Pair of Chinese Export Polychrome-Decorated Clay Nodding Head Figures
Late 18th/early 19th century
Depicting a man and woman on rockwork seats, each with detachable clay head counterweighted with lead to nod, the man with natural facial hair and dressed in a light green robe with floral medallions and holding a red scarf in his left hand, the front of the plinth with inked inscription on a paper label Fenbenchin and paper label with inked number 48 on his back, the female figure with aubergine robe decorated with floral sprays and holding a blue scarf in her right hand, the front of the plinth with partial paper and and with indistinctly inked inscription: Tshib .oob and paper label with inked number 47 on her back, each on a painted wood plinth. Height 21 inches (53.3 cm), width 13 3/4 inches (34.9 cm), depth 9 1/4 inches (23.5 cm).
Piasa, Paris, January 1999
Jeremy Ltd., London
Nodding head figures existed in England at least as early as 1764, when Johann Zoffany painted the portrait of Queen Charlotte in her Dressing Room, with two standing figures is depicted in the background; see C. Saumarez Smith, Eighteenth Century Decoration, New York, 1993, p. 255, fig. 246. They are first recorded in a Western collection in 1777, when a group bought at auction by the Danish Asiatisk Kompagni subsequently entered the Danish Royal Collections. For a discussion of these figures see B. Dam-Mikkelsen and Torben Lundbaek, Ethnographic Objects in the Royal Danish Kunstkammer 1650-1800, Nationalmuseet, 1980, pp. 173-179. The largest collection is at the Drottningholm Palace in Stockholm, called 'China dolls'; see David Howard, A Tale of Three Cities Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 146-148. The figures show the enormous curiosity and interest that Europeans had for China, providing authentic representations of different segments of society and occupations.
A pair of related figures is in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, illustrated by Carl Crossman, The Decorative Arts of The China Trade, 1991, p. 316, color plate 112. Their faces are more stylized than those of the present lot, which are full of character and expression. The plinths of the pair at the Peabody Essex also bear numbers, as do the present pair (on the backs of each figure), which probably corresponded to a description of the figures on a key. Crossman, ibid., p. 320, color plate 113, illustrates two figures with numbers to the plinths, one of the figures with paper label: 'CHINESE LABOURER', and inked inscription below.
Cf. an almost identical pair of figures, with different heads and differently painted robes and without the rockwork seats at the sides, Ronald Phillips, Handbook, London, 2014, pp. 54-57, no. 17.
C The Noel and Harriette Levine Collection
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