The octagonal tray is supported by eight cabriole legs with foliate aprons in black with gilt edges connected by an octagonal stretcher. The exterior is composed of eight quatrefoils of brown woven basketry rimmed in gold against a red lacquer ground. The black lacquer ground of the interior is decorated entirely in a reddish-gold-colored scene (red lacquer applied over gold) with extensive detailing produced through painted, incised, and scratched lines. A scene depicting a clearing in a mountainous riverscape reveals two robed scholars, each in conversation with an attendant. A boat is moored in a rocky grotto below and an open-air hut is seen in the background. The interior of rockwork and mountains are incised to indicate shading that effectively produces a sense of bulk and substance. Tree trunks and branches are rendered with carefully brushed, while staccato dots, dabs, and short lines indicate foliage. Eight different bird- and-flower vignettes in quatrefoil panels against grounds of scalloped waves decorate the interior sides between cloud-scroll borders. The panels alternate between songbirds on branches and waterfowl amid reeds and grasses. The central octagonal field is bordered by a complex scroll that is repeated on the mouth rim of the tray. The base is covered with a thin coat of lacquer.
It is not possible to say for certain what is transpiring between the figures depicted on this lacquer tray. A gentleman, an official of some sort recognizable by his hat, is perhaps discussing the cost of a trip across the river with the boatman in front of him, identifiable by his garb and the oar at his feet. Accompanied by another male figure and a younger boy, this bargaining has been going on since the 18th century A.D. or possibly even longer than that. A similarly shaped undecorated lacquer tray with basketry exterior is inscribed on the base with a dedication and date corresponding to 1720 (fig. 1). The Field Museum of Chicago has a related box inscribed with a slightly later date, A.D. 1726 (fig. 2). The small figures in a clearing surrounded by mountains and trees related to the present tray were painted in gold lacquer. A circular box with delicate polychrome painting on a black ground and a red-lacquered basketry exterior in the Minneapolis Museum of Art is dated earlier in the Qing dynasty, to 1688.1
The use of woven bamboo to enhance lacquer work, however, appears to have been most popular during the late Ming period: “The efflorescence of lacquer ware made with panels of bamboo basketry and usually with polychrome decoration in southeastern China from the late sixteenth to the early seventeen century was fostered by the prosperity of the region as well as by the availability of fine bamboo for weaving.”2 Furthermore, comparison to painting techniques observed in the scenes occurring on lacquerware of the Ming dynasty, for example, on a box in the Sho¯to¯ Museum in Tokyo, which is attributed to the late Ming period, introduces the possibility of a date of manufacture for the present tray also during the 17th century (figs. 3-4). Another piece ascribed to the late Ming, in the Anhui Provincial Museum, is similarly fashioned as an octagonal tray, however raised on a round foot ring, but decorated with similar bird-and-flower subjects on the eight sections of the interior wall (fig. 5).
The scene on the present box is a brilliant achievement: a sense of naturalism, or realism, conveyed through a monochromatic palette, while at the same time making a clear and stunning decorative statement through the stark contrast of colors and the combination of materials.
Lacquer artists invariably took the hard road. Rarely do we see a category of lacquer that has garnered art historical worth that was not painstaking to produce. The supremely simple undecorated lacquer of the Song is an exception, communicating a basic aesthetic through its reserve and understatement. However, the wider world of lacquer is populated by boldly or intricately carved works on the one hand and those with gold thread or mother-of-pearl inlay on the other. In the present box, painting was not enough. It was necessary to incise in painstaking detail features necessary to make the images sing. And lacquer itself was not enough. The addition of basketry created yet another level of interest and attractiveness, one appreciated centuries ago when the tray was made, and yet today.
1. See Robert D. Jacobson, Appreciating China: Gifts from Ruth and Bruce Dayton, Minneapolis, 2002, pl. 69, p. 126. Another circular box in black lacquer and basketwork commissioned by Mr. Yin Shenbo in 1635 was reproduced and discussed by George Kuwayama in Far Eastern Lacquer, Los Angeles, 1982, pl. 29, p. 89.
2. See Thomas Lawton, et.al., Asian Art in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery: The Inaugural Gift, Washington. D.C., 1987, p. 273.
Fig. 1: Black and red lacquered tray with basketry panels, dated A.D. 1720, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, after Simon Kwan, Ming and Qing Bamboo (exhibition at the University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong), Hong Kong, 2000, no. 67, p. 281.
Fig. 2: Black and gold lacquered circular box with basketry sides, dated A.D. 1726, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, after James C.Y. Watt, The Sumptuous Basket: Chinese Lacquer with Basketry Panels, New York, 1985, pl. 12, p. 52.
Fig. 3: Lacquer box with gold painting against a black ground, red-lacquered basket work exterior and pedestal base, Ming dynasty, 15th-16th century A.D., after Yasuhiro Nishioka, Chu¯goku no Urushi, Sho¯to¯ Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1991, pl. 120, p. 103.
Fig. 4: Base of box in fig. 3, after Yasuhiro Nishioka, Chu¯goku no Urushi, Sho¯to¯ Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1991, pl. 121, p. 103.
Fig. 5: Octagonal lacquer tray with polychrome painting against a red ground, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., Anhui Provincial Museum, after Zhongguo qiqi quanji, vol. 5 (Ming), Beijing, 1995, pl. 185, p. 199.