A rare pair of finely carved soapstone wall vases, with figural scenes of elegant ladies in a garden. Each is composed of a flat back and a curved front panel, joined and then carved in highly detailed low-relief on the front. The soapstone used for each vase varies in tone, one in a lightly veined honey colour; the other has a mottles grey-beige front and a rust brown back. Each vase has carved scenes of exquisitely dressed idealised ladies (meiren), wearing the long flowing robes. They stand in an idyllic garden with rockeries and plants, a small fence and a single jardiniere with a flowering plant standing on a garden seat. Stylised clouds float by in the upper part of the vase. The scene is enhanced with colourful green, blue and red pigments, detailed with finely incised gold lines. The gold background is very finely carved and gilded with a tiny formalised fish scale pattern. The vase stands on a high foot with a stepped edge, with incised hanging leaves and the bottom of the foot with a cracked ice pattern in gold. The neck is pierced with a hole in the front and back so it can be hung.
Soapstone or steatite, is called hua shi in Chinese, which literally translates to ‘slippery stone’. As its name suggests, it is very soft, smooth and slippery to the touch, it is found in veins or as loose boulders in the South Eastern coastal regions of China. It comes in many colour variations, from a soft cream to a russet red. Being one of the softest of all stones, it is ideal for small scale intricate sculptures and works of art. Worked with a knife and chisel, craftsmanship was highly refined. It was a material particularly popular with the literati as a natural and modest material.
The Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, has numerous soapstone wall vases, though none with a figurative scene. Inventory notes suggest that there were also soapstone wall vases in the collection of Augustus the Strong.