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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 45 

Lot 45


Lot 45
Treasury 1, no. 139

Two Noble Occupations

Nephrite of pebble material; well hollowed with a recessed foot; carved with a rocky landscape scene in which a scholar, holding a book open in front of him, rides a buffalo away from an open pavilion on a rocky outcrop beneath a pine tree growing from a cliff behind the pavilion, while a farmer walks in the foreground carrying a plough over his shoulder and passing a lingzhi growing from another impressive rock formation
Master of the Rocks school, 1740–1850
Height: 6.96 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.5/1.7 cm
Stopper: tourmaline

Lot 45 Provenance:
Christie’s, London, 22 April 1991, lot 55 (with two other bottles)

Treasury 1, no. 139

Lot 45 Commentary:
This example from the Master of the Rocks school fits ideally into the classic wares of the school, with its superb use of unusually vivid material of a pure, yellowish-green colour contrasting starkly with an unusually dark-brown skin, its fine hollowing through an unusually small mouth, its distinctive mask-and-ring handles with the narrow forehead and long curly ears on the distinctly domesticated, fireside taotie, and its confident, crisp carving under total technical control of the medium.

The scholar and the farmer represent two of the four noble occupations, which appear frequently as decoration on snuff bottles. They are fisherman, woodcutter, farmer and scholar and they represent the basic callings of ancient China through which all aspects of the culture were nurtured (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, pp. 71 and 381). Intriguingly the same hierarchy is implied here as on no. 25 in the J & J Collection, where the scholar is placed well above the others. Here the lofty scholar sits on a buffalo above the farmer who struggles to or from his fields on foot, carrying a heavy and primitive hand-plough over his shoulder. The buffalo as a steed is probably a sop to rusticity, which for the average scholar was usually achieved without any loss of the luxuries of urban life. He is reading an open book, despite his precarious position on the back of the beast, to make absolutely sure that we do not mistake him for an illiterate country boy and miss the point of the subject. Bearing only half the popular subject, the bottle may have been one of a pair, but it is also possible that the two occupations were sufficient to stand for all four.
For other examples from the same school, of similarly masterly carving and with all four occupations represented, see Treasury 1, nos. 136–138.

The carving is up to the standards of the very finest of this school, which seems to be able to organize a complex subject so that it remains powerful and coherent. Apart from great confidence in arranging the composition, this is partly due to the masterly technical and artistic control of detail. Despite the gentle softening of the surface through generations of natural use, the detail of this carving is as fine as anything ever produced by the Suzhou school, with clear and fluent definition of sculptural details in different planes. Another major factor in maintaining artistic coherence with so busy a subject lies in the perfect separation of the relief planes from the ground plane. This again is common to the best of this group as exemplified here where the ground plane, despite difficulty of access through a fine network of relief detail, is miraculously flat and perfectly finished right into the right-angles of the relief work. If one applied the standard test for such separation by mentally peeling off the relief layer, the remaining plain bottle would have a perfectly smooth surface, which is a sign of mastery in this and other relief-carving media.

The only compromise to the excellent formal integrity common to this group is found at one edge and extending into the ring of one mask handle, where the skin degradation ran deeper perhaps than the carver anticipated, necessitating a greater depression in the surface plane than elsewhere.


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Hugh Moss |