The Marsh Collection: Brushpots from the world of the Chinese literati

Ceramics became sought-after collectables within the Chinese literati circles of the 17th century, used as decorative pieces in living quarters or adorning a scholar’s desk. Through these artworks and objects, we are offered a rare glance into the refined tastes of ancient Chinese intellectuals.  

During this season’s Asian Art Week in London, Bonhams will present the The Marsh Collection: Art for the Literati – an exceptional collection of over 80 pieces of brushpots and other vessels and paraphernalia made for the scholar’s desk from the late Ming to the Qing dynasty. Many of these were once in the hands of renowned antique dealers such as J.J. Lally and Marchant & Son.

A live auction will be held at New Bond Street, London on 3 November, and an online-only sale will begin on 28 October and end on 7 November. All lots offered in the online-only sale will be sold without reserve.

Both dentists by profession, Mr. and Mrs. Marsh did not start their collecting journey until they moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s. By coincidence, they met the collector-dealer Adrian Joseph who led to their initial purchases and a lifelong passion for oriental works of art.

When gathering their pieces, Mr. and Mrs. Marsh are always eager to learn and would absorb knowledge from experienced collectors in the field, including Sir Michael Butler and John & Julia Curtis. Over the years, they have built an extraordinary collection with a focus on 17th century works of art for the literati.

Fascinated by Chinese brushpots, they delved deep into studying this subject and have assembled some very fine and rare pieces. Their famille rose brushpot from the Qianlong period, for instance, was the 2016 catalogue cover for the Oriental Ceramic Society London, of which they are members.

In recent years, they published their first book, Brushpots: A Collector's View. With detailed descriptions and extensive photographs, this publication shows the wide variety and range of designs, providing readers a glimpse into the richness of the Chinese scholar’s world. Now with the Marsh Collection sale at Bonhams, collectors have a chance to acquire some of these exquisite pieces.

Lot 13 | An exceptionally rare blue and white '384 Shou' brushpot, bitong
Kangxi six-character mark and of the period
Diameter: 17 cm

  • J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art, New York, 10 December 1990

Estimate: £80,000 - £120,000

The pursuit of longevity played an usually prominent role in ancient China. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, decorative techniques in ceramics reached new heights and painted porcelains depicting long life became increasingly popular – amongst which perhaps the most highly-prized is the famous blue-and-white wanshou zun, translated as ten-thousand longevity vase, from the Kangxi period (1662 – 1722).

From as early as the Song dynasty (960–1279), the birthday of an emperor was known as Wanshou jie, Festival of Ten Thousand Longevities. During the Qing dynasty, this celebration became one of the most important annual festivals of the imperial court and was lavishly celebrated.

Presented as a birthday tribute from the imperial kiln to the Kangxi Emperor, this magnificent vaase is inscribed with precisely 10,000 different shou characters and symbolizes longevity. These characters are designed in a wide variety of calligraphic styles – some archaic, some eccentric, and some are combinations of characters and pictograms – all of which serve to convey the message of ‘countless years of long life without limit’.

Scholars speculated that at least nine such vases were made, since by tradition birthday gifts to the emperor should be presented in groups of nine or multiple of nine. Only two of these have recently been auctioned; one went for HK$74.6 million in 2018 and another for HK$64.5 million in 2013 to Chinese billionaire collector Liu Yiqian, who later donated it to the Long Museum in Shanghai.

The collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing | Wanshou vase, Kangxi period (1662 – 1722)

Details of the present lot

During the Qing dynasty, when the character shou was adopted as a motif on ceramics, it was often complemented by other iconographies – except for the ten-thousand longevity vessels, which are entirely shou characters and stand out in stylistic sophistication.

Within the Marshes’ collection sits a brushpot version of the ten-thousand longevity vase. With straight and uninterrupted sides, the brushpot provided a great canvas for artistic expression, but due to its size, it would indeed be impossible to paint literally ten thousand characters on it.

There are 384 shou characters on the current brushpot's exterior, all neatly and rigorously arranged in 32 continuous rows, each with 12 distinctive characters in various forms of seal script – including unusual variants in ‘tadpole’ script and ‘birds and worms’ script. 

Lot 20 | A very rare wucai brushpot, bitong
Diameter: 19 cm

  • John R. Berwald Oriental Ceramics & Works of Art, London, 20 June 1993

Estimate: £30,000 - 50,000

Wucai, translated as five colours, is a porcelain enamelling technique that combines underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze polychrome decoration.

The late Ming and early Qing periods were a complex time of change and social unrest, where potters of Jingdezhen  –  China’s ‘porcelain city’ in the Jiangxi Provence – were liberated from imperial influence. The restrictions imposed on kilns by the government loosened, which gave artisans more freedom to experiment with new, creative decorations and different colour palettes – this was when wucai technique matured and earned a reputation for its vibrant colours, intricate paintings and rich variety.

The production of ceramics shifted to appeal to the literati class, and decorations on the subject of imperial civil service examination became particularly popular.

One can see on the present brushpot example a man wearing an official hat and academic robes carrying a tablet in his right hand. Behind him are two attendants with large fans, indicating his status as a scholar’s official. His left-hand points upwards to the sun, which is a blessing suggesting a rise in prosperity.

In imperial China, if a young male were to enter the bureaucracy and rise from rags to the noble class of the scholar-officials, his only way was to succeed in examinations held by the imperial court.  These consisted in a series of local and central exams, with the latter held at the imperial palace. Notoriously known as one of the most selective systems, only about 1% of candidates actually passed. 

Becoming an official, however, did not guarantee a prosperous career. Across Chinese history, many of the greatest poets lamented their meagre career, and such frustration became a prominent theme in Chinese literature. 

Lot 2 | A rare and large 'ladies and boys' wucai dish
Yu tang jia qi mark, Shunzhi
Diameter: 33 cm

  • S. Marchant & Son, London, 27 September 2005

Estimate: £20,000 - 30,000

The present dish from the Shunzi period (1638 - 1661) of the Qing dynasty is another example of wucai ware with multiple allusions to academic success. The lady in the image is seen picking a cassia flower in front of a child, and 'plucking the cassia' was a euphemism for passing the imperial civil service examinations.

The phrase comes from the biography of Xi Shen in the Book of Jin, an official history of the Jin dynasty (266-420). Before sending Xi Shen to serve as the provincial governor, the Emperor questioned him about his qualifications for the positions. 'I, your servant, esteem virtue and am good at strategies in running a state, [I am] first under heaven, like a branch from the forest of cassia, or jade from Kunlun', Xi Shen replied. 

The dish's inscription, reading tanhua or 'The Flower Snatching Gentleman', further supports the link between picking flowers and examination success. Those who get through the metropolitan examinations would be recommended to take the final palace examination – the highest level of test set by the emperor himself. 

After completing this academic obstacle course, candidates could finally enjoy their moments of glory, with their names displayed on a scroll outside the examination hall. The honorary title of tanhua would be bestowed on the third highest ranking graduate, while the first and second highest scoring candidates were referred to as zhuangyuan, top thesis author, and bangyan, eyes positioned alongside, respectively. These are the phrases still in use in Chinese society today.

Here, in the painting, the child reaching out for the flower held by the woman is literally a 'flower snatcher' or tanhua, embodying the hopes of later examination success.

Lot 3 | A rare blue and white documentary 'kui xing' vessel
Dated to the Jiawu year, corresponding to 1654 and of the period
Diameter: 22.1 cm

  • Berwald Oriental Art, London, 4 November 2014

Estimate: £20,000 - 30,000

With the scholar exams of the imperial court a fiercely competitive endeavour that required both hard work and good fortune, many candidates would worship Kui Xing, or Chief Star, a Daoist deity believed on the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunisolar calendar.

According to Chinese astrology and folk belief, Kui Xing is the chief star of the Big Dipper, as his name implies –  which may explain why the current lot is painted with only six stars in the sky.

For hundreds of years, the image of Kui Xing has remained the same: his left hand holds a writing brush, symbolizing his ability to distribute literary degrees; his right foot stands above the sea, which actually hid a mythical monster called an ao underwater, representing coming first in examinations; and his left leg raised behind, often painted with a ladle nearby.

When we look at the Chinese character for Kui (魁), we can see why this deity is rendered in such an unusual gesture. Kui (魁) is composed of the ideographs for ‘demon’ (鬼) and ‘ladle’(斗). His upturned foot and raised leg mimics of the lower right stroke of 鬼 and he was kicking a ladle, which is depicted on the present lot in the form of a square vessel floating above the waves.

As such, Kui Xing is the demon himself, and was therefore frequently portrayed as a hideous dwarf with a horn-like protuberance on his head.

Legend has it that Kui Xing was once a mortal scholar who passed his examinations with flying colours but was denied the usual honours because of his ugly features. Out of devastation, he threw himself into a river, where he was saved by an ao fish. He then ascended to the Big Dipper, the stellar patron of the literati and the God of Literature.

What adds to the vessel is the calligraphic inscription of a poem, which may be translated as:

The image of the polestar
and the essence of the Moon
Concentrate what's special, nurture what's refined
and advance the brilliance of literary culture
Written on a Spring day in the Jiawu year (1654) before flowers and undoing fur.

The last line, 'before flowers and undoing fur', captures the transition from winter to spring, when one sheds warmer clothes for lighter ones. It alludes to Ruan Fu, a Jin dynasty official who is said to have traded his expensive furs for cheap wine. Officials impeached him, but the emperor pardoned him. The phrase ‘exchanging gold and fur for wine’ became a metaphor for unfettered pleasure and individuality, both of which late Ming literati admired.

Lot 8 | A very rare ru-type vase
Yongzheng seal mark and of the period
Height: 12.8 cm

  • Sotheby's London, 8 June 1993, lot 109

Estimate: £20,000 - 30,000

Ru ware from the Song dynasty (960-1127) – the holy grail in the Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art collecting circles – are a crowning glory in any collection and yet nearly unattainable. Renowned for its glowing jade-like blue-green glaze and impeccably-proportioned shape, its beauty has won the hearts of many – including the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735). 

A lover of the arts from a young age, the Yongzheng Emperor supported the imperial kilns with great resources, and consequently ceramics production peaked during his reign. His porcelains are highly acclaimed for their delicacy and timeless elegance. 

While celadon glaze had already been developed in the preceding reign, it was during Yongzheng period that the production of glazes imitating Ru wares expanded. According to an archive in 1732, two different types of ru-type glazes were produced: one unfreckled and another with fish-roe crackle. The present lot, covered with smooth and subtle bluish glaze, belongs to the uncrackled group. 

Longquan celadon mallet-shaped ‘kinuta’ vase with 'twin fish' handle, Southern Song Dynasty

Kuboso Memorial Museum of Arts | Celadon flower vase with Fenghuang ears (handle), Southern Song Dynasty

Exquisite glaze aside, the form of the present vase also reflects the Emperor's antique-inspired aesthetics. Its neck is flanked by a pair of makara dragon-fish handles, which recalls the 'twin fish' vases produced from Longquan qiln in the Song dynasty (960-1279).

One of the six famous kiln clusters of the period, Longquan wares make a name for themselves with their high-quality soft green celadon glaze. They served not only as tributes to the royal court, but also the pillar of overseas trade, where they were exported to Japan, Philippines, Malaysia and farther away to Europe.

The vase with dragon-fish handles is among its most admired pieces, listed by Japan as National Treasure and Important Cultural Properties. In Hindu mythology, the dragon-fish is a legendary sea-creature, known as Makara and is equivalent to the Zodiac sign Capricorn. Though its form may vary, it s generally depicted as half terrestrial in the front part and half aquatic in the hind part. Considered as guardian of gateways and thresholds, it is often seen on the decoration of throne rooms and entryways to temples. 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Bonhams London
Sale: The Marsh Collection: Art for the Literati
Live Auction: 3 November 2022, 10:00 GMT
Address: New Bond Street, London
Online Auction: 28 October - 8 November 2022

  • 29 October 2022, 11:00 - 17:00 BST
  • 30 October 2022, 11:00 - 17:00 GMT
  • 31 October 2022, 09:00 - 19:00 GMT
  • 1 November 2022, 09:00 - 16:30 GMT
  • 2 November 2022, 09:00 - 16:30 GMT

Olivia Xu | | +44 2039886371