Yellow, green, aubergine, and black enamels on thin, colourless glaze on porcelain; moulded in the form of a monk, possibly intended to be Shegong, gazing upwards and holding an alms bowl above his left shoulder, the bowl being the opening to the bottle; the foot and interior unglazed Jingdezhen, 18101870 Height: 5.86 cm Mouth: 0.6 cm Stopper: bronze
Condition: stress cracks going up each main side, on the lower clothing (green) caused by the joint between the two mould halves, not obtrusive; normal wear under magnification. General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: Robert Hall (1996)
Published: Hall 1996, no. 20 Antiques Bulletin, no. 650, 1521 June 1996, cover JICSBS, Summer 1996, p. 1 JICSBS, Winter 1998, front cover Treasury 6, no. 1340
Commentary: This delightful and rare model is obviously made from a two-part mould and maintains the heritage of traditional, mid-Qing moulding techniques, even though the carved detail may owe a greater debt to early-nineteenth century carved porcelain techniques. The unglazed interior might endorse an early date, perhaps from the first decades of the nineteenth century, although some of the individual porcelain carvers of the mid-century continued to produce wares with unglazed interiors, notably Wang Bingrong.
The ambiguity between enamels and glazes is represented here: there is a very thin wash of colourless glaze over the exposed head and arms of the figure that seems to run beneath the other colours, making them smoother at the surface than is usual for enamels placed directly onto the biscuit.
The design concept is spectacular and the quality of the workmanship and enamelling equally convincing, putting the bottle in a class with the finest of the mid-Qing group. The stance is dynamic: the flick of the dangling ends of the monk's waistband opposes the diagonal thrust of his posture, and the position of the alms bowl is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of being held horizontal, as a lesser artist would probably have set it, the alms bowl perfectly offsets the lean of the body as if the monk were aiming his alms bowl at some specific point in the sky. If this figure depicts the monk Shegong, then he may well be doing precisely that, and the point in the sky would be where a dragon is flying. According to Liang gaoseng zhuan (Biographies of Eminent Buddhist Monks [Compiled in the] Liang Dynasty), Shegong was a Central Asian who travelled to Chang'an in 375 AD during the reign of Fu Jian (338385). He had the ability to summon a rain dragon by reciting incantations. Whenever the country was afflicted by drought, Fu Jian ordered Shegong to send for the dragon. The fabulous creature would immediately appear, and the moment it had dived into Shegong's alms bowl, rain would pour down from the sky.
Three other examples of this rare model are recorded. One is in the Denis Low collection (Kleiner 1999, no. 159; it came from Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 3 November 1994, lot 1021), another was in Sotheby's Parke Bernet, New York, 20 June 1975, lot 56, and the third was in Sotheby's, London, 28 October 1969, lot 87. The other two are more elaborately enamelled, with patterns painted on the clothing. It is difficult to see whether they came from the same mould or not, because of the extensive surface cutting and enamelling that was done by hand, but all three are of sufficiently similar design that they may shared the same original mould. In any case, they must have all come from the same pottery.