PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
The present desk, reputed to be from the Gong Wang Fu (Prince Gong’s Mansion) in Beijing, is an important representation of the cultural exchange between Europe and China during the 18th and 19th centuries. Master Chinese carpenters used a prized Asian wood, zitan, and Chinese carpentry to create a piece of furniture that combines a purely Western form, the partner’s desk, with Qing imperial carving that incorporates the powerful Chinese imperial image of the five-clawed dragon amidst clouds (wuzhu yunlong). The completed design demonstrates how fluidly these carpenters could interpret and integrate visual and technical influences into their workshops.
ZITAN: THE IMPERIAL HARDWOOD
The desk is made almost exclusively of zitan, an extremely luxurious use of a rare wood that was highly valued during the Qing dynasty. Zitan is a general term which includes numerous species of wood, however, it is commonly agreed that it belongs to the genus Pterocarpus. A purplish-black, fine-grained hardwood, zitan was considered the most prized hardwood by the Chinese. The density of the wood makes this material especially suitable for fine and intricate carving and when combined with its jade-like, lustrous surface made this the preferred material for Imperial Qing dynasty furniture, which favored elaborately carved and highly-ornamented furnishings. The Yang Xin Dian Palace (Palace of Mental Cultivation), a three-room pavilion reserved for receiving court officials by the Emperor, illustrated by Yu Zhuoyun in Palaces of the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1982, p. 90-94, displays the sumptuous effect of a complex furnished almost entirely with zitan furniture. The elaborately decorated interiors open onto the main receiving room centered by an imposing throne flanked by pairs of pole supports and elegant incense stands in front and a towering three-panel screen. The side rooms are similarly furnished with smaller jade-inset thrones and carved tables and chairs. By furnishing the interiors with ornate zitan furniture, the Emperor constructed an image of power, luxury, and importance to all visiting counselors.
Government records dating to the Longqing period (1537-1572) show that even in this early period zitan already commanded the highest price and was subject to the heaviest import tax. See Wang Shixiang, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, Chicago, 1990, p. 149, for further discussion of the import tax and prices for timber. By the early Qing period, zitan had become a very expensive commodity due to excessive logging throughout the Ming dynasty. The wood's scarcity was compounded by the fact that the trees themselves are slow growing and require centuries to fully mature into usable material. Although local sources of zitan existed in the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi, much of the material was imported from Southeast Asia. Due to the scarcity and the expense of this luxurious material, its use was scrupulously monitored and carefully restricted at the Imperial workshops, which issued severe punishment or fines for irresponsible usage or wastage of this luxurious material.
THE SCHOLAR'S STUDIO IN CHINA
Within the tradition of Classical Chinese furniture, the Western concept of the desk did not exist. Instead, large recessed-leg painting tables found in a scholar’s studio, constructed with large floating wood panels were used for all activities associated with painting and calligraphy. A woodblock print dating to the Ming dynasty shows the young scholar Zhang Sheng from the drama Xi Xiang Ji (Tale of the Western Chamber) seated at a large painting table beside a large window, set with a neatly-bound album and a wine cup (fig. 1). This arrangement of furniture was typical of a scholar’s studio.
The partner's desk has its roots in English furniture design, and may have first appeared in Europe as a type of pedestal desk developed to facilitate the work of two-person teams. This form may have gained popularity in China during the mid-Qing period, although most of the known examples of Chinese manufacture appear to date from the 19th century. The partner’s desk with its association with commerce and business would have been out of place within a scholar’s studio. These spaces were reserved for the study of the classics, the practice of the gentlemanly arts, such as painting and poetry, and for contemplation. However, the interaction between the Chinese and the English in the late 18th and 19th centuries led to a fascination in China with European-inspired furniture and decorative arts. A drawing published in a Guangxu period (1871-1908) newspaper, Dianshi zhai huabao shows a richly attired gentleman seated at a partner’s desk laden with books and brushes directing two young attendants to fetch books from a tall bookcase (fig. 2).
HESHEN & PRINCE GONG
The present zitan desk is reputed to come from the Gong Wang Fu, known in English as Prince Gong’s Mansion, in Beijing. Although named after its later owner, Prince Gong, the mansion was originally built in 1777 for the high-ranking Qing-dynasty official, Heshen (1750-1799) (fig. 3). Sprawling across more than 20 acres in the Western district of Beijing, the mansion consists of dozens of spacious and lavishly decorated buildings, including a private opera house, arranged around courtyards in the traditional manner, all sited among gardens filled with ponds and pavilions, and surrounded by high walls.
Born into a Manchu military family, Heshen attended a renowned school, where he excelled at languages. In 1772, he was assigned to be a bodyguard to the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) at the Palace in Beijing, where he quickly impressed the emperor with his intelligence (and reportedly, his resemblance to one of Qianlong’s early lovers). Within a very short period of time, he became a favorite councilor to the emperor, was appointed to several important official posts, and gained unprecedented power and privileges. In 1790, he was given the high honor of marrying his son to the Qianlong Emperor’s youngest, and favorite, daughter, Hexiao. Through his numerous appointments, he was able to amass enormous personal wealth, much of it through corruption, and due to his close connection to the emperor, was seemingly untouchable.
Upon the Qianlong Emperor’s death in 1799, however, Heshen lost his position of favor. The successor to the throne, the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796-1820), moved quickly to prosecute Heshen for his corruption. Sentenced to death, Heshen committed suicide in order to avoid a torturous execution. Upon his death, his enormous estate was valued at the equivalent of about 15 years’ worth of imperial tax revenue. Although much of the estate was seized by the emperor, Heshen’s mansion was gifted to the Jiaqing Emperor’s brother Yonglin, Prince Qing. Upon Yonglin’s death in 1820, the mansion passed to his heirs and remained in their possession until 1851, when the Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1850-1861) seized the mansion and gifted it to his half-brother, Yixin, Prince Gong (fig. 4).
Yixin (1833-1898), more commonly referred to by his title, Prince Gong (or Prince Kung), was one of the most important Chinese statesman of the 19th century. As the sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850), he was at one time considered as a possible successor to the throne, although his half-brother eventually inherited the title of Emperor. He negotiated with the foreign powers to conclude the Second Opium War in 1860, and after the death of his brother in 1861, served as Prince-Regent to his young nephew, the Tongzhi Emperor (r. 1861-1875), and for many years was one of the most influential figures at the Qing court.
Prince Gong continued to serve as chief diplomat and statesman throughout the reigns of the Tongzhi Emperor and his successor, the Guangxu Emperor (r. 1875-1908). Upon his death in 1898, the title of Prince Gong and his sumptuous mansion passed to his successor, Pu Wei. A year after the Qing Empire was overthrown in 1911, Pu Wei made the painful decision to sell the family treasures in the mansion in order to reverse the defeat of the Qing dynasty, and entrusted them to the Japanese antique dealer, Yamanaka Sadajiro. Although no furniture is listed in the Yamanaka catalogue, it is likely the furniture of the house was sold around this time, as the mansion, now in a dilapidated and abandoned statem, was eventually sold to the Order of Saint Benedict of the Catholic Church in 1921.
THE FURNITURE OF THE GONG WANG FU
Around 1983, the National Palace Museum in Taipei was approached by Dong Wu University in Taiwan to facilitate the sale of a collection of zitan furniture. The university had been gifted the collection by an anonymous donor, who claimed the furniture had come from the Gong Wang Fu, purchased by his family in the early 20th century and transported in the intervening years from Beijing, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and finally to Taiwan. Scholars associated with the National Palace Museum conducted extensive research prior to the sale, and based on the quality and abundance of the luxury hardwood, zitan, the carving technique, and the style of the furniture itself, determined it was highly likely the furniture had come from the Gong Wang Fu. The collection is on permanent exhibition at the National Palace Museum in Taipei and catalogued as coming from Prince Gong’s Mansion.
Although not part of the museum’s acquisition, the present desk is almost certainly from the same suite of furniture. The extensive use of zitan throughout the entirety of the desk would have been unthinkable unless made for the emperor or his family members. More pointedly, the deep carving on the panels with the wuzhu yunlong (five-clawed dragons amidst clouds) design paired with the simple and elegant lobed ruyi motif on the spandrels is remarkably similar to the design found on the cabinets, throne, and chairs in the National Palace Museum suite (figs. 5 and 6). The openwork cloud-form aprons around the apertures of the desk, furthermore, are an unusual feature for Chinese furniture, yet are also found in the cabinets of the National Palace Museum collection.
A very similar zitan and huali desk, dated to the 19th century, was included in the Exhibition of Art Treasures from Shanghai and Hong Kong, The University of Hong Kong, 11 September 1996 - 25 January 1997, and was illustrated in the catalogue, p. 144, no. 80. For another example of a zitan pedestal desk, although not of partner's-desk configuration, dated to the Qianlong period, see Tian Jiaqing, Prosperous Age, Elegant Collection, Beijing, 2008, pp. 93-4. See, also, a related zitan-veneered partner’s desk sold at Christie’s New York, 19 March 2009, lot 644.
Please note this lot falls under CITES Appendix II under new US legislation and requires an export license to be shipped internationally.
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
IMPERIAL WORKSHOPS, LATE 18TH-EARLY 19TH CENTURY
Gong Wang Fu (Prince Gong's Mansion), Beijing, by repute.
Private collection, Taiwan.
Art of Chen, Taipei, 2000.