From Hyacinths to Heirloom

From Hyacinths to Heirloom

One of the highlights in our May Asian Art sale was a large blue and white jardinière from the Kangxi period (1662-1722). Described as a having a heavily-potted hexagonal body rising from ruyi-shaped feet to a flat lobed rim, painted with Eight Daoist Immortals above spuming waves and a six-character Kangxi mark in regular script below the rim, it was a popular lot.

21 August 2023


The jardinière came from a property in Ennismore Gardens Mews, London. Both of thevendor’s parents worked at Sotheby’s between the 1950s and 1970s, and they were avid collectors in antiques and art. The vendor’s grandfather, John Stevenson (1844-1918), was a pioneering missionary who served as Deputy Director of the China Inland Mission for more than thirty years and, at the time of his death, was the longest-serving member of the CIM. Although there was no evidence to say that it was brought back by the vendor’s grandfather or if it was purchased by the vendor’s parents, there was certainly a strong link to China and a great passion for antiques within the family.


A Chinese blue and white jardinière (£121,250)

A Chinese blue and white jardinière (£121,250)


Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 30 March 1844, John Stevenson married his wife, Anne, on 14 September 1865, and after only three weeks, they boarded the sailing ship Antipodes for China. Some 126 days later they arrived in Shanghai and transferred to a small steamer for Ningbo, where they preached the gospel with the American Baptist Church. Stevenson spent the rest of his life as a missionary in China, travelling to Shanghai, Zhejiang, Shanxi and Yunnan, and learnt the local dialects. In June 1874, for health reasons, Anne returned to Scotland with her children, and Stevenson went back to China alone to continue his missionary work, which he pursued until his death in Shanghai on 15 August 1918.

Eight Daoist Immortals is one of the most significant motifs in Chinese works of art. The story can date back to the Tang dynasty, being finalised in the Ming dynasty. The immortals represent male, female, the old, the young, the rich, the noble, the poor and the humble. They represent good wishes and their power can bestow life or destroy evil. They are often seen together crossing the sea or celebrating the birthday of the Queen Mother of the West. Traditional Chinese paintings use different shades of ink to separate variation in colours. This jardinière borrowed the same technique, using cobalt blue as ink in paintings, and to bring the figures, the mythical beasts, the waves and the floating robes vividly to life.


A Chinese blue and white jardinière (£121,250)


There are similar jardinières from the same period in the Forbidden City in Beijing and some doucai examples have been sold in Hong Kong. However, there is no record of such a jardinière in the same shape and size produced after the Kangxi period - probably because they last a long time with their steady and thick bodies - but we can still find them displayed and used in court paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries.

This jardiniere - used for decades in which to plant hyacinths - reached £121,250 in the May Asian Art sale in 2023!




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