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China [Asia]

Pair of Imperial boxes and covers mark and reign of Qianlong, 1736-95

Red lacquer on wood | 8.0 x 20.0 cm (whole object) | RCIN 10806

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  • Pair of shallow, circular Imperial boxes and covers, both parts with rounded sides and slightly spreading rim, the interior and base lacquered black. The top deeply carved with five five-clawed dragons emerging from waves round a flaming pearl, with four more dragons round the sides. Inside, in the centre of the box, incised and filled with gold, the six-character reign-mark, and on the cover, the inscription:

    雲龍寶盒

    Yunlong baohe

    ‘Dragons among clouds’ precious boxes

    By the end of the eighteenth century the East India Company had been trading with Chinese merchants for two hundred years, but in a strictly limited way. They were only allowed into Canton for five months in a year, and all trade had to be carried on through Chinese officials. The British Embassy of 1792-4, led by Earl Macartney of Lissanore (1737-1806), was charged with negotiating a treaty of friendship between George III and the Emperor Qianlong, establishing a permanent diplomatic post in Peking, and improving trading conditions in Canton. In these objectives it failed completely. In the eyes of the octogenarian Emperor, the British were coming to pay tribute to him rather than to establish diplomatic relations as understood in the West. In a lengthy edict addressed to the King, he refused to allow a permanent British mission to Peking, which was ‘a request contrary to our dynastic usage’. When presented with the King’s gifts, which included a Herschel telescope, a planetarium, artillery pieces, air pumps and carriages, as well as Wedgwood pottery, chandeliers, clocks and watches, he declared: ‘I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures’.

    Macartney’s mission did not return empty handed. A list of the numerous gifts which the Emperor made to George III is preserved in the India Office Library and a list in the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle (Royal Archives GEO ADD31/21D). The King was sent an agate ruyi sceptre and large quantities of porcelain, jade, carved lacquer and silk. Among them were ‘caskets’, some of them ‘in the shape of a peach’ and others decorated ‘with clouds of Dragons’ in ‘red varnish’ or lacquer. Aeneas Anderson, whose account of the Embassy was published in 1795, described them as ‘a number of callibash boxes of exquisite workmanship, beautifully carved on the outside, and stained a scarlet colour, of the utmost softness and delicacy’. The decoration, which is deeply carved into the many layers of vegetable lacquer, some of them in different colours, includes the five-clawed dragon reserved for use on imperial wares.

    When Joseph Farington visited Frogmore in November 1797 he noticed ‘some presents from the Emperor of China’, and carved boxes of this type can be seen in Pyne’s view of the Green Closet.

    Catalogue entry adapted from George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, London, 2004 and Chinese and Japanese Works of Art in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen: Volume III.

    Provenance

    Acquired by George III. Presented by the Qianlong emperor following Lord Macartney’s Embassy of 1792–4: ‘red carved lacquer “dragons among clouds” precious boxes, two pairs’ (Royal Archives GEO ADD31/21D). Formerly at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and sent to Kensington Palace in June 1848, possibly described as ‘Two do. [single] round tops & bottoms dragons & waves' (seven inches & one eight [18.1 cm])’ (1829A, p. 45).

  • Medium and techniques

    Red lacquer on wood

    Measurements

    8.0 x 20.0 cm (whole object)