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.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Chinese Silver Vinaigrettes

A typical Chinese vinaigrette, enlarged to show detail.

Chinese artists often achieved delightful effects when working in miniature. One of my favorite collections of Chinese objects is the charming tiny vinaigrettes made of delicate filigree. These small openwork containers, filled with perfumed inserts, were meant to hang on the clothes when walking, rendering surrounding odors less offensive. Sizes vary, but a typical rectangular one will be about 1.5 inches long.

It is difficult to know what name to call these—vinaigrette, pomander, sachet, or censer. Censers are for burning incense, and typically of a larger size. Sachets are usually made of cloth, and in fact their Chinese equivalent is very common. Pomander perhaps is the closest, but the name can refer to the perfume itself, and often pomanders are spherical or larger than personal size.

I prefer the term vinaigrette because these most closely resemble the Western silver vinaigrettes which were used for a similar purpose. These usually contained ammonia salts and possibly aromatic vinegars in addition to perfume, so they were kept closed and only used as needed to revive the wearer in days when fainting spells as well as horrid odors were common. The Chinese version contained only perfume and they were made of an openwork material so the perfume could diffuse itself around the person, or could be lifted for more concentrated inhaling.

This very nice 1827 example of an English vinaigrette by John Betteridge of Birmingham, from Gilai Collectibles shows the object from several angles.

Here is another typical English vinaigrette from 1844-5 by William and Edward Turnpenny, also of Birmingham, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In general, Chinese silver vinaigrettes are made in two halves, which somehow hinge or fit together in order to contain the perfumed material, ordinarily a small pad made of cloth which can be charged with perfume or fragrant oil, whose scent can escape through the fine piercings. Some are made as a complete box, which can be opened at the top or by a sliding panel at the side. Since these sliding panels weren’t anchored to the main body, often they are missing today.

This is the reverse side of the vinaigrette at the top of the post.
A rare survival of the original fragrance packet, which can be seen through the filigree as a red object.
A more elaborate round example with blue enameling and five bats surrounding a longevity symbol. You can see where more ornaments were once attached.

A rather plain example, except that the filigree is exceptionally well planned.

Most of the decoration on Chinese vinaigrettes falls into two categories—either floral/natural scenes, or vignettes from Chinese history and mythology. Either of these patterns allows for a lot of detail in the decoration, as well as small recessed spaces that can be punched or cut out for the filigree.

A naturalistic pattern with a deer among foliage.

A rather crude example, with poorly cut filigree and minimal repousse, although a nicely composed design.

Usually I am unclear which story is being represented, but this is definitely the Legend of the White Snake, shown here in the Leifeng Pagoda.

A nicely composed scene with three bearded gods.

A pattern reminiscent of Art Nouveau, with flowers and an insect.

Reverse of the above, with slightly surreal round flowers—possibly chrysanthemums or roses?

Virtually all Chinese vinaigrettes were meant to hang from the clothing. Usually the top and bottom panels were pierced to allow attachment of chains or cords so they could be hung from the belt with an array of other lucky charms and useful objects such as needle cases or seal holders.

However, many of the silver ones were used as the centerpieces for chatelaines, which were small assortments of useful objects bound together into one piece of jewelry, kind of like an early concept of the Swiss Army knife. Western chatelaines contained keys, pencils, notebooks, pin-cushions, watches, magnifying glasses, and so forth and were used by women and pinned on the chest or waist like a brooch. Chinese chatelaines, on the other hand, contained personal implements like tweezers, ear-picks, tongue scrapers, nail cleaners, etc. and were likely suspended from the belt like the other hanging charms.

It is difficult to photograph chatelaines, showing both the long chain sections and the delicate workmanship of the implements and ornaments. This simple example has three tools--an ear pick, tweezers, and a nail pick.

This shows more detail of how a vinaigrette was used as the center of a chatelaine, with suspension chain above and three tools hanging below.

This more elaborate chatelaine has a spreader piece below the vinaigrette, and five tools: nail pick, knife, tongue scraper, tweezers. and ear pick.
A vase of flowers form the central motif here, and the bell shows how ornaments other than tools could be attached to a chatelaine.

Chinese vinaigrettes come in a large variety of shapes. My favorites are the rectangular ones, but they can be found in circular, cylindrical, spherical, octagonal, cartouche, and irregular shapes, among many others. They are also sometimes made as articulated fish or insects, with moving parts, but those I have seen of this type always seemed to be of recent manufacture. The round ones were particularly well suited to be used in chatelaines, and in slightly larger sizes could be made into hatpins or other jewelry.
An unusual key-hole shaped example, heavy for its size.

An octagonal silver vinaigrette.

Reverse of the above.

These round vinaigrettes are typically smaller, about one inch in diameter, and the attachment loops for chains, tools, or other ornaments are visible.

I had made a display of these silver vinaigrettes in my apartment, but Taipei’s polluted and corrosive are tarnished them a difficult-to-remove black, so I had to put them away. There are many small collectibles here, but vinaigrettes particularly appeal to me, which is ironic since I cannot tolerate (and am perhaps allergic to) perfume. There is so much variety that it is difficult to pick just one, but let me know if you have a favorite example or type.

Note: All of the Chinese vinaigrettes shown (except for the English examples) are in the collection of the author, as are the above photos.