Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chinese Wooden Vinaigrettes


Chinese wooden vinaigrettes, small filigree containers meant to be worn about the person to disperse perfume, are among the most exquisite of Chinese antiques. If you missed the previous post on silver vinaigrettes, please go there first to read the basics about these miniature works of art.

I apologize in advance for the large number of pictures, but these are among my favorite objects, and even after cutting down I still wanted to show some of the infinite variety in which vinaigrettes can be found.

Most of these are made of boxwood, which is a good fined-grained wood to take intricate carving. The rectangular ones are usually about one and a half inches long, excluding any lions on top. (The very last photo will better show their relative sizes.) Usually the top or bottom will come off to receive the scent packet, or there is a sliding panel on the narrow side. Many of these feature elaborate meander (including “Greek Key”) borders surrounding the central design.


1  This example is made in the less common cylindrical form, but still features the usual mythological scene within keyed borders, and a nicely-carved lion on top. These lions become a common feature on wooden vinaigrettes.

2  Most wooden vinaigrettes are made of light-colored boxwood, but here is one carved from a darker wood.

3  This spectacular example is lacquered a beautiful coral color. The carving is finely detailed, both in the scene and in the furred lion on top.

4  This one is in a tall, narrow form, about 4 inches tall in total. The design is well separated from its filigree background, and the borders are especially elaborate. I also like the beaded and tasseled fringe carved at the bottom.

4b Here is a close-up of the lion cap on the top of the previous vinaigrette.

5  This colorful red and black model features bold carving.

6  This design with its shallower carving recalls the Art Deco era.

7  There is a lot of detail in this small vinaigrette. Notice the zig-zag border on the narrow side, another very common pattern in Chinese art.
8   Although the central carving is a little cursory, this example has well-proportioned key/meander borders.

9  Another detailed example, with a boating scene and unique borders.

10  This piece is solid, and so not a vinaigrette, although it is carved exactly the same way. It may have been used as a good-luck charm on its own, or an element in a more elaborate hanging charm. Note the traces of polychromy in the recessed areas.

11  This is a superbly well-carved and designed vinaigrette. Note that even the narrow side has two figures in it, instead of just geometric or floral designs.

12  The two figures here appear to be kissing, making this my only “erotic” vinaigrette. Too bad about the ink stain on the other side, although I am sure that was a bargaining point when I bought it!

13  Here is a unique heart-shaped design.

14  Here is another tube-shaped example, notable for its overall elaborate carving, showing gods, vegetation, animals and lucky charms within multiple zig-zag and geometrical borders. Even though longer than usual, this is still only about three inches high.

It is also unusual in that instead of filigree, there is just a single hole, marked by the arrow. This vinaigrette was apparently intended to be lifted and held to the nose.

15  This piece has a varnished finish with a nice patina. Notice that the piercings in the narrow side have a Gothic effect to them.

16  Unusual loop-shaped borders, with again a “Gothic” quatrefoil design on the side.

17 and 18   Two figural vinaigrettes in the shape of a double gourd. The star-shaped holes give an almost Persian effect. These also boast Stanhope viewing devices in the stoppers, one of which features a cathedral in France, indicating that these vinaigrettes also had a foreign sale.

19  With its design of dragonflies, this piece has a very Art Nouveau appearance, which is enhanced by the naturalistic and sinuous vine climbing up the side. It also features very delicate keyed borders.

20  I have never seen an entirely plain vinaigrette, although this simple leaf design with basic chip-carved borders comes close.

21  This more substantial example features a different design on all four sides, plus slightly rounded top and bottom pieces, of which the top lifts off to allow access to the interior.

22  In addition to the unusual meander border, the figures in this piece appear to be dancing, a pose I have seen in other statues and carvings. You can also see on the bottom how, when untied, the bottom plug can be removed. Of course, once the inner pad is in place, it could be refreshed by dropping perfume through the filigree—no need to take the vinaigrette apart each time.


We have covered many examples of vinaigrettes in wood and silver, but of course other materials were used, notably ivory, bone, horn, ceramic, gold and gemstones.
 
23  This cylindrical bone vinaigrette is notable for its lack of relief carving, although the round and star-shaped holes still give it an exotic or fancy look.

24  This is the only example of a ceramic vinaigrette that I have come across. Enhanced with red and blue glaze, it also has a side panel that is less subsidiary than most—note the extra filigree holes in the center of the flowers. The man’s face is painted on an inset mother-of-pearl inlay, and the top is closed with a wooden plug.

25  As a reminder, here is a group of silver vinaigrettes displayed together. The drawer size is 7.5 by 4 inches, giving a good idea of their actual size.

26  A similar group of wooden vinaigrettes, including many featured above. You can see their relative sizes, and the different colors and patinas of the wood.


These tiny vinaigrettes were one of the agreeable surprises that turned up when I started collecting Chinese antiques. Do you have a favorite type of miniature collectible? Let me know if you have a favorite among those displayed today (I numbered the photos to make them easier to refer to), and whether in general you prefer the silver or wooden versions.

=======================================================

Note: All of the Chinese vinaigrettes shown are in the collection of the author, as are the photos.



34 comments:

  1. A very impressive collection, which to my eye looks best when all assembled in the groups in the last two photos. Do you display them, (that way, or any other), or are they in drawers? I like the double gourd in 18, and the simplicity of 20.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Columnist, As you know, double gourds are a very common element in Chinese design, so it is no surprise to see the shape turning up in vinaigrettes. In general I like plain things too, but perhaps the eye becomes satiated with so much detail, so when a relatively simple one comes along, it is a relief.

      Right now, none of these are on display. As I explained in the Silver Vinaigrette post, I had an arrangement of those displayed, but the bad air here was tarnishing them badly, so I had to take them down. --Jim

      Delete
  2. Parnassus

    You noted that the design work on top of the filigree is well separated from the background. I love filigree work and have seen it on many types of art objects, but possibly not with free standing designs on top. I suppose it is because the Chinese vinaigrettes are made of boxwood, not from a precious metal.

    After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, silver smiths settled in North Africa and introduced filigree and cloisonné techniques to the craftsmen there. Filigree work became most popular amongst Jewish Yemenites. And it became a very popular decorative technique in the south German silver centres in the 17th century.

    Isn't filigree work stunning?
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/jewish-silver-art-filigree-work.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Hels, Yes, filigree work is something to wonder at. I just looked at your post, showing Jewish filigree work, which shows some beautiful objects. Of course, I am using the term filigree in a more extended sense as finely pierced work, just as I am taking a few liberties with the term vinaigrette.

      I should have mentioned how the different materials make different types of filigree and decoration possible. For example, the lions on top are readily carved out of the wooden block, but would have been awkward to produce on the silver models. Layering also extends itself more readily to wood, but is still a bravura technique. The Chinese love filigree work, but it definitely exists in several grades. --Jim

      Delete
  3. You have a stunning collection!! Pity that they can't be displayed properly but nice to take out and appreciate them and sometimes it is nice knowing they are there waiting for you too. I don't collect so much anymore as I don't have the space as I already have a lot of other things that take room so I now enjoy others' objects.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello CSW, Thank you! In Ohio I had a glass case in which I could display various objects, and change them when the mood came upon me. It was also fun looking through the boxes of put-away items, rediscovering things I had not seen for a while. For now, just knowing the items are there has to suffice, until one day I will be able to display more of them. --Jim

      Delete
  4. Dearest Jim,
    Wow, that is an impressive collection of both silver and wood vinaigrettes.
    Well, to be honest, it is very hard to tell which I prefer most as both techniques turn out loving miniature objects. Their diminutive size adds to the overal charm!
    As for me, I adore your #11 posted here.
    One wonders about the key pattern in some of these, resembling closely the ancient Greek key pattern...
    Too bad that one beauty got badly stained with ink. Wish that could get removed without doing any damage.
    Sending you hugs,
    Mariette

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Mariette, The more I look at #11 the more impressed I am with the technique of that master craftsman. He used the background perforation technique, but then hid as much of the structure as possible by have different foreground elements, such as tree branches, covering the background grid.

      I know there are some chemicals that can neutralize ink, such as oxalic acid, but I would rather go slowly and not risk hurting the piece or over-bleaching it.

      I did write once before about the relation between Greek Key and Chinese meander patterns:
      http://roadtoparnassus.blogspot.tw/2012/09/chinese-meander-or-greek-key-patterns.html

      --Jim

      Delete
    2. Dear Jim,
      Went back to your older post; quite interesting!
      Mariette

      Delete
    3. Hello again, Thank you for taking the time to check the meander post. I answered your comment over there. --Jim

      Delete
  5. Hello Jim,

    I think you've cornered the market on vinaigrettes in all of their glory. How old are the pieces you feature in this post?

    I like number 20 for its simplicity, and 23 just because it is set apart from the others in its decoration. Looks almost Islamic to my eye.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello CD, Ah, the problems in dating Chinese antiques, which are all hand-made and copy earlier styles! Even museums are adopting very wide date ranges for their objects! These in general are all 19th and early 20th century, although a few might be a little older. I have seen a few similar to mine dated Ming (basically, at least 17th century), although I had some doubts. Basically, these are all Ching Dynasty, except for any with obvious Art Deco influence.

      I too like objects from one culture that look like those from another. Like the dating mysteries, it teaches us not to make snap judgments, although some "experts" like to pontificate. --Jim

      Delete
  6. I COULD NEVER PICK JUST ONE!IS THIS YOUR COLLECTION?It is MAGNIFICENT!!!!!!!!
    What an interesting READ!!!!
    Where are you located...........me thinks ENGLAND?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Contessa, Thank you for your generous comments. I am located in Taipei, which has made it easier to gather the kind of Chinese antique that was used in everyday life, not just the usual jades, porcelains, etc. (magnificent though they are!) that are seen in museums and auctions.

      England was a good guess, however, as that is a both a country in which I would like to live for a few years, and one which is still a collector's paradise! --Jim

      Delete
  7. These are simply magnificent! Picture 24 reminds me of Mah Jong tiles. Is this exquisite collection all your own? I did an Internet search to learn more but all I got was recipes for salad dressing....
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Bazza, You are right, these are about the size of mah jong tiles--in fact, one could hollow out a tile to make a vinaigrette. Yes, these are all examples I collected in Taiwan. When I got here, I discovered that there were so many interesting objects that could be collected with a little effort. --Jim

      Delete
  8. Oh, theses are exquisite and perfectly highlights the Chinese art of small/miniature carving techniques. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has some splendid examples of amazing works done from items as small as walnut shells and olive pits. Should you find yourself near Boston, I encourage you to visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (of witch trial fame). It's foundational collection came from successful import/export traders and captains who made Salem one of the wealthiest cities in 18 th c. America. Tell me how do you keep all your treasures dust free?
    Best,
    KL Gaylin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello K.L. Gaylin, I will definitely put the Peabody Essex Museum on my list. I have heard of it many times in other respects, but it makes sense that they would have the Chinese export items on which the local economy was based. I also need to get back to the National Palace Museum--somehow when I am there it is hard to tear myself away from the paintings and porcelains.

      My secret for keeping my items clean is to have most of them unfortunately put away. There is a lot of dust in Taipei, and it is black and oily, nothing like the light, fluffy, and friendly dust we had in Ohio! --Jim

      Delete
  9. Hello Jim, I love the third one - 堆朱. The fine sculptures seem to be famous scenes of classic dramas. 清明時節雨紛紛。天氣不穩定 多保重身體。

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello rtc, Yes, that lacquered one is indeed beautiful, and the color is perfect. It is difficult to photograph, because the eye penetrates the lacquer differently than does the camera lens. Sometimes I try to identify the scenes depicted, but I know little about that subject. When I ask for different opinions I often get different answers, so I prefer to let the carvings stand on their own merits, rather than wait forever to post them. --Jim

      Delete
  10. Hello, Jim —

    You've been holding out on us! I would have been tempted to write about this collection at the very onset of the blog, and now I am beginning to wonder what other fabulous collections you are keeping from us!

    You are right that I would gravitate to the vinaigrettes with the key designs, and I am very smitten with numbers 8 and 11. My favorite, though, might just be number 16, which I like for its cross-cultural design. But they are all lovely.

    I agree with the Columnist that I am so happy you decided to show them grouped in their drawers. I find that seeing the whole collection is an especially rich experience, when we can see the warmth of all the diverse woods together.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Mark, You're right! I have been keeping back a lot of my favorites, but not out of selfishness. It's the photography that is the problem, and for my better pieces, I want the pictures to do them justice.

      It is interesting that you picked out the most and least elaborately carved, although #8 does have a nice keyed border. #16 is an example of an item I just couldn't leave out to make this post shorter, I love its quatrefoil windows so much.

      Collections do look at their best when seen as a group, and for once the photos came out well. We can also compare the size and quality of individual items, which is difficult in the separate photos. --Jim

      Delete
  11. Ni hao! Jim,
    Yes, it's quite rare to see fruits of cherries. The most popular kind is called "somei yoshino". It can be grown only from a cutting. What are you planning to do on Qingming jie?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello rtc, Yes, varieties of fruits can only be propagated by cuttings--planting seeds gets you an entirely new fruit.

      I have no plans for Qingming Jie, but there should be lots of activity around, with many people burning paper money for their ancestors. --Jim

      Delete
  12. Hello Jim, Today the temperature was ov er 20℃ and cherries got hurry to open blossoms. In Taiwan, peonies has opened their fascinating flowers? I love 牛腩麵 very much. Do you? Have a nice weekend.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello rtc, I just looked at my thermometer and was surprised to see it was over 30 degrees--way to warm for the beginning of April! There are some azaleas opening up around here, but I will have to go to the Botanical Garden soon to get the real picture.

      I do like beef noodles when they are good, but I don't eat a lot of meat, and sometimes they put in a spice that I especially dislike, 八角 (star anise), but which they feel goes well with beef. --Jim

      Delete
  13. I sometimes cock Chinese foods using spices. As you said, I feel it's not easy to use star anise effectively. Too much of it might destroy harmonity. The taste of good dishes are rather lightly flavoured. 美好菜就是清淡。Azaleas open in May in Japan. Wow, it's so early.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello rtc, I have picked up a number of culinary hints since I came to Taiwan, but two of the most common flavors here, anise and ginger, I could never get used to. No matter, Taiwan is food central, and I never stop finding new things to try. --Jim

      Delete
    2. I often use ginger for Chinese foods as well as Japanese. Especially in winter, it can warm body and effectively prevent to catch a cold.
      Thanks to your comment, I checked "mound builder" on internet. I didn't know native Americans constructed such big religious mounds.

      Delete
    3. I know that ginger is both healthy and traditional, but somehow I cannot learn to like it.

      Sometimes when driving in Southern Ohio, we have suddenly come across old Indian mounds--one day I would like to make a special trip to examine some of the more special ones. --Jim

      Delete
  14. Hello Jim, here I am strolling around the blogs and seeing what my old friends have been up to. I like this post and learnt quite a lot from it. I think I prefer the wooden vinaigrettes best and like Columnist I was taken with both the double gourd shaped ones (No. 18) and the simplicity of No. 20. I think that I rather fancy wearing a vinaigrette myself although I'm not sure what the rest of the world would think haha!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kirk, Sometimes wooden objects are seen as inexpensive substitutes for silver, but with these vinaigrettes the wood is treated as a precious substance in its own right, and used to maximum effectiveness. Since we have a small collection of objects with Stanhopes, the gourd vinaigrettes make an interesting crossover item.

      I have seem people in modern Taiwan wearing antique vinaigrettes, usually dangling from a purse or bag, so they are not entirely out of style! --Jim

      Delete
  15. Hi Jim, Now bamboo shoots (筍) are in season. Did you already taste it? Today I did.
    Happy days!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello rtc, I love the fresh bamboo shoots, although not the canned ones. Lately we have been getting really good 茭白筍, another kind of sprout. Do you also get those in Japan? --Jim

      Delete

I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: clavicytherium@yahoo.com