The reputation of Chinese later bronzes, (the term for those created from the Tang (618–907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279) onward), has long languished in contrast to their archaic cousins of the Chinese Bronze Age (ritual vessels from Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.) to the Eastern Zhou period Eastern Zhou period (771–256 B.C.)). However, a reassessment of the area in recent years has led to new appreciations and academic engagements with the field. This in turn has prompted an increasing number of interesting pieces, long held in English private collections, to appear on the market. Building on previous successes in the category, Chiswick Auctions in ASIAN ART, 16 May 2016 provides a wide selection of later Chinese bronzes.
Traditionally the lack of academic attention to later bronzes has posed a challenge to collectors, particularly in relation to dating. Rose Kerr’s important study of Chinese bronzes from the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection, London, used comparisons with vessels in other materials to an approach to date and better understand bronzes. Blanc de chine figures, such as lot 70, depicting a seated figure of Guandi, have traditionally been compared to bronze figurative sculpture. Although there are no bronze figures of Guandi in the present sale, lot 241, a bronze seated official figure also dates to the late Ming period, as close comparisons of details of the two reveals.
Often similar forms are used across various materials and the celadon-glazed censer, lot 210, presents an example of a censer of a form closely replicated in bronze. The upright loop handles fashioned as twisted cords on the celadon censer is also found in bronze, an example can be found in the Hawthorn collection (Sotheby’s HK, 3rd December 2015, lot 47). A details from the erotic painting, lot 122, shows a bronze also with splayed conical feet, a rounded body, with incised horizontal bands and a straight neck supporting a flattened everted mouth rim.
Indeed, depictions of later bronzes are a fruitful and as yet relatively unexplored means of investigating later Chinese bronzes. Garden and interior figurative scenes, particularly those from the Qing Dynasty, will often include images of bronze incense and other vessels on tables in the background of the composition. Further examples include, lot 32, a painting by Gai Qi and lot 101, two famille verte painted porcelain panels from the Kangxi era. Whilst such paintings provide some insight into dating of bronzes they are perhaps most useful for elucidating information on collecting practices of bronzes and how they were displayed. On a slightly divergent note, further information about bronzes can be gleaned from photographic evidence. Three photographic albums, lots 267, 273 and 278 each include views of monumental bronze censers in various contexts in China.
There is still much research to be done on Chinese later bronzes. One such involves the relationship between Chinese and Japanese bronze production as bronze craftsman are thought to have travelled between the two countries and many pieces share close stylistic similarities. Lot 294A is an example of a Japanese bronze vase, dating to the Monoyama period, 16th/17th Century, modelled on the Chinese arrow-vase, a vessel used in a Chinese game where players would try to throw arrows into the vase, or its cylindrical handles.