One of the highlights and the cover lot of our two-day auction of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art (17 & 18 May 2023) is Lot 5, a rare Chinese cloisonné 'pomegranate' box and cover bearing the Xuande (1426-1435) reign mark. One of 12 cloisonné lots in the auction, the box is a splendid example of the exquisite production of the Ming Imperial workshop.
But what is Chinese cloisonné, how is it made, and what makes it so special? Dreweatts' Chinese and Asian Art Specialist, Dr Yingwen Tao, explains more and gives some tips on starting a collection.
Chinese cloisonné, characterised by colourful enamelwork on metal, is a stunning manifestation of the human capacity to appropriate the finest that nature has to offer – gold, copper, glass - and has been prized for its exquisite beauty and intricate craftsmanship for centuries. Traditional cloisonné pieces are highly collectible and can be found in various forms such as vases, bowls, censers, and other decorative objects. If you're interested in starting a collection of Chinese cloisonné art, here is a guide to help you get started.
History and Origins
Cloisonné art [jingtai lan] has a long history in China, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when it was introduced from the Middle East where blue [lan] was the favourite colour. However, it wasn't until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that cloisonné art became highly developed and widely popular among the Chinese imperial court and the elite. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) also saw a flourishing of cloisonné production, with various regional styles and techniques emerging.
A pair of cloisonné enamel double crane censers | Sold for £124,000
Materials and Techniques
Cloisonné art involves the use of metalwork, enamel, and firing techniques. Copper is usually used as the base metal, which is shaped into the desired form, such as a vase or a censer. Cloisonné enamel wares from the early Ming period are rare, as production was strictly regulated by the Palace eunuchs who operated under the auspices of the Yuyongjian, a sub-division of the Neifu, 'The Inner Treasury', responsible for supplies to the Imperial household.
Coloured-glass paste are placed within enclosures made of copper or bronze wires, which have been bent or hammered into the desired pattern. Known as cloisons (French for 'partitions'), the enclosures generally are either pasted or soldered onto the metal body. The glass paste, or enamel, is coloured with metallic oxide and painted into the enclosures.
The vessel is then fired in a kiln multiple times, usually at a relatively low temperature about 800°C. Enamels commonly shrink after firing, and the process is repeated several times to fill in the designs. Once this process is complete, the surface of the vessel is polished until the edges of the cloisons are visible. They are then gilded, often on the edges, in the interior, and on the base.
A rare Chinese Cloisonné enamel censer, Ming Dynasty, 16th/17th century | Sold for £56,250
Quality and Authenticity
Cloisonné objects were intended primarily for the furnishing of temples and palaces. When collecting Ming cloisonné art, it is important to consider factors such as the quality of the wirework, the condition of the enamel, the authenticity of the piece, and its provenance. Authentic Ming cloisonné pieces are rare and valuable, as many of them were lost or destroyed over the centuries due to wars, political upheavals, and natural disasters. Genuine Chinese cloisonné pieces should exhibit fine craftsmanship, even enamelwork, vibrant colours, and signs of age such as wear, patina, and previous restorations. Provenance, or the documented history of a piece, is also crucial in determining its authenticity and value. Be cautious of modern reproductions or fakes that may try to imitate traditional Chinese cloisonné art but lack the craftsmanship and quality of genuine pieces.
A rare Chinese cloisonné 'pomegranate' box and cover, incised Xuande six-character marks and of the period | Est. £6,000-10,000 (+ fees)
Styles and Themes
Chinese cloisonné art comes in various styles and themes that reflect the artistic and cultural influences of different periods. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is often regarded as one of the golden ages of this exquisite art form. As Soame Jenyns said, ‘It is the 15th Ming cloisonné pieces which are likely to remain the chief monuments to the skill of the Chinese metal worker in the field’. The colours used in Ming cloisonné are typically bold and rich, with a wide range of hues including deep blues, bright greens, rich reds, and lustrous purples. Ming cloisonné designs often depict auspicious symbols such as dragons, lotus flowers, and fruits, as well as intricate geometric patterns.
A Chinese cloisonné enamel tripod censer, Ming Dynasty, 15th century | Sold for £43,750
Collecting Chinese cloisonné art can be a fascinating and rewarding endeavour. Their refined styles, meticulous techniques, and historical significance make Chinese cloisonné pieces prized additions to any collection of Chinese art. You can build a meaningful and significant collection by being knowledgeable about the development, styles, and techniques of Chinese cloisonné art. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Research and learn about the different styles, historical periods, and techniques of Chinese cloisonné art.
- Attend auctions, art fairs, and reputable dealers to view and handle different pieces to get a sense of their quality and authenticity. Be mindful of modern reproductions or fakes.
- Inspect the enamelwork for evenness, smoothness, and vibrancy of colours, and look for signs of age such as wear, patina, and signs of previous restorations or repairs.
- Consider the size, shape, and condition of the piece. Pieces in good condition with minimal damage or restoration tend to be more valuable and collectible.
- Verify the provenance and authenticity of the piece. Look for any accompanying documentation, such as certificates of authenticity or historical records, and consult with experts or reputable dealers if needed.
- Collect what you love and appreciate. Chinese cloisonné art comes in a wide range of styles, sizes, and themes, so choose pieces that resonate with your personal taste and interests.
- Take proper care of your collection. Cloisonné art should be handled with care to avoid damage to the delicate enamelwork. Avoid exposure to direct sunlight, extreme temperature changes, and excessive moisture. Regularly clean and dust your pieces using non-abrasive methods.
Wednesday 17 & Thursday 18 May | 10.30am BST
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Browse Day One
Browse Day Two
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Viewing in London (highlights):
- Tuesday 9 May: 10am-4pm
- Wednesday 10 May: 10am-4pm
Viewing in Newbury (full sale):
- Sunday 14 May: 10am-3pm
- Monday 15 May: 10am-4pm
- Tuesday 16 May: 10am-4pm
- Wednesday 17 May: from 8.30am
- Thursday 18 May: from 8.30am