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Month cups

Set of twelve ducai 'month' cups, Kangxi mark and of the period

Set of twelve wucai 'month' cups, Kangxi mark and of the period. Painted on one side with a different flower motif in the wucai palette in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels, the flowers representing the twelve months, the reverse inscribed with a different poem relating to the flower on the front, followed by a seal reading shang ('to appreciate'), inscribed on the base with a six-character mark within a double ring. Provenance, The Meiyintang Collection, Sold at Sotheby's the 4 April, 2012, Hong Kong.

Month cups depicting seasonal flowers accompanied by pertinent two-line poems, represent a classic design of the Kangxi period. Very delicately potted, they are painted in the wucai palette of underglaze blue and overglaze enamels, which was devised in the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644), but rarely used in the Qing (AD 1644-1911), when the underglaze colour was generally omitted.

Month cups completely decorated in underglaze blue also exists.

On the set above the designs are generally sketched on the unglazed porcelain in a faint underglaze blue. Slight differences in size, colours, writing styles and marks between individual cups occurs and in fact no completely uniform set appears to exist. Of some of the months, many examples have survived, while others are scarce.

The flowers represent the twelve months and on the reverse a different poem is written, relating to the flower on the front, followed by a seal reading shang (to appreciate). On the base is a six-character Da Qing Kangxi nian zhi mark within a double ring.

The first month is represented by two winter sweet trees whose massive gnarled trunks bear delicate, faint yellow blossoms, while the palest green envelops the branches, and two red stems of lingzhi are growing among low-growing shrubs below. The poem reads:

The golden blossoms and verdant calyxes bear the chill of spring.
How many shades of yellow can be found among these flowers?

The second month depicts a red-flowering crab apple tree with few leaves and a rock and some smaller blue plants beneath. The poem reads:

The fragrance blends with the flavor of evening rain.
The beautiful color stands out in clear weather like in mist.

The third month shows a red-flowering peach tree with small blossoms among scant leaves, and further blossoms strewn on the ground among grasses. The poem reads:

When the blossoms sway in the breeze, the swallow returns.
This is the time late in spring, when the farmer goes back to his fields.

The fourth month cup is painted with a cluster of peonies with four red blooms and one yellow, growing behind pierced blue garden rocks. The scene is accompanied by the poem:

At dawn its beauty receives dew from a golden palm.
In the evening the fragrance penetrates deep into the Jade Hall.

The fifth month shows a pomegranate tree bearing red blossoms and red-and green fruit, overhanging some lilies and a small aubergine-colored flower. The poem reads:

The color unfolds like the sun on pearl curtains.
The breeze bears the fragrance in the shade of the white-washed wall.

The sixth month shows a pair of mandarin ducks swimming in a lotus pond with a kingfisher swooping down from on high, the male duck and kingfisher with colorful plumage, the female duck in a pale grayish aubergine, and the lotus flowers and leaves shown in different stages of maturity. The reverse bears the poem:

The roots are like jade gleaming in the mud.
The hearts contain pearls when dew has descended.

The seventh month depicts a bed of densely growing yellowish-green orchids with a cluster of rocks in front and some bare prickly branches between, the leaves well shaded in different tones of green. This is accompanied by the poem:

The delicate fragrance pervades the spacious hall.
Like music from lofty terraces far away.

The eighth month shows a small hare seated in the grass beneath a yellow-flowering cassia (sometimes thought to be osmanthus) tree, and the poem:

The branches are growing for months without end.
Once they are laden with blossoms, autumn has surely arrived.

The ninth month is represented by a chrysanthemum with pale yellow, red and aubergine blooms and a bare prickly branch, with a pierced garden rock and smaller flowers to both sides and a dragonfly and two butterflies hovering above, the accompanying poem reading:

A thousand fills of wine drunk in a plain white robe.
Throughout the whole life fragrant like a young woman.

The tenth month shows a red rose growing on moss-covered ground, one long stem overhanging some low-growing blue berries, and one prickly stem growing straight upright, with a yellow and a green butterfly on either side, and the poem:

Unlike a thousand other species that tire out,
This one alone blazes in red throughout the year.

The eleventh month depicts a prunus tree with a powerful trunk and two gnarled branches bearing white blossoms with yellow stamens and dark red calyxes, with some small shoots rising from the ground, a tall rock behind, a clump of narcissus and another low rock to one side, and a younger flowering tree to the other, and on the reverse the poem:

Simple beauty like a tree frozen with snow.
Branches moving in the wind full of clear fragrance.

The twelfth month shows two clumps of narcissus, the larger one with a blue rock behind and a single red rose emerging from its midst, and the poem:

The spring breeze plays with these gems when daylight arrives.
When the moon traverses at night, it sends ripples up the long dike.

Complete sets of month cups are of course very rare. The Palace Museum, Bejing owns at least two sets, illustrated in Chugoku toji zenshu [Complete works on Chinese ceramics], Kyoto, 1981-86, vol. 21, pl. 61, and in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 65, no. 48 (fig. 1); one set from the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, London, is published in the Illustrated Catalogue of Qing Enamelled Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, rev. ed., London, 1991, no. 815; one is in the Idemitsu Museum of Art, Tokyo, illustrated in Idemitsu Bijutsukan zohin zuroku. Chugoku toji / Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pl. 221; and one in the Hong Kong Museum of Art was included in the exhibition The Wonders of the Potter’s Palette. Qing Ceramics from the Collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1984-5, cat. no. 15. Julian Thompson illustrates another set in The Alan Chuang Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Hong Kong, 2009, cat. no. 40. Similar ensembles also exist painted in underglaze blue only; see twelve blue-and-white month cups illustrated in Tsui Museum of Art. Chinese Ceramics IV: Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 105 B (fig. 2).

A complete set in Kangxi doucai is worth about 2,5 million USD$ in 2012