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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 24 

Lot 24

 
 

Lot 24
Treasury 7, no. 1675

A carved ivory ‘Legend of the White Snake’ snuff bottle

(‘Lost White Snake’)

Ivory; with a flat lip and recessed foot surrounded by a convex footrim; carved, with some undercutting to leave elements of the design free-standing, with a continuous scene of two canopied boats in a setting of formalized waves with foreground lotus plants and a crane flying amid formalized clouds above, one boat with four figures in it, a boatman at the stern with an oar, another man seated beneath the canopy, a woman holding the upright front struts of the canopy near the prow, and a scholar or official leaning precariously out beside the canopy on one side, reaching towards a dish of what may be fruit held above the head of a demon, whose chest is bare as he wades in the water, while on the other side of the boat a female deity arises from the surface of the waves holding another dish with three objects on it, perhaps intended as flaming pearls, the boat on the other main side with six figures comprising a scholar standing at the stern, a woman clinging to him from behind, a woman sitting cross-legged nearby, the boatman beside her wielding his oar, another scholar seated in the boat, and a standing woman leaning around the canopy post behind him, with a low table in the stern set with a covered box; the base and shoulders each featuring a band of formalized lotus petals; the neck with a band of formalized waves; the foot inscribed in seal script, Qianlong nian zhi (Made during the Qianlong period), in a square cartouche defined by twinned lines
Imperial Master, Japan, 1854–1910
Height: 6.91 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.72/1.7 cm
Stopper: ivory, carved in the shape of a melon or gourd; jadeite finial; original

Lot 24 Provenance:
Frederick W. A. Knight
Sotheby’s, London, 9 June 1981, lot 60
Hugh M. Moss Ltd, London (June 1981)
Paula J. Hallett
Hugh M. Moss Ltd, London (1986)

Published:
Snuff Bottle Review, September 1981, p. 12
Art at Auction 1982, p. 200
JICSBS, Winter–Spring 1983, p. 25
JICSBS, Autumn 1986, back cover
Kleiner 1987, no. 189
Illustrated London News, Summer 1990, p. 48
Orient Express Magazine, Summer 1990, p. 48
Prestige, Summer 1990, p. 48
Arts of Asia, September–October 1990, p. 91
Kleiner 1995, no. 313
JICSBS, Autumn 2000, front cover
Treasury 7, no. 1675

Exhibited:
Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 24 Commentary
The design here is typical of the Imperial Master’s ivory bottles. The scene on one side is obviously taken from the imperial moulded porcelain bottle of the Jiaqing period represented by Treasury 6, no. 1211, and copied in ivory on Treasury 7, no. 1673, where the subject is identified as being a scene from The Legend of the White Snake. This fact seems to have been lost on the Japanese carver, however, who was apparently ignorant of this well-known Chinese source. Maintaining one of the two female protagonists of the legend in exactly the same position as on the moulded porcelain—clutching the uprights of the canopy near the prow of the boat—he has left out the other. At the same time, he has added two men and a boatman manning a long oar. The half-naked demon still stands waist-deep in the water with a plate held aloft on his head, but instead of golden clamshells, it contains what appears to be a neat pyramid of fruit of some kind. The spectators on the nearby bank in the original have been dispensed with entirely, and in their place is a female deity of high rank (judging from the fancy bird ornament in her elaborate coiffure) standing on the waves holding a dish of what may be intended as three flaming pearls (it is, of course, often impossible to accurately identify subject matter when it was originally misunderstood by the carver). The crane flying above, although indicative of Daoist immortals in general and of Xiwangmu (the Queen Mother of the West) in particular, is also an addition with no source in the original subject. On the other side is a second boat that seems to have no identifiable counterpart among porcelain bottles, but does appear elsewhere on this group of ivories. In the J & J Collection there are two of very similar subject, although, as always with this group, the details of the composition vary with each bottle (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, nos. 285 and 286). Another, rather more accurate, ivory version of the original moulded porcelain bottle is in the Denis Low Collection (Kleiner 1999, no. 214, also in Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 5, p. 50, fig. 16, and Kleiner 1997, no. 143). Even there, whereas the scene on one side faithfully follows the porcelain original, that on the other side does not. One constant is the scholar at one end of the boat with a woman clinging to his arm, although details of the boats and the number of other figures and the positions of the boatman or boatmen differ. On moulded porcelain bottles, the only other examples that involved single large boats are either the scene of Su Shi beneath the Red Cliff (Treasury 6, no. 1212) or one showing a group of eight tribute bearers, three of whom are on a canopied boat on one main side (Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 5, p. 51, figs. 18 and 19).

Once we have identified this group as Japanese, there are so many clues pointing to such a conclusion that it seems remarkable that we did not notice them earlier. Here again, the mark is oddly drawn and, in common with others of this group, is adapted to the markings in the ivory, either the nerve centre of the tusk or cracks in the material. The top of the mark nearly touches the footrim while a gap is left between the bottom of the mark and the other side of the footrim. The carver refrained from stretching the mark horizontally to cover the darker ivory to its left, but already he has compromised the mark beyond what we would expect from the palace workshops.

Age cracks, which develop over the centuries in old ivory carvings, are a feature of the Imperial Ivory Master’s works that suggest he treated the raw material to make it look older. It is likely that he cooked it; sometimes he may have stained it a little as well, to suggest acquired patina. The process of heating ivory to age it leaves cracks in the material, often in the form of a pattern of small, intricate crizzling. At the palace workshops, such crizzled material would not have been used for miniature carvings in the first place. If we examine the other superbly carved ivory pieces in the imperial collection made during the Qianlong reign, it is obvious that purity of material was a criterion. Any minor cracking has happened since. The type of ivory preferred at court for small carvings was creamy-white, pure, and free of age cracks.

 

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