The Marakovic Collection
Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent

An Explanatory Note

The captions in the exhibition provide basic descriptions, attributions, dimensions, provenance, publication and exhibition history (insofar as known), and occasional supplementary comments.

Each item is given a name that calls attention to something about its material, subject, provenance, or form. Symbolism is not discussed in detail; the collecting public is generally more familiar with many aspects of Chinese symbolism than it was when there were fewer publications on the subject.

The identification of ground metals in the cases of cloisonné and painted enamels must be considered tentative, as it is based only visual inspection; it should be remembered distinguishing between copper and the many bronze alloys in which it is a component is nearly impossible by non-destructive methods.

Anything in red text on the following pages is a link. Click the figure number to see a photo of the figure in question


The collector of Chinese snuff bottles engages at some level with the languages of art. To be sure, there may be a wealthy man or woman somewhere who employs a buyer to find and acquire snuff bottles to be locked away in a vault for future sale; who never looks closely at his or her little treasures or develops a preference for certain designs or materials; who sees them simply as entries in a ledger with price paid and date acquired, neatly noted for the sake of a trust document or an insurance policy. But that person, if he or she exists, is a hoarder, not a collector.

The collector decides what to acquire and what to pass over, basing his decision on some kind of personal response to the individual snuff bottle or some understanding of its place in the larger cultural, technological, and artistic history of his chosen area. A response to the individual snuff bottle is a response to the languages of the work as they are expressed in its vocabulary of subject matter, line, form, colour, texture, and so forth. An understanding of the place of the bottle within its larger context is less intuitive, but it, too, deepens as one sees more and more snuff bottles and begins to form some notion of rarity versus commonality, imperial versus non-imperial, and the rise and fall of various materials over the course of snuff-bottle production in the Qing dynasty.

Subject matter carries several layers of meaning, sometimes involving abstruse or esoteric symbolism, sometimes entailing rebuses for conventional, auspicious sentiments. Art that is wholly or heavily abstract, on the other hand, directs our attention to the less obvious languages of visual art – line, form, colour, and texture – through which the aesthetic meaning is expressed. Chinese calligraphy is a supreme example of abstract meaning: the calligraphic line tells us something about the writer’s character and how deeply he has understood one or another master calligrapher of the past; it also expresses confidence, spontaneity, sophisticated carelessness, elegance, or many other qualities specific to a given piece of calligraphy. James J. Y. Liu used calligraphy in The Interlingual Critic (1982) to make a more general observation about the aesthetic experience:

The satisfaction we get from looking at Chinese calligraphy and some Chinese paintings is due, primarily, I think, not to the spatial relations among the lines and brushstrokes but to the temporal experience of repeating in our mind the movements of the artist’s brush. In short, I believe that the aesthetic experience is a kind of creative experience by proxy. (pp. 13 – 14)

Interestingly, this is true of our experience with calligraphy even if the characters are engraved on a snuff bottle with a cutting tool rather than being written on paper with a brush; the viewer cannot and would not want to mentally repeat the actual movements of the cutting tools, but if the artist is successful, the resulting engraving creates the feeling of brushwork (brushwork powerful enough to penetrate a hard surface, in fact, enhancing the energy that characterises a master calligrapher’s work). The process of achieving that effect is ephemeral, but every time a perceptive eye views the work, the brushwork comes alive anew.

Snuff bottles and poems are different in important and interesting ways, but Liu’s analysis of how we experience poetry provides a basis for talking about how the collector responds to the form, colour, and decoration of snuff bottles:

When we read a poem…we have to say to ourselves certain words, and no other, in a certain order, and no other. In so doing, we are repeating, to some extent, the author’s experience of putting these particular words in this particular order. The possibility of revision does not affect the issue, since in that case we can be said to repeat the author’s experience of writing the final version. When we finish reading, if it is a successful poem, we shall realize that these are just the right words in just the right order, and this realization will give us a feeling of satisfaction comparable to the author’s feeling of satisfaction at finishing the poem and seeing that it was good. It is this feeling of satisfaction, together with the experience of repeating the author’s experience, that fulfils the reader’s creative impulse. (p. 12)

One might say the same thing about the snuff bottles: when the collector/connoisseur perceives that the shoulder of a bottle perfectly balances the protruding foot rim or that the size and faceting of a hexagonal-profile bottle is just right for the particular yellow hue of the glass from which it is carved, he or she is in some measure re-experiencing the satisfaction felt by the original maker of the bottle when he finished it and saw that it was good. Each detail of a bottle embodies one choice among all the options open to the designer and the craftsmen with regard to that detail. Again, one does not know the order in which the choices were made or how many times a correction had to be made, but as the collector deepens his experience with the formal languages of the bottle, he gains more appreciation for how the artisan explored the potentials of the material and the possibilities of the theme. It may not be a matter of ‘just the right words in the just right order’, but it is a matter of recognizing just the right proportions, just the right degree of hollowing for the material, just the right variation on a well-known design, and so forth.

The Western collector is unlikely, in the beginning, to know how the brush moves in writing Chinese characters, or to know that yellow is an imperial colour or that a certain shape is meant to recall a vase or an ancient bronze vessel. But with repeated exposure comes sharper awareness. It is like being in a country whose language one does not know: gradually, with enough time, one develops a sense of the basic rhythms of the language, one begins to recognize the difference between formal and informal registers of speech, and one grows to savour the characteristic manner in which doubt, pleasure, surprise, respect, disgust, and so on are expressed in that particular language, even if the nuances of argument are far beyond one’s ken. There is a great deal of pleasure in coming to feel at home in this ‘other’ linguistic universe.

The material from which a work of art is made is one of the languages of art that is first to be noticed. When collectors began to take a serious interest in snuff bottles as art objects to be appreciated in their own right, transcending their practical function as containers for powdered tobacco, the natural initial approach was to categorize by material. It is far easier to identify the material of a snuff bottle than it is to identify who made it or where and precisely when it was crafted; and the beauty of fine materials can be appreciated long before one is able to discern which snuff bottles embody the artistic commitment that leads a craftsman to rethink each project afresh and strive for perfect control of his medium, raising his work to the status of art. With experience and reading, the snuff-bottle collector becomes aware that different materials are associated with different types of patronage in the production of snuff bottles and that different types of patronage had decisive influence during different periods of history.

The habit of snuffing was no doubt introduced sporadically to subjects of the Qing empire who came into contact with foreigners at seaports in the south and south-east during the seventeenth century, but the main impetus in Chinese snuff taking was provided by the Kangxi emperor at the court in Beijing sometime between the beginning of his reign in 1661 and the early 1680s. The emperor discouraged smoking – as a fire hazard rather than a health hazard – and encouraged snuffing. His officials and other courtiers quickly fell into line: snuffing bloomed at and around the court during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Candidates for the metropolitan examinations and officials summoned to the capital for periodic evaluation would have been exposed to the practice, taking it with them when they went out to the provinces. Thus, this imperial phase of snuffing culture dictated the style of snuff bottles to a very considerable extent in the first century of the habit, and court influence did not lose its momentum until the mid nineteenth century.

The second main patronage group comprised the scholar class, the merchants, and other members of the wealthy elite. They began to exert some influence over snuff-bottle style slowly during the eighteenth century, but it was only as imperial influence waned in the nineteenth century that this second group of patrons became the main arbiters of style. By this time, snuffing, although still more popular in the north than anywhere else, had become a national habit.

Both imperial and non-imperial patronage created an extraordinary body of spectacular snuff bottles in a wide range of media. The primary aim of those snuff takers was to have fancy but functional containers. From the early nineteenth century, users of snuff gradually became attracted to the option of taking their snuff from antique snuff bottles, that is, from the bounty of past masterpieces already in existence. Previously, the evolution of snuff bottle style had been given impetus by the need to produce something novel and intriguing. As the years passed, the novel eventually became the antique, and the antique became the fashion. This trend is noticeable in the Daoguang era (1821 – 1851), when porcelain bottles in particular began to be made with apocryphal Yongzheng and Qianlong reign marks, even Kangxi ones on occasions. This shift from functional to aesthetic (or aesthete) concerns adumbrates the rise of the last group of patrons to influence the snuff-bottle arts: collectors.

As foreigners travelled to China in ever larger numbers, they began to collect snuff bottles. They were mostly interested only in how they looked, not what they contained. Furthermore, they did not have the knowledge to recognize historical accuracy in snuff-bottle style, so the makers of snuff bottles responded to their contemporary tastes with more elaborate carvings, functionally impractical but decoratively spectacular – the so-called ‘cabinet bottles’. As snuff use among Chinese waned in the early decades of the twentieth century, collectors took over as the primary clientele for makers and dealers. The height of production exclusively for this market took place in Japan after the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854 and the Harris Treaty of 1858 provided the basis for a flourishing trans-Pacific trade. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Japanese craftsmen diversified into producing snuff bottles entirely for a Western collectors’ market in order to supplement their earnings from objects that were actually used in Japan and recognized by collectors as being Japanese.

With the growing interest in snuff-bottle collecting worldwide during the past century, counterfeiters have stepped in to meet the demand for bottles. At the same time, the emergence of frankly modern subject matter, found primarily in inside-painted snuff bottles, testifies to the continuing development of the form long after snuff bottles have ceased to have a practical function in Chinese society; the artistic merits of this current production constitute a subject best left for discussion elsewhere.

Although we have a good understanding of the patronage groups delineated above and the characteristic materials and styles they favoured, we must constantly face the fact that the vast majority of snuff bottles cannot be precisely dated. Using credibly reign-marked or otherwise dateable snuff bottles, we have built up a body of comparative evidence to help us date certain types or features, but in the vast majority of cases we can only say that a certain type stands a good chance of being from a particular period, based on our best current understanding. In this study of the Marakovic collection, we have plenty of landmarks to guide us, but there are many more where we have only our best judgement to go by. The reader is enjoined to remember that when we say a bottle is likely to belong to such-and-such a period, there is no guarantee that it was not made a little earlier or later; we shall not add to the bulk of our text through the constant repetition of the same caveat. With unmarked bottles, we can only propose a rather broad date span.

Usually it is easier to observe the decline of a style at the end of that date range than it is to know precisely when the style began. Marked wares bearing marks earlier than the Qianlong are so rare (although there are enamels and the occasional glass bottle with pre-Qianlong marks) that we have no idea in most cases when a particular type first appeared, even if we can be sure that type was produced during the Qianlong era (1736 – 1796). The Qianlong reign was so influential artistically that the style established by the art-loving emperor would have continued under its own momentum in many areas well into the next reign, and in some cases for the rest of the dynasty. Thus, a likely late-Qianlong style does not necessarily mean a late-Qianlong date; it could be later.

Since this is a book intended for the general reader, we avoid constant footnotes about sources and proofs of conclusions unless we feel they are needed. The interested reader will soon find on the snuff-bottle portal a far more comprehensive and evolving study of the subject, complete with references. Let us just note here that most of the material presented in the following pages on the general history of tobacco and snuff in China is also well documented in Carol Benedict, Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550 – 2010 (University of California Press, 2011).