Ethereal Elegance in White Jade

A couple of months ago we were entrusted with a beautiful small white jade dish to study for a short while and to suggest an estimate for auction in our final Asian Works of Art auction for the year. The story was every auctioneer’s dream. It was given to a lady in England in 1958, that lady being the sister of Carl Winter (1906-1966), once Deputy Keeper at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and ultimately Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from 1946 until his death in 1966. It has remained in the family ever since 1958.

It is of exceptional form, with a sharply carved wide, squared foot of perfect right angles, the sides projecting outwards from the generous foot and then sweeping gently up, everting and thinning slightly at the rim. This combination of the powerful angular foot and gentle curves and delicacy give the dish at once gravitas, and an ethereal elegance, really a masterstroke of design.

The jade is even hued, translucent and lustrous and slightly off-white in colour. This colour gives a slight warmth to what could otherwise be a very austere piece. Apart from the wide cut foot, the walls and floor of the dish are perfectly evenly carved and thin enough to be highly translucent. The finish of the piece is known as a soft polish, a polishing technique sometimes used in the Imperial workshops on undecorated pieces. It gives a slightly wet sheen, but prevents it from being brashly shiny, almost like the finish of brushed gold.

Detail of the incised ‘Qianlong Nian Zhi’ mark in Kaishu script

To the base is a beautifully incised four-character mark reading ‘Qianlong Nian Zhi’ in kaishu (regular) script, perfectly centred within the foot, and perfectly evenly spaced. The incised work has been carried out with an exceptionally small carving wheel, the marks of the technique clearly visible under magnification as seen in the close up on this page. A mark of this quality, coupled with the careful form, and the quality of polish, all suggest that while small, this was an Imperial commission of some importance.

There had been well over a thousand years of history of Imperial Chinese love of monochrome wares, in both ceramic and jade. Highlights of this tradition are the elegant monochrome ceramics of the Tang and Song Dynasties, and the beautiful colours and forms in ceramics of the three great reigns of the Qing – Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. This small dish sits happily in this tradition of refined simplicity, and is a paragon of the highest Qing Imperial sensibility.

This piece will be offered in our Asian Works of Art auction on 18 October 2021.

CARL WANTRUP  / Asian Art Specialist

Banner Image: A Chinese Imperial White Jade Dish, Incised Qianlong Four-Character Mark and of the Period (1735-1796), 1.75cm high, 7.2cm diameter | $10,000-15,000

September 2021