Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Ultimate Mystery Objects: Chinese Ornate Bronze Grilles





I have written about many Chinese mystery objects, with the answer revealed in the following post. However, some of my Chinese items are “ultimate” mystery objects—I cannot supply the answer because no one has any idea of what they are.

These may be common objects, and after publishing I will see them everywhere, but the dealers I have bought them from could supply no information, no one else seemed to know, and intensive internet searches turned up nothing. Perhaps the public scrutiny involved in posting them will yield a clue, and the mystery will at length be solved.

Today’s example is a set of three round bronze grilles, each about seven inches (18 centimeters) in diameter. They are of the same basic pattern, but have increasing complexity of ornamentation.


The simplest design, with added boss to give the center some interest.


The first one has the simplest design. There is an outer ring, with four brackets that bend down to support the inner design. This consists of two more concentric rings. The four outer brackets are split into double volutes or spirals, filling part of the open space. The middle ring has four bars soldered to it in a cross pattern, which support the inner ring. A large, ribbed boss is at the very center.


Additional volutes in the center start to fill in the design.


The second grille starts out like the first. However, the four struts that support the inner circle do not meet in the center, but like the outer struts are split into double volutes. Since these eight spirals occupy the smaller inner spaces, they immediately give a much more ornate and dense effect.

On top of what is left of the inner supports there is attached a cross-like structure with banded ends that is split in the middle to form a hollow square space (detail enlarged in top photo). With the inner circle, the whole effect is of a large coin pattern, similar to those on the pewter offering stand. The round cash coin with a square hole in the center is a very auspicious Chinese design.


The most elaborate design, with added bats.


The final grille is the most elaborate. It is built like the second one, but this time on the flat part of the supports emanating from the middle circle are riveted four bronze bats. These bats are well made, of an openwork design with soldered-on three-dimensional bodies and finely engraved wings. Bats, of course, are another Chinese lucky symbol.

The center coin design is altered slightly. The square hole is larger, and there is no banding on the crosspieces that create the hole. The effect is simpler and more open, perhaps intentionally to avoid a too-crowded look with the addition of the bats.


Detail of the workmanship on the bat appliques.

Their open pattern suggests grilles of some kind, for ventilation, heat, or incense, but I have not seen similar grilles in situ. The lucky symbols incorporated are very common to many Chinese objects, and would not indicate any particular purpose. The supports split into spirals are often seen in Chinese metalwork, but I imagine this technique is found in most societies. 

These three grilles somewhat resemble trivets, but the step-down in each one suggests that they were designed to fit into openings. The fact that there are no mounting holes for nails indicates that they likely were set into a flat surface, instead of being mounted vertically into walls. Various stoves, large incense burners, and furnaces for burning spirit money might have had such flat vents built into them. Some incense and money burners are very large, often built of masonry.

However, the boss on the simple design indicates that nothing (such as a kettle) was meant to be placed on these, and the bronze is too thin to support the heat from a stove or furnace, although if not too near the flames, these uses are still possible.

My best guess is that these were meant for a large temple-size incense burner, although that still leaves the mystery of the three designs. They could have been meant for different types of incense (or denominations of spirit money), or they could have been arranged in a way that made visual sense.

I have three of these, but of course the original number could have been much greater—they could even have encircled a building or large object with rows of increasingly complex designs. Conversely, these could have been sample products, to allow the consumer to choose the most pleasing design.

I imagine that these would look good mounted against a white wall, to highlight the designs. If you have seen similar objects before, or can guess a more probable use for them, please let me know in the comments. Also let me know which one is your favorite: the simple model, the intermediate design with the extra volutes, or the most complex design with the bats.
 

All photographs and original objects property of the author.







23 comments:

  1. Each design is lovely in its own way. I was going to suggest trivets or incense burner covers but I see you theorized those possibilities already! Odd that no one knows exactly what they were for.

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    1. Hello Debra, There are specialty kitchen or carpenters' tools whose use could have been forgotten, but these are obviously meant to be seen, so it is odd that I could locate no others. Incense burner makes sense, but they would be huge for home burners, and temple versions are usually like large cauldrons filled with sand so the joss sticks can be stood upright. --Jim

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  2. Hello Jim - my first thought was that they could have been some kind of ventilation grill in a cupboard but then you mention that they have no mounting holes for nails.
    I like your suggestion of mounting them together on a white wall in order to highlight the different designs.
    I presume that you bought them in Taiwan and it seems quite surprising that the dealers have no idea what they are for either.

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    1. Hello Rosemary, Ventilation grille makes a lot of sense, but I have not seen ones made out of bronze--which of course doens't mean that they cannot exist. Dealers have to handle many different types of items, and outside certain experts in a narrow field, often know little about their stocks. Even when they tell me what something is, I try to corroborate with research and other examples. --Jim

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  3. The Vintage Contessa wrote by email:

    I wrote a comment but I think a GREMLIN ATE IT!
    Could they be plates from the road to drains or such……….?
    My SON brought a similar item home from ITALY but SQUARE which were found in the streets.
    MAYBE lean them up against the kitchen counter wall so you can look at them as ART?
    Take one to MARKET one day and find an older person and ask them!!NOW I NEED TO KNOW!
    I like your idea of an INCENSE BURNER!
    I like the FIRST PHOTO BEST!

    GOOD BUY!
    BEAUTIFULLY MADE!
    BATS GOOD LUCK……………I keep learning with YOU!

    XX

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    1. Hello Contessa, I love old street gratings, sometimes call opercula, which are usually made of heavy cast iron. These are too thin to take any substantial pressure or heat, and the first one has that pointy boss sticking up in the center!

      I have just about given up asking older people about these things. I have never gotten one positive identification that way. Or you ask three people and get three different answers!

      As for putting them up, Taiwan kitchens are not places for art or for people congregating. I just had my living room repainted, and am considering what if anything I want to put up. The problem is that noisy wall lizards like to hide behind hung objects! --Jim

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  4. Trivets usually had little feet underneath to stand up off the surface.

    I know you said your objects have no mounting holes for nails, but a fine, small nail would be in the wall. That way, the objects could decorate the wall, hanging on top of the nail.

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    1. Hello Hels, You are right about trivets--I was just brainstorming. It's funny, the Chinese must have had trivets for holding pots and irons, but I do not recall seeing old ones, which are so common in America, and probably all Western countries.

      Your suggestion is a good one for mounting the grilles vertically, so the wall itself could show through the pattern. For an original vertical installation, something would have had to hold them in place, and I don't think that putty or mortar would have held them for very long. Most architectural window grilles that I have seen are substantially made of wood, iron, ceramic tile or stone. --Jim

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  5. Dearest Jim,
    Those are really puzzle pieces... They look like antique palace rosettes but how and what function specifically remains a riddle.
    My favorite one is that with the intricately done bats!
    The one with the center decoration even adds more to their mystery use.
    Hoping that you will find out one day!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, That is the way I like antiques--beautiful but mysterious. Even beyond the mystery of what they are is why there are three different designs. I vacillate in deciding my own favorite--sometimes I go for simplicity, but sometimes I like the intricacy of the extra scroll-work. That's one advantage of buying in quantity--you don't have to decide! --Jim

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  6. To me, who knows nothing of the subject, the say 'cooking'! I am imagining them as some kind of ornate grill or oven hob although they are rather too nice for that. Is it known what kind of age they have? You mentioned soldering but I think that goes back a LONG time.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s deliberately devastating Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

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    1. Hello Bazza, The problem with these as cooking devices is that, while not flimsy, they are not heavy enough to take real use or heat. Also, the boss on the simple one indicates that nothing was meant to sit on top.

      When I mentioned soldering, I meant that in the general sense of metal pieces joined together. The bats were plainly riveted on, but the rest of the grills are made of a number of bronze pieces brazed somehow together. The open design and general workmanship make it almost certain that they were involved in ventilation of some sort, but exactly how is a continuing mystery! --Jim

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  7. Hello Jim, your comment on my blog did make it through. Thanks for stopping by. Actually you are the first to tell me about the oboe maker. My friends came up with Loree many years ago when we were all young :) It seems to have stuck - at least when I meet up with them.
    These grilles remind me of trivets but I have no idea what they could be. The second one is my favourite but I think all three would look beautiful mounted on a wall.

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    1. Hello Loree, Yes, Loree oboes are wonderful. I have several of them, but am still looking for that perfect vintage one, from the years when they were thinner and lighter, and Francois Loree himself was at the helm!

      The grilles really do look like trivets, but as I explained they are constructed differently. The only problem with mounting them on a wall would be how to arrange them, and what the order of complexity should be--for example, where would the most complicated one go? --Jim

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  8. Your recent comment alerted me to new posts here, Jim. My thought was incense burners too - maybe something to do with fortunes - I suppose there would not be a great deal of heat but a lot of smoke... could the patterns have affected the way the smoke came out? Or perhaps you would pay more to put your incense into a more elaborate burner? It's fun speculating anyhow.

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    1. Hello Jenny, Those are all good observations. I have been looking at some incense burners, but either they are the type with sand for incense sticks, or the lids are made from single pieces of metal which are then cut or pierced. Of course, with a burner large enough to take these grilles, one would have to be careful that the incense was allowed to smoulder, not just get incinerated.

      Perhaps exploring very old temples might yield some evidence, but many of the old ones are constantly rebuilt, at least in Taipei, so original furnishings may have vanished. --Jim

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  9. they are lovely regardless.

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    1. Hello Ur-Spo, I agree with you. In fact, that is why I buy mystery objects even though I have no idea what they are--they are beautiful, interesting, researchable, and provide an unusual look at another time or culture. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to craft these grilles, so they must have been important at one time --Jim

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  10. You have collected so many mysterious ornaments I have not seen before. Do you think these grilles were made in Minguo time or Qing, or earlier?
    Can you find out black tar remained on the back side?

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    1. Hello rtc, I don't think there was any tar, mortar or adhesive, or any sort of mounting holes or attachments underneath--unfortunately, I had to put away many things when my apartment was repaired.

      The age is a little hard to guess, because these objects are entirely hand-made, and I don't even know if they were meant for indoor or outdoor use, but I agree with you that late Qing or early Minguo is seems reasonable. --Jim

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  11. I'm stumped! However, I get a sense that the objects were somehow meant to be used for some act of domesticity, such as protecting a surface from a hot tea pot, for example. I like the complex design best.

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    1. Hello Liberty Belle, I agree with you that the ornate aspect of these grilles makes them seem that they should be observed up close, as in a domestic situation. We do have to be careful, because the interesting thing about these is that as soon as we think of a use, some design feature can disqualify it. That high point in the center of the simple design quashes so many otherwise reasonable theories! --Jim

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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