Two hen ewers (Water-droppers)

Porcelain decorated in overglaze famille verte polychrome enamels on the biscuit
Jingdezhen, China
Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662-1722)
13 x 16.5 x 7 cm; 13 x 15.5 x 7 cm

Two wine ewers, or most probably water-droppers known as shu dī 水滴, more precisely water-droppers featuring a spout and a handle known as shu zhù 水注 and used by Chinese scholar-officials (shì dàfū 士大夫) to dissolve ink stones (墨) in water. Shaped like hens, these porcelain water-droppers are decorated in overglaze famille verte translucent enamels applied directly on the biscuit (emaille sur biscuit), that is, over the unglazed porcelain surface. The term biscuit, based on the French biscuit or “fired twice”, corresponds actually to unglazed porcelain fired only once, either with or without decoration. Modelled in two halves, these hens are depicted seated, with their heads held high and with nested small chicks moulded in low-relief on either side. While the details on the head, such as the beak - with the nostrils and side openings for pouring -, and the eyes, and also the feathers of the neck, the plumage of the breast, the large wings and fluted, raised tail were finely incised giving a more naturalistic rendering, the rounded crest and dewlap set below the beak are hand modelled and applied later. Similarly, the covers are depicted as small, probably moulded chicks seated on streaked lotus leafs, which rest on the round openings of the hens’ backs, by which the hollow body is filled with liquid. Manufactured from the same original mould or from identical moulds, these two water-droppers or ewers make a true pair as they would have been acquired originally. Apart from the enamelled decoration, the single difference between the two pieces of this rare set is the “S”-shaped fluted handle which is easily explained since they were applied by hand, not being part of the mould. These hens are decorated with famille verte transparent enamels applied on unglazed porcelain, the biscuit, which allows for a better definition of the overall shape and of the incised details. Both hens have the breasts painted in dark aubergine enamel of cobalt and magnesium oxides, the legs in yellow iron oxide enamel and the chicks painted in copper oxide green, just as the rim of the base and handle. In contrast, one of the hens has the neck painted in green on the front and yellow on the back, with the crest, head and dewlap in aubergine, and the other has the neck painted with a distinctive mottled pattern, with randomly painted splotches in green, aubergine and white enamels. This same typical dappled decoration is also applied on the handles and on the streaks on the long tail feathers of both hens.

Emerging at the end of the Ming dynasty (1368- 1644), this kind of finely modelled small zoomorphic wine ewers or water-droppers became popular during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662-1722). They were produced in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in a myriad of shapes and forms, such as fish - carp -, monkeys, parrots and hawks, deer, horses and, in particular, cocks and hens typically decorated in overglaze famille verte polychrome enamels (see Howard & Ayers 1978, p. 582). In fact, the famille verte enamels were the most suitable for the decoration of this type of ceramic pieces which feature a high sculptural quality and fine details deriving from the use of moulds. In particular, when applied directly over the biscuit or, which is more common and also the present case, over a glaze wash, allowing for a greater interaction between colours. The typical famille verte are transparent enamels (or rather low-fire lead glazes) which included not only w c i 五彩 or decoration in “five colours” (iron red, copper green and iron yellow enamels applied within a overglaze cobalt black outline, plus the underglaze cobalt blue and the white colour of the porcelain body), but also dòuc i 斗彩 or “colours which fit together”, a decoration applied on either side of the glaze: the outlines in underglaze cobalt blue and transparent enamels (red, yellow, green and aubergine) applied over the fired glaze filling the motifs. In the present pieces the palette is narrowed down to three colours - green, yellow, aubergine (from a darker, almost purple to brown) and some white - which is known as sùsānc i 素 三彩. Literally “three plain colours”, sùsānc i is typical of the Kangxi period and similar to the Tang dynasty (618- 907) sānc i 三彩 or “three colours”, the mottled or splashed painted decoration on earthenware with glazes coloured by oxides of copper (green), iron (yellow and brown) and cobalt (blue) - on Tang dynasty sānc i, see Wood 2007, pp. 197- 211; and Li & Zhang 1986. This splashed decoration, also used on our ewers or water-droppers and which is known in the West as “egg and spinach”, is referred to in China as “tiger skin” or h pí 虎皮.

Not unlike other pieces of porcelain shaped after animals (see Cohen & Motley 2008), this type of zoomorphic ewers and water-droppers, particularly the ones modelled af- ter hens, was met with wide acceptance and demand in the West. In reality, one of the first references to the presence of such objects in Europe may be found in the sales catalogue of the collection of the Vicomte Fronspertuis, Louis-Auguste Angran (1669-1747) held in Paris in 1747: Two old painted porcelain hens, each with its chick on the back; These two hens are exceedingly unique; They are very naturalistically rendered: perfectly coloured feathers and all very well finished with great care. [Deux Poules d’ancienne Porcelaine coloriée, portant un petit chacune Poussin sur les dos; Ces deux Poules sont assez singulières; elles sont très-naturelles: les plumes sont parfaitement coloriées, & tout l’ouvrage en est fini avec soin] (Gersaint 1747, p. 103, cat. no. 303). The popularity of such porcelain hens is also reflected in the European gilded bronze mountings adorning some well-known examples, such as a pair once in the collection of Anthony Gustav Rothschild (1887-1961) - see Krahl, 1996, pp. 408-409, cat. no. 230.


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