A pair of large painted enamel quatrefoil jardinières, with hardstone fruit trees. They are both set in landscapes with miniature figures, rocks, smaller plants and flowers. Each container is finely painted with scrolling lotuses and flowers in light blue on a cobalt ground, with a gilt edge medallion picked out on each side. The foot and upper edge also have elegant gilt diaper borders. Each tree has a painted and gilt plaster trunk, the wire branches decorated with soapstone, jade and jadeite leaves and fruits. One tree has peaches and large pomegranates set with green or red seeds. The other tree has just peaches. Such charming miniature hardstone trees were not only enjoyed by the Qing Court and Chinese literati class, but were also particularly popular in Europe in the 18th and 19th century.
Potted landscapes, real or fantasy, were highly regarded by the scholarly elites of late Imperial China. Deemed to function as equivalents to their real counterpart, they provided the literati class with a perfect escape from the world of mundane affairs. The purpose was not just to re-create nature in a pot, but to actually capture its essence. Daoists regard the universe as having a balanced cosmic energy - yin and yang. In recreating nature, this balance was made visual. All aspects of the composition were thought through carefully, including the type of container, the placement and species of the tree, its size, shape and colour. The other details such as the rocks, were also chosen carefully to complete the arrangement. In Daoism, being at one with environment also played an important role, which is reflected in the desire to surround themselves with nature.
In China the art of creating miniature landscapes in a container is known as 'penjing' - the word 'Pen' means container or pot and the word 'jing' means scenery. Originally creating such pieces was practiced by the elite of ancient China, where miniatures trees were considered a luxury and given as gifts. Around 1100 AD Buddhist monks took this concept to Japan, where it went on to be known as Bonsai. Hardstone versions of these miniature landscapes were popularized in the 18th century, when they were made for the viewing pleasure of the Qing court elite. Due to their multimedia nature, their production required the mastery of various artisans. They would have been made in areas such as Suzhou, Yangzhou and Guangzhou where the best material and craftsmen were able to produce the highest quality pieces.
A number of miniature gardens made with semi-precious stones are in the Palace Museum, Beijing. The Asian Civilisations Museum has two potted landscapes with vines (Acc.nr.1995-03487) as does The British Museum, London has a similar example (1991,0622.1.a-b). The Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm Castle in Sweden, has marble containers with Ivory flowers (HGK 174, 173, 1777:12) and the National Trust collection has several such tree containers, including those at Snowshill Manor (NT1339574) & Hardwick Hall (NT 1129825).