. 26).

Other designs made in porcelain are known - such as the Archer, the Ablution of the hands (Jörg 1980, pp. 32- 34.), The Potentate, the Phoenix (represented by these two ap- pliques), and the Palm-leaf - although such commissions were possibly connected with the private sector, running parallel with the company orders albeit with the same protagonists. This pair of wall sconces modelled after Pronk designs may therefore correspond to special orders probably made to the enamelling workshops of Guangzhou - Canton in the Guangdong province, where similar enamelled pieces from this period were better supervised by their foreign customers -, with the glazed porcelain being previously produced at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. Furthermore, documentary evidence for “tapestry sconces” modelled after porcelain versions made in Delft is known. The somewhat odd designation refers to the textiles used for covering the walls and to which the sconces were applied. In fact, one can find in the V.O.C. records some references to the dispatch to China of wooden prototypes of wall sconces, namely two models of three different sizes (ca. 51.5 cm, 38.5 cm and 31.5 cm), totalling six moulds (see Jörg 1980, pp. 36 -38). There are very few examples in existence today, and none following the recorded designs by Pronk, which he devised for the dining table. Three iconographic motifs used for the decoration of such wall sconces are known: The Torch Bearer (one example in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg - see Arapova 2003, p. 49, cat. no. 49), the Fire Dancer, and the Phoenix, while another one is only known from a single example which features typical Chinese themes and motifs on the centre panel and was probably a trial piece, therefore not exactly a fourth model. Examples in two sizes are known for the Phoenix, a medium one and a small one. They differ not only in their palette - since that on the mouldings of the larger sconces the dark aubergine enamel is also used apart from green, pink and gilt - but also the motifs, given that sunrays painted in gilt are also depicted above the phoenix. Such feature may reflect a strengthening of the symbolic nature of the motif depicted as luminous and perennial. And this in keeping with the everlasting source of light which is the nature of the Phoenix, the oriental bird of Greek mythology or φοῖνιξ which is reborn from its own ashes, from the ever-renewed self-combustion symbolic of resurrection and a most eloquent visual theme for a wall sconce as is the case for the Torch Bearer and the Fire Dancer.

A single wall sconce with the Phoenix was part of the famous Mottahedeh collection (Howard & Ayers 1978, p. 303) until 1985 when it was sold, and another appeared on the market in 1989. And while a pair of a medium size was sold at auction in 1999, one other single wall sconce matching our pair in dimensions appeared on the market in 2010. The rarity of the present wall sconces, finely enamelled in a strong, vibrant palette, bewildering and seductive at the same time, reflects the collecting urge of true con- noisseurs of this classic genre of export Chinese porcelain, the so-called “Pronk porcelain”. This production perfectly embodies the aesthetic dialogue between the ornamental stylistic repertoire, as conveyed by the European patrons and the Chinese technical expertise and sensitivity. The refined and also limited production, in time and number of items actually manufactured (and extant), stands as an eloquent testimony to the constant efforts by Chinese craftsmen to adapt to the foreign clientele’s taste and desires, at a time marked by a technological peak that permitted the creation of export porcelain of the highest technical and artistic quality, as clearly shown by these precious, rare sconces.

 

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