Lot 126 Lot 126 Lot 126 Lot 126 Lot 126 Lot 126 Lot 126

photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 126 

Lot 126


Lot 126
Treasury 4, no. 472

An inside-painted glass ‘landscape’ snuff bottle
Note that the printed catalogue describes this as crystal, it is incorrect, the bottle is glass.

(‘Zhou Leyuan’s Aromatic Pouch’)

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed, convex foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a boatman in a straw raincoat poling his boat towards a tree-lined river bank in a valley, the rooftops of a country retreat or small village in the distance, with towering hills beyond, and on the other main side with a katydid on an arched, rocky bank covered with foliage, inscribed in draft script with a poem followed by ‘[Executed] in early spring in the year bingxu by Zhou Leyuan’
Zhou Leyuan, The Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, early spring, 1886
Height: 6.83 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.55/1.72 cm
Stopper: jadeite; vinyl collar (but note condition report)

Lot 126 Provenance:
Robert Hall (1987)

Hall 1987, no. 79
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 315
Treasury 4, no. 472

Robert Hall, London, October 1987
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 126 Commentary
The inscription on this example follows the course set by Gan Xuanwen and Yiru jushi of inscribing their works with poetic sentiments about their beloved snuff and snuff bottles. While standard to the earlier school production, such poems are the exception in the school of Zhou Leyuan. But there is a good reason for Zhou to have continued this early tradition. Although we tend to see Zhou Leyuan from our perspective as one of nearly twenty artists who worked in his school, it is worth remembering that in the early spring of 1886, when this bottle was painted, Zhou was the only serious artist working in the medium. He had so far surpassed the third-rate folk-artists of the Later Decorative school (the only other painters working at the time), that it seems extraordinary that he may have originally been one of their number.

Snuff-bottle connoisseurs would have viewed him at the time as part of a very small band of others from the early school. The great masters at that time would have been seen as Yiru jushi, Gan Xuanwen and Zhou Leyuan, with Zhou the only one still active. The rest were either far less significant or anonymous. Working in 1886 with only those illustrious forebears as a guide for him, it is little wonder that Zhou occasionally adopted their habit of inscribing bottles with references to snuff or the bottles that contained it. But even with him, it is the rare exception.

Another interesting point arising out of the inscription is that we may conclude that the pouch was still a standard way to store or carry a snuff bottle in Zhou Leyuan’s day. The term used here may mean the pouches hanging from the belts in formal pictures of members of the imperial family and the court, but it could also mean the little, less formal brocaded pouches that sometimes still turn up with their bottles. They were designed to protect bottles a little from casual damage and wear when being carried, stored, or used.

The inscription reads:

The pouch is saturated with pleasant aroma.
Abundant generative forces of nature pervade outside the bottle.
Be careful not to blacken the fingertips;
[And] don’t leave yellow stains on the palms.

The landscape is typical of Zhou’s earlier style, with its softly painted hillocks rising up to a series of peaks and its poetic mood. Like all of Zhou’s works, it is unlike any other composition. With the more than forty examples in the Bloch Collection, and the many more recorded, there is not a single instance of Zhou repeating a composition, however often he may have repeated a subject. The other side is painted with one of his earlier paintings of the subject of insects on a rocky bank and it is one of the most impressive of all. The subject became a popular standard in his later works, usually combined with fish swimming in a pond beneath and many more, different insects involved. Here a lone katydid crawls on the bank. Apart from its pleasant chirping song, which was one reason for keeping these creatures, insects in general symbolize ample progeny because they proliferate to such an extent. The only other painting of the subject that predates this one, in 1885, also has only one katydid on a somewhat similarly shaped rock, but no inscription. It is the calligraphy, in Zhou’s beautifully controlled, draft script, that completes the justifiable impression that this is one of the finest versions of the theme Zhou ever did.

One more feature here is worth examining. The inside surface here is much shinier than on most of his works, allowing the subject from one side to be seen from the other, causing a little confusion unless any back-light is cut off by the hand, as it would have been in use. It is perhaps only a single stage of polishing away from being completely transparent. This is an unusual departure, but not one without precedent in Zhou’s career. He actually painted a number of bottles inside well-polished, transparent glass. Several of his very early works are in this sort of glass, including those of the early lantern-painting style. He also used clear, polished glass in 1885, and again in 1886 (although painting on an existing, earlier blue glass bottle in the latter case) and as late as 1887, where, for some strange reason he reverts, on just one bottle from the Peter Winter Collection, to his old style derived from lantern-painting. The subjects of this particular anomalous work are typical of his later work, with a bird in flight on one side and auspicious objects on the other, but the style is quite different. Why he should resort to his earlier style having established himself so powerfully with another is not clear, but it is not unusual for a Chinese artist in a more conventional medium to paint in a number of different styles from time to time, usually referring to the influence upon them by past masters. He may even have been asked to revert to his earlier style occasionally, perhaps by collectors or snuff-takers who understood his origins.


Easy link to this page: http://www.e-yaji.com/auction/photo.php?photo=1064&exhibition=8&ee_lang=eng


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Hugh Moss |