A Magnificent Chinese Twelve-Fold Coromandel Lacquer Screen

Kangxi, Circa 1680

Height: 9 ft. 2 ¼ in. (280 cm)
Width of each panel: 1 ft. 7 in. (48 cm)

Provenance: Dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin

Decorated on the front with an elaborate palace scene depicting in the centre an enthroned noble receiving homages flanked by two courtyards of musicians, visitors and disporting women and children with two immortals descending on clouds from above; the reverse decorated with a richly coloured male and female phoenix surrounded by pheasants, herons, swallows and other birds in a luxuriant floral landscape; both sides similarly surrounded by reserves of qilin, lions, and fantastical beasts below and floral sprays above and either side, all framed within borders of dragons and stylised vines and chrysanthemums.

The complexity of the composition, the exceptional quality of the incised lacquer decoration, and the extraordinarily well-preserved vibrant colours render this screen one the finest surviving examples from the first half of the reign of the Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), a period that represented a golden age of coromandel lacquer.

Although undated, this piece was probably made in circa 1680, based on stylistic and technical similarities with a coromandel screen dated 1674 formerly with Pelham Galleries and now in a private collection, exhibited in Encounters. The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2004, cat. no. 16.6, p.208-9. Both screens display a similar dynamic arrangement of figural groups in an intricate architectural setting surrounded by luxurious borders of exotic flora and fauna, and both examples are distinguished by exquisitely refined detail in the lacquer, notably in the rendition of shading and texture in the costumes, foliage and plumage, a technique employed in the earlier Kangxi examples manufactured for the domestic market but which tended to decline in quality in the 18th century when production was increased to satisfy growing demand from Western import markets. Another very similar screen, undoubtedly from the same workshop, is in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, where the household accounts indicate it was purchased in 1712.

The term ‘Coromandel’ (derived from the name of the southeastern Indian coastal district from where lacquer was exported to the West) refers to a type of lacquer the Chinese call ke hui (literally ‘incised ash’), consisting of a smooth surface in which designs were carved out and coloured with oil or lacquer pigments. They are believed to have been principally manufactured in Fujian province south of Shanghai to serve the domestic market and were aimed at well-off merchants and civil servants who were unable to afford the lacquer screens with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl inlay produced in the Imperial workshops. Seventeenth century examples tended to be between 2.5 and 3 metres high and consist of twelve panels, and were usually employed in entrance halls or as room dividers or windscreens for gardens and terraces. They were often commissioned as birthday or retirement gifts and depicted court scenes, episodes from the world of the immortals, panoramic or landscape views and flora and fauna.

It is possible the scene on the recto represents a reception or banquet given by Guo Ziyi, the celebrated 8th-Century Prince and General of the Tang Dynasty who was later deified in popular culture as a god of wealth and happiness. The subject was a popular one the visual arts of the Ming and Qing dynasties and often depicted in painting and other media, including on an 18th-century coromandel screen sold Christies New York, 24-25 March 2011, lot 1367, and on a Kangxi famille verte rouleau vase in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The landscape scene on the reverse is distinguished by the prominent central presence of male and female Chinese phoenixes, known as Fenghuang. These birds, regarded as sovereigns of the ornithological kingdom, symbolise high virtue, grace, and the yin-yang metaphor of male and female union, and traditionally are regarded as positive omens since they appear only in times of peace and prosperity. Other examples of coromandel screens incorporating scenes of fenghuang are in the Musée Guimet, Paris, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Very similar depictions of phoenix birds are also found on a screen illustrated in M. Beurdeley, Chinese Furniture (1979), p.136-37, and on a further example sold Sotheby’s Monaco, 30 November 1986, lot 739, (ill. in W. De Kesel and G. Dhont, Coromandel Lacquer Screens, Ghent 2002, p.60-61).