An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty
Lot 66
An important large blue and white globular jar, guan
Yuan Dynasty
£ 1,000,000 - 1,500,000
US$ 1,300,000 - 2,000,000

Lot Details
The Property of a European Collector 歐洲收藏家藏品
An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty An important large blue and white globular jar, guan Yuan Dynasty
An important large blue and white globular jar, guan
Yuan Dynasty
The broad body heavily potted and covered overall in a lustrous thick clear glaze of pale bluish hue, the exterior boldly painted in a rich dark blue and paler washes within a wide central horizontal band with a continuous meander of six large-headed peony flowers alternately in profile and full-faced, within spiky leaves and rising or descending buds, many of the leaves and flower heads lightly incised with parallel grooves where deeper cobalt washes accentuate the detail; the main band below a smaller meander of Indian lotus heads alternately rising and descending around the broad shoulder, and above a narrow band of classic scrolls and a wider band of upright stiff petals encircling the foot; the thick neck painted with continuous curls of wildly-breaking waves below a rounded top rim, box.
28.6cm (11¼in) high; 34.9cm (13¾in) wide (2).


  • 元 青花纏枝牡丹紋罐

    Examples of this type of Yuan Dynasty jar are extremely rare. Compare one example also with a peony scroll sold at Sotheby's London, 10 November 2010, lot 32. See also a related blue and white jar but with figural scenes sold at Christie's London, 12 July 2005, lot 88, and another sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 28 November 2005, lot 1403.

    A Magnificent Yuan Dynasty Blue-and-White Jar, guan

    By Rose Kerr

    Former Keeper, Asian Department, Victoria and Albert Museum

    This autumn, the interest of many Chinese scholars, collectors and students is focused on Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain, as a consequence of the spectacular exhibition that opened in October to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Shanghai Museum. It is interesting to consider this fine jar in the present context, and to discuss some of the questions that it poses.

    In shape, design and painting style, the jar is an archetypal example of Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain. Its rounded body with swelling shoulder and upright neck is typical of the period, and can also be seen among Longquan celadon wares. The jar is decorated with five concentric bands containing foaming waves, lotus scroll, peony scroll with carved detail, classic-scroll border, and lotus petals. Both the containment of the designs within concentric bands, and the five design elements themselves, are characteristic of top-quality decoration on mid-14th century blue-and white. Many of the patterns are seen in different combinations on other pieces. For example, the world's most famous examples of early dated blue-and-white, a pair of vases from the Sir Percival David Foundation, are painted with nine concentric bands, of which three contain waves, lotus and peony scrolls. The David vases, normally on show at the British Museum in London, currently form the centrepiece to the Shanghai Museum exhibition. Their significance lies in the fact that they bear commemorative inscriptions, recording their dedication to a Daoist temple in Yushan district, not far from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, in the 11th year of the Zhizheng reign (equivalent to AD1351). The shape of the David vases clearly derives from bronze, as does the manner of dividing their decoration into concentric bands. When making Yuan dynasty bronzes, patterns were impressed from wooden moulds onto long strips of clay, that were then stuck around the body of the clay body that formed the core model for the cast bronze. It was easier for bronze craftsmen to work this way, using standardised patterns in strips, than to carve the core model as a whole piece each time a new model was needed. On Yuan bronzes a mark can often be seen on the bands where the clay strips were stuck together on the core mould, like pieces of pastry. On Yuan porcelain the bands were of course painted straight on to the porcelain body, allowing much greater freedom to the porcelain decorators. Patterns like peony and lotus are not seen on bronzes, because they were too complex to cast. The wave band seen on the David vases and on this guan jar, however, is also typical of Yuan dynasty cast bronze.

    The size of the guan jar, and its thick walls and weighted base, suggest that it was made as a storage vessel. In fact, large jars of this type were often made to contain alcohol, or water for making tea. Such vessels were produced at several ceramic centres, including Longquan and the Cizhou kilns of north China. Big lidded jars can be seen in paintings and frescoes of the period, and from those pictorial records it can be deduced that liquids in the jars were decanted into smaller pouring vessels, that could be carried to the table. The jars were doubtless used for similar purposes when exported to the kitchens and dining rooms of Middle Eastern customers. By the 15th century the first Chinese blue-and-white had reached Europe, where it was also associated with fine dining. This is exemplified by a painting entitled The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini, that shows recognisable, large items of Chinese export blue-and-white porcelain.

    The manufacture of very large underglaze-blue-decorated vessels like this jar only became possible at Jingdezhen in the 14th century. The production of such impressive and massive pieces depended on three factors: Imperial patronage, the expansion of the export trade, and improvements in technology at the kilns.

    In 1278, at the very beginning of the Yuan dynasty, a new organisation called the 'Porcelain Bureau' (瓷局) was set up at Jingdezhen, on Imperial orders. The orders are interesting, in view of the fact that the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were in fact Mongol invaders from the north, who might be presumed to have little interest in the official production of porcelain. However, the Porcelain Bureau seems originally not to have been a regular factory, but rather a kind of depot at which porcelains were assembled from private kilns and dispatched northwards, when requests for vessels and utensils came down from the Palace. The site chosen for the depot was 'Pearl Hill' (Zhushan 珠山), the only area of high ground in the riverside city, situated at what was then its southernmost edge. The Porcelain Bureau was a lowly institution, under the direction of the next-to-lowest rank of official (rank 9a). It managed not only the making and firing of porcelain, but also the processing of lacquer, horsehair, coir rattan and straw hats. In 1295 the bureau was expanded and its director raised in rank, and from then on Imperial porcelain seems to have played a more important role. Extensive excavation of the Imperial kilns, that has taken place at Jingdezhen since the early 1980s, revealed the remains of spectacular blue-and-white Imperial porcelain wares, many of them unique. Among them was a covered ink stone, decorated with a wave band very similar to that round the neck of this jar (see 景德鎮出土元明官窯瓷器 Yuan's and Ming's Imperial Porcelains Unearthed from Jingdezhen, (sic) Beijing, 1999, p.69, cat.5).In the Yuan there was an explosion of new decorations and styles in imperial porcelain, many of them highly innovative. They included underglaze-blue-decorated wares with five-clawed dragon designs, gilded wares and turquoise-glazed ware. Such designs were possibly developed by court painters in the palace in the Painting Academy (Huayuan 畫院), that was under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Manufactories Commission. Sumptuary regulations were enacted regarding the decoration of porcelain, that prohibited (among other things) the use of five-clawed dragon designs, and gold for gilding, except on imperial wares.

    Although some important items of blue-and-white porcelain were evidently produced specifically for imperial use, it is clear that virtually from the start of manufacture in the 1320s, fine pieces were also exported. It is also demonstrable that stimulus and inspiration came back to China from the Middle East, in terms of design and technology. China's Mongol rulers appreciated the benefits of overseas trade, and developed policies to augment state commercial activity as part of their 'Greater Mongol Empire'. Export was conducted both overland via the Silk Route, and by sea. Maritime routes were more important for the export of porcelain, because of its bulk and weight. Starting in the late 13th century state control on exports was relaxed, and from 1323 onwards merchants were unrestricted in their overseas voyages, though the Yuan government taxed them and reserved the right to send official trading vessels to sea. Today, we have some idea of the scale of overseas trade in ceramics from collections such as that from the Ardebil Shrine in Iran, and that preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Turkey. Those collections include many large pieces, like this guan jar, that catered to Middle Eastern catering and eating requirements. Large jars and vases in the Topkapi collection in Istanbul are painted with comparable peony and wave bands (see Regina Krahl & John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul. A Complete Catalogue, London, 1986, vol.II, nos.586, 581, 583, pp.407-409). However, there are only two jars so far known that can be regarded as being very closely related in terms of form and decoration. These comprise a guan in the Shanghai Museum (see Wang Qingzheng, Underglaze blue and red, Hong Kong, 1993, pl.24 fig.1, and one sold by Sotheby's in London on November 10th 2010, lot 32. These other two jars have a similar and unusual depiction of the peony blossoms in the main register, in which the stamens in the centre are fully revealed on some of the flowers. Three of the peonies on this guan show flowers with their petals unfurled to reveal the centre in this manner, and it is a rare feature.

    The large size of many Yuan dynasty dishes and jars can partly be explained by changes to the composition of the clay. During the preceding Song dynasty, qingbai porcelains made at Jingdezhen were monochrome, and pieces were small in stature. When analysed, it was seen that they were made of almost pure porcelain stone, without the addition of clay. This meant that their body material was non-plastic, which made it difficult if not impossible for large pieces to be formed. In the Yuan dynasty, in the 13th century, clay-rich materials were added to plain shufu style porcelains. This new recipe was continued in the 14th century for the manufacture of blue-and-white. When the Imperial Porcelain Bureau became operational, raw materials for Imperial ware were identified. This 'imperial clay' (yutu御土) came from deposits that were sealed after use and prohibited for private manufacture. Yutu was mentioned in a historical text of 1363 as coming from the Jingdezhen area and being powdery white in appearance. Scholars have suggested that the 'imperial clay' came from mines at present-day Macang near Jingdezhen, and that this was an important source of porcelain clay from the Song dynasty to the Wanli period (1573-1620). It certainly seems that fine kaolin clays must also have been sourced and added to export wares, and not merely restricted to Imperial wares.

    Another important Yuan dynasty innovation was the use of cobalt oxide to paint on the pure white porcelain body of ceramics, and then to seal the painting under transparent glaze. Considering cobalt blue's great importance in Chinese ceramic history, and the international fame of Chinese blue-and-white, it is surprising to think that its use in the country is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ceramic-making in China has a history of more than seven thousand years, and yet blue-and-white porcelain only appeared at Jingdezhen about six hundred years ago.

    Once again, scientific analysis of the cobalt blue on Yuan porcelain has shed some light on the question. It seems that the magnificent purplish-blue tone, typical of the best-quality pieces and of this jar, was actually imported from Iran. Low-fired earthenware ceramics decorated in underglaze blue were made in the Middle East before blue-and-white appeared in China. Both the cobalt, and the taste for such boldly-decorated wares, came to China from the West. Some of the purest mineral ores originated from the mines in the mountains around the Iranian city of Kashan, and it seems that these mines may have been the source of some of the cobalt used on the best pieces at Jingdezhen. Again, the presence of thriving overland and maritime trade routes between China and Iran, both part of the Mongol empire, would have facilitated trade. If cobalt arrived by the overland Silk Route, then the fact that north and south China were unified in the Yuan period meant that its onward transportation to Jingdezhen faced few barriers.

    Thus although blue-and-white porcelain was not made before the Yuan dynasty, the combination of a more plastic body material with newly-imported cobalt blue minerals, proved to be a very effective technology. Potters at Jingdezhen mastered the new techniques with astonishing skill, so that by 1350 blue-and-white had become so popular that it was used for fine Imperial wares, as well as large and elaborate dishes and jars for export, and volumes of vessels for the home market ranging from big temple vases down to simple cups and bowls.The range and quality of Yuan blue-and-white was unmatched, and experience gained from painting in underglaze cobalt-blue in the 14th century laid the foundations for the huge, influential and international blue-and white industry that developed at Jingdezhen, and that still flourishes today.
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  1. Gigi Yu
    Specialist - Chinese Works of Art
    Hong Kong
    Hong Kong
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