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Eleven exemplary eighteenth century Chinese Jades:

11. A White Jade Table Screen

A White Jade Table Screen - front

A White Jade Table Screen - back

Qianlong period (1736–95)

The screen of rectangular form and carved in medium to high relief on one side with a scene of boys playing with various toys within a balustraded garden with a pavilion, set within a rugged landscape of precipitous cliffs and caves, paulownia, pine and bamboo growing from the crags. The reverse is decorated with a flowering prunus tree with jagged branches. The well polished stone of an even pale greenish white tone with occasional inclusions cleverly incorporated into the overall design.

20.5 x 16.5 cm. (8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in).
Provenance: Lady June Horlick Collection

The studio was the most important part of the Chinese scholar’s home, and every object within it was chosen with the utmost care. The table-screen, as the tallest vertical element on the scholar’s desk, was undoubtedly one of the most important elements of the decoration. However, since it was almost impossible to find flawless slabs of jade of sufficient size before the 18th century, it was almost never used as a material for table screens before the Qianlong period.

Towards the second half of the 18th century, the Qianlong emperor began to criticize current fashions for jade carving in his poetry. Decrying the florid and complicated styles that technological innovations in jade carving allowed, he advocated instead a return to ancient forms, using antique bronze and old master paintings as models for jade design (20).

This table screen is a masterpiece of the new pictorial style preferred by the Emperor, combining superb composition, exceptional craftsmanship and a piece of top-quality material.

The style of carving is very closely related a pair of jade screens in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (21), as well as the British Rail Pension Fund jade table screen (22). All four screens have diagonal compositions, drawing one’s eye from the lower left gradually upwards to the upper right. In each, the details of the rocks are inspired by the cun brush strokes of landscape paintings, cleverly creating an illusion of three-dimensionality on an otherwise flat surface. Additionally, the trees on the current screen and the British Rail Pension fund screen are also very similarly rendered, with abrupt ‘tri-bends’, which adds dynamism to the whole pictorial scene. On this screen, this dynamism is further enhanced by the way the rocks are placed in an unusual swirling fashion, making the whole scene appear constantly moving.

The screens also have a substantial amount of void in the composition, which is very much in tune with the aesthetics of classical landscape paintings, and shows off the quality of the stone at the same time. The outlines of the designs on these screens are all deeply undercut, which makes the compositions stand out, as if floating from the background, which is especially apparent when light comes through the screens. These similarities suggest that each of these screens were carved by the same hand, almost certainly a master lapidary working in the zaobanchu.

The particular challenge faced by carvers of jade table screens was to be able to create two different designs which did not interfere with each other when light was transmitted, and yet concealed all the flaws present in the material. The focus of the current screen, a void placed in the centre of the composition, is accentuated by a kite in mid-air, with an elegantly curved string and fluttering ribbons. When back-lit, the void seems to be subtly suffused with horizontal glowing clouds, which turn out to be a reflection of the branches of the flowering prunus tree on the other side.

With its floating cliffs, rocks and strange caves, the composition recalls the surreal landscapes of the early Qing painter Wu Bin, or the ominous dark paintings of Gong Xian. However, in Qianlong’s perfect world, these landscapes are tamed and transformed, the charm of the boys with their toys, fireworks and the prunus suggesting a New Years scene, a time of renewal and unbridled joy.

(The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997)

20 The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997
21 illustrated in The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997, pp. 204–207, nos. 71 and 72
22 sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 16 May 1989, lot 96

 

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