The Yuanmingyuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness, known in the West as the Old Summer Palace, was the main residence of the Chinese imperial family and Court in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was five times the size of the Forbidden City in the centre of Beijing, extending to 350 hectares (860 acres) and was composed of many separate buildings. As a residence it was greatly preferred in comparison to the cramped conditions of the Forbidden City and the various buildings were filled with countless exquisite works of art and furnishings.
It was customary in China that the silk furnishing fabrics for the emperor’s palaces, the state rooms and private apartments, should be of ‘bright yellow’ silk and indeed the same colour was used for costumes worn by the emperor, the dowager empress, the empress and first rank imperial concubine on formal occasions.
This particular shade of yellow was created from the flowers of the Pagoda tree and since the colour was reserved for the Imperial family alone it has become associated in China with all things imperial for over 1,000 years. The colour was chosen because the emperor represented the day time sun on earth and it was he who offered the main annual sacrifices to Heaven, Earth, the Moon and the Sun on behalf of the people. At night time he represented the Celestial Pole Star.
The symbol of the emperor was the dragon, an ancient association, relating to the dragon as ‘rain bringer’ and, more probably, because the ancient Middle Eastern constellation of Draco, the dragon, encircled then and now the point known as the Pole of the Ecliptic – in other words the centre point of the northern celestial heavens in relation to the path of the sun (the Ecliptic).
The ‘five-clawed’ dragon was the most superior of all dragons and the Palace furnishings were universally decorated with an uneven number of five-clawed dragons, since uneven numbers represented the yang, or male, principle, while even numbers represented the yin or female principle.
In their role as rain makers dragons invariably moved amongst clouds and above the waters which surround the earth. In the 18th century clouds were woven in the Five Colours: red, blue, green, white and yellow, relating to the philosophical belief in wu xing or the Five Phases. This five-fold system touched every area of Chinese life, whether medicine, colour, taste, sound, substances or cosmology and its origins go back over 3,000 years in Chinese thought. The Five Colours related to the Five Directions for which red was the south and the heat of the sun, white the west where the heavenly bodies set and life ended, blue the north (where the sun does not go), green for the east and new life and yellow for the centre, the emperor himself and the land he presided over. Black was the traditional colour for ‘north’, but blue was preferred for textiles since black dyes corroded the silk.
The rules of design for the Palace furnishings were thus set out, based on close association with imperial symbolism, ancient belief and on numerology in relation to astronomy and repeated patterns of the movement of the moon and sun.
Three different techniques could be used to create the silk furnishings: embroidery, brocade or tapestry (kesi), of which embroidery and brocade were the ancient traditional Chinese techniques. There was no apparent rule for which should be used although brocade was more hard wearing. Yet in the extravagant living of the 18th century a worn textile would simply be replaced. Within sub-sections of brocade weaving the most highly complex is ‘lampas’ which allows the light to fall on silk threads which appear predominantly vertical in sections such as the background and horizontally on the design – creating an almost three-dimensional effect, while the threads are interwoven in a manner producing a strong material. It was used almost exclusively for Palace brocade weaving.
The panel presented here embodies all the requirements of an imperial textile, created especially for the emperor’s residence. It has been trimmed along the top edge and therefore only two dragons are presented; classically chasing a flaming pearl. It may have been a table frontal, or the front portion from another piece of furniture covering and perhaps had a pleated, or straight narrow panel fixed along the top with matching design and requisite number of dragons.
Palace furnishings of silk were used in the same way that we use them today – in many and varied forms: from covers for furniture, to curtains for windows or beds, above doorways, for altars, thrones and small seats, wall hangings and, in those times, for canopies, parasols and carriage linings.
The elderly Miss Willis, writing about her gift, states that her uncle, Major General Swanston took covers from the Summer Palace furniture which narrows the possible use and while she mis-attributes the date to 1840, rather than 1860, the origin of the panel is likely to be accurate. At this distance in time it is not possible to pinpoint the exact use for every textile and we are left to admire the sophisticated weaving, the elegance of the design and the history and symbolism it embodies.
Special thanks to Jacqueline Simcox, Chinese textile specialist, Jacqueline Simcox Ltd, London, Director of Asian Art in London; who has written this lot essay and conducted a thorough research of the provenance.
Viewing by appointment on 30 October - 05 November in 22 Connaught St, London