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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 48 

Lot 48


Lot 48
Treasury 5, no. 912

Reluctant Imperial Kui

Transparent sapphire-blue and translucent milky white glass, the former with one or two small air bubbles; with a flat lip and protruding flat, circular foot; carved as a single overlay with a continuous design of a kui or chi dragon, the foot engraved in regular script Qianlong nian zhi (Made during the Qianlong period)
Imperial glassworks, Beijing, 1750–1790
Height: 4.45 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.7/1.2 cm
Stopper: glass

Lot 48 Provenance:
Sotheby’s, New York, 3 June 1992, lot 380

Chen Yibing 1994, p. 119, top left
JICSBS, Autumn 1992, p. 23, fig. 2
Treasury 5, no. 912

Lot 48 Commentary:
This is a typical example of the core group of palace glass overlay snuff bottles discussed under Treasury 5, no. 911, where other examples are cited and the group established. This bottle is of small size with a wheel-cut mark, protruding foot without a footrim, contrasting upper neck-rim, and slightly rudimentary carving applied to a delightful and lively subject. The carving skills exhibited in the group range from the almost sublime to designs so sketchily carved as to imply a severe general decline in standards. An intriguing and informative feature of examples at the better end of this range, however, lies in the fact that their shortcomings are more of commitment than ability. In spite of usually being well composed, and laid out with the confidence of a practised carver realizing an artistically conceived design (if, indeed, there was a separate designer - more likely than not with palace arts), the designs are simply not well finished. Most of them give the impression that additional care and effort devoted to surface polishing might have transformed them into masterpieces. This appears to have been a conscious decision on the part of the carvers, for on the rare occasion when a bottle displays impeccable finish, the highest level of lapidary artistry becomes apparent (see for instance Treasury 5, nos. 915 and 916). It seems that these may have been produced as batch orders. This is the result we might expect in situations when the emperor required quantities of snuff bottles as gifts for a particular occasion, time was short and a perfect finish was unimportant. Well formed, of an elegant shape and decorated with a lively and artistic design, the poor level of finish is illustrated by failure to devote the time and effort necessary to recess the protruding foot to form a footrim. The mark is carved straight on the flat surface of the protrusion.

Dragons of various persuasions provide a relatively common theme for the group, this archaistic hybrid being typical. There is another blue and white version, also with a wheel-cut Qianlong reign mark, calling into question whether this was intended as a kui dragon (Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 28 April 1997, lot 27). There the beast is obviously a formalized chi dragon with a bird-like head and four legs, whereas here the legs have become formalized and are only barely identifiable, and the tail has seemingly metamorphosed into what might be taken for lingzhi. The two beasts, however, are obviously related, and this may be intended as a highly formalized chi dragon. Another, in red on white overlay (Friedman 1990, no. 37), brings that obvious chi dragon still closer to the beast here, but remains just identifiable as a chi, suggesting that the same may have been the intention here - or that the distinction had become unimportant, since each represented the ancient culture. The longevity symbolism of these elongated, formalized dragons has been explained under Treasury 5, no. 822.

Regardless of their shortcomings, these little bottles are important landmarks and among the few glass bottles for which an imperial attribution is beyond question, and a palace provenance reasonably assured. They are also among the regularly reign-marked snuff bottles from the palace. There are only about seventy snuff bottles known of the core group, of which seventeen are in the imperial collection, currently divided between Taiwan and Beijing. Another forty or so are of fringe style, directly connected to the group in some way without defining it. For one group of those in the imperial collection, see Chang 1991, nos. 280–291 (all in red on white with the exception of two which are blue on white, and all with Qianlong reign marks, wheel-cut and resembling this one). Others are in Xia 1995,nos. 74–76, where 77 is a fringe-style version.


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Hugh Moss |