This candlestick belongs to the first phase of the Chinese experimentation with high-fired white glazes, undertaken during the late sixth century and the seventh century at kilns in the northern provinces of Henan and Hebei. The ceramic body itself is almost a true porcelain and it could have withstood temperatures up to 1300°C. The glaze, however, was capable of being fired to only about 1250°C. For technical reasons to do with the construction of the piece, areas of the appliquéd decoration have flaked off, exposing the raw body, which has discoloured over time. Recent flaking has been disguised by patches of brownish-red pigment.
This candlestick demonstrates the gamut of Chinese ceramic techniques: pressing, throwing, sprigging, appliqué and freehand modelling. Notable is the lotus-petal candle-holder itself, which is a superb piece of ceramic modelling. Like the lotus flower, the elephant was also associated with Buddhism, both symbolically and as the bearer of images and relics in Tang ceremony.
Only seven of these robust, finely executed candlesticks are known, and the one acquired by the Gallery – with the human figure seated on the elephant’s caparison (a relatively early depiction of a westerner) – is unique among them. The fact that they are high-fired, still experimental stoneware suggests that the candlesticks may have been commissioned for use on an altar, before finally being buried in a tomb.
This candlestick is one of a non-identical pair; the other model has six tubular holders on its back. Together, the two pieces belonged to the Goldschmidt family for some seventy years, being included in the great Chinese Exhibition mounted at the Prussian Academy of Art, Berlin, in 1929, at a time when Jakob Goldschmidt was one of Germany’s leading bankers. Goldschmidt’s celebrated collection of Impressionist paintings was sold in New York in 1958, after his death, in what came to be seen as a watershed auction for the modern painting market.