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Beautifully carved C19th cylindrical brushpots which held brushes for calligraphy. Some refer to the scholar’s highest art form of calligraphy as “writing a painting”
Brushpots are appreciated as timeless decorative objects, both beautiful and tactile, equally at home on a desk, bookshelf, chest of drawers or coffee table. Having evolved as a treasured accoutrements on a scholar’s desk the brushpot has an interesting back story.
For almost 2,000 years during China’s imperial dynasties, the Confucian scholars constituted the administration of the Chinese empire, appointed by the Emperor after a brutally rigorous system of exams. These scholars formed a quasi civil service that commanded deep respect and authority, and whose intellect and social standing were unchallenged.
Traditionally the most revered of the scholar’s possessions were the “Four Treasures of a Scholar’s Studio (文房四寶)” – the calligraphy brush, ink stick, ink stone and paper.Equally treasured were the other accoutrements of a scholar’s desk: his seal, water dropper and brush pot.
Brush pots held the greatest treasure, the brush itself, and were regarded with great reverence. Carved from a single block taken from the centre of a valuable hardwood tree trunk (or on rare occasions from gnarled roots) they emerged with simple, delicate beauty, the best examples having matching diameter and height, with a barely discernible waist and beautiful grain.
Further restrained decorative variations include lipped out circumferences at top or bottom, delicate feet, or foliate forms. In the Qing dynasty, lacquer was used to both preserve the wood and provide the same elegant canvas for painted scenes and symbols as on larger items of furniture, creating a more effusive visual aesthetic altogether.
Most have a removable plug in the centre of the base, made from the same block and thought to be a means of allowing the pot to flex with the heat and humidity of summer, and contrasting bitter arid cold of China’s winter without cracking or distorting.
A scholar might augment the decorative refinement of his favourite brush pot by placing a peacock feather or fortuitous ruyi sceptre beside the brush.
Larger brushpots were known also as scroll pots, big enough to hold rolled scrolls vertically.
Calligraphy was the highest art form in China, sometimes known, rather beautifully, as is the art of “writing a painting.”
It is an exquisite fusion of painting and writing in which meaning is conveyed by aesthetics and execution of brush strokes, creating a merger of literature and pictorial art which in combination revealed the character and intellect of the scholar, evoking and intellectual, emotional and aesthetic response.
Those who perfected it, the Confucian scholars, were held in the highest intellectual and social regard, and the objects they used acquired almost sacred status.
Theirs was deemed the highest and therefore most respected class in Confucian hierarchical society, followed by with peasants and craftsmen, with merchants at the rear.
However, as the merchant class became more prominent, successful and wealthy, their aspirations changed.
Their grand courtyard homes began to have a “scholar’s studio,” fully equipped with all the accoutrements including brushpots, and their manners and dress aped those of the traditional scholar. Over time, the merchants social standing changed, some of their ventures and wealth being seen as beneficial and important to society at large.
“Brushpots are appreciated as timeless decorative objects, both beautiful and tactile, equally at home on a desk, bookshelf, chest of drawers or coffee table.”