A Rare Imperial Gilt and Lacquered Bronze Tapering Square 'Phoenix' Vase,
Probably from the Yuanmingyuan Palace
Qianlong Cast Six-Character Mark and of the Period
16 5/8 inches high
The central section of tapering square shape and cast on each face in high relief with a single descending phoenix with wings outstretched amidst dense scrolling peony above a waisted lower section cast with cicada-form archaistic pendants, above a stepped spreading foot with bands of key-pattern, classic scroll and horizontal C-scrolls, the cast mark on one side replacing the classic scroll, the wide tapering shoulder cast with ruyi-heads on a plain ground, below a band comma spiral motif, the waisted neck with further phoenix between key-pattern bands below a wider band of classic scroll at the rim edge, the neck sides with two flattened archaistic phoenix-headed handles with rectangular rings, the body with traces of a red lacquer and gilding.
For an identical phoenix vase (its Qianlong mark removed) see Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, Yuanmingyuan, The Garden of Absolute Clarity, lot 1322 . It forms a magnificent pair with an example with 'dragon' decoration. Both were removed from the Yuanmingyuan, Beijing in 1860. The pair appear to have been made for one of the European Palaces in the Yuanmingyuan. The Sotheby's catalogue suggests that the decoration is a harmonious blend of Chinese motifs with foreign design elements. The phoenix and dragaon design is clearly Chinese-inspired but the arabesque scrolling elements display western influence. Whilst this might be the case - the dense peony design is similar to designs found on the architectural elements of the European-inspired buildings within the complex - It also can be found on Chinese textile designs. The design of dragon and phoenix, is of course highly auspicious and symbolizes the emperor and empress. It also represents conjugal bliss and is a typical wedding motif used on vessels made for the Imperial palaces.
It seems highly likely therefore that our 'phoenix' vase once formed a pair with a 'dragon' vase which might have been part of a five-piece garniture and has every chance of having been commissioned at the same time as the Sotheby's pair for the Yuanmingyuan and, like the Sotheby's pair, removed in 1860.
Vases of this type often form part of an alter garniture. A pair of rounded rather than square-shaped vases of much larger size from the Alfred Morrison Collection, Fonthill House were offered at Christie's London, 9 November 2004, lot 17. Far more prevalent are the dragon vases as illustrated by Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 11 April 2008, Splendours of the Qing Court, lot 2826, a five-piece garniture; and Christie's Hong Kong, 28 November 2012, lot 2254, just two inches taller.
See also another bronze altar garniture, comprising of an incense burner, a pair of candlesticks and a pair of vases, of large size, illustrated in Qingdai gongting shenghuo, Hong Kong, 1985, p. 299, pl. 467, in situ in the Xianruo Temple, located in the garden of Cining Gong (Palace of Compassion and Tranquility) where the empress and consorts conducted Buddhist religious ceremonies.