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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 11 

Lot 11

 
 

Lot 11
Treasury 2, no. 280

A dendritic agate ‘Penglai’ snuff bottle

(‘The Home of the Immortals Agate’)

Dendritic agate; very well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed, flat foot surrounded by a protruding, broad, flat footrim; with an entirely natural design on one side of the Island of Penglai rising from formalized waves carved in low relief
Official School, 1760–1860
Height: 6.03 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.8/2.05 and 1.98 cm (oval)
Stopper: coral; plastic collar

Lot 11 Provenance:
Trojan Collection
Robert Hall (1993)

Published:
Hall 1992, no. 47
Kleiner 1995, no. 262
JICSBS,Autumn 1997, p. 6
Newsletter, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, August 1997
Treasury 2, no. 280

Exhibited:
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 11 Commentary
This is another of the masterpieces of ink-play agate bottles. It is of perfect formal integrity and detailing and is superbly hollowed to precisely follow the outer contour of the bottle. The artist has taken a natural, striated area in the stone, edged with dendritic markings, and by the addition of nothing more than a band of formalized waves around its base has transformed it into one of the subtlest and most compelling images of the mythical Island of Penglai, home of the Immortals, in the whole of Chinese art. This image of a rock jutting vertically out of the ocean was a popular one in later Chinese art and occurs frequently during the Qing dynasty. From the late Ming dynasty onwards, when the famous ink-maker Cheng Junfang popularized a design of the crag with peaches and bats to form a popular rebus, these extra elements were also sometimes included. The dendritic markings to the upper left of the rock in the illustration could be interpreted as bats.

The style, feeling and artistic brilliance of this bottle link it irresistibly with the magnificent sorry crow in the J & J Collection (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 127), although the style of waves is different. They may be by the same artist and the difference in wave style attributable to the fact that Penglai is customarily shown with very formalized waves, whereas the sorry crow, being a unique subject, dictated no such well-established style.

Another masterly touch here is the pale halo of striations, noted by Robert Hall in his publication, which surrounds the island as if aglow with inner, spiritual meaning, redolent of Daoist symbology. As if all of this were not enough, there is yet a further fortuitous symbol inherent in the stone. At the base of the towering rock is a natural cave created by the agate markings at the point where they give way to reflection of the rock in the water, which is also brilliantly achieved and accentuated by not carving waves at that point. The cave was also a symbol of the Daoist realm of immortality and relates to popular legends of individuals who have stumbled into a cave or opening in the rocks to emerge on the other side in a timeless, immortal realm (for discussion, see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, p. 187 and Treasury 1, no. 131).

The small, darker markings low on the reverse of this bottle are difficult to interpret with any certainty, but one possibility is a mythological tortoise or bixi (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 51 and Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 5), which would be in harmony with the longevity symbolism of the Isle of Penglai.

There is a formal feature of this bottle that may prove useful in establishing further criteria for the Official School. The neck is slightly oval, the narrow-side profile being 7 mm narrower than the main profile. Since this feature is common on this group of bottles, and usually with the narrow-side view being the narrower dimension, it must have been intentional. It may have been entirely to formal ends, and may have arisen out of nothing more than an obvious formal solution on flattened bottles. On the other hand, it might indicate a school trait, allowing us one more clue as to identity for the group as a whole.

Apart from its impeccable form, hollowing, and subject matter, this bottle has the recessed flat foot that we have suggested as a likely feature on earlier bottles of the school, although it is not as crisply carved as some. We know that on palace glass from the early phase of carving, the crisply carved, recessed flat foot is a standard, whereas during the nineteenth century one is more likely to encounter a convex foot more carelessly finished. With Official School bottles, a very tentative guess, arrived at from a comparison of the examples in this collection, suggests that if the recessed, flat foot is a standard, although not necessarily exclusive feature during the earlier phase of the school, and the recessed convex foot a standard, although not necessarily exclusive feature of the second phase, there would have been an overlap period when one gradually gave way to the other. If we assume that the first phase is from the Kangxi period to the Daoguang, and the second from the mid-Qianlong period to the end of the dynasty, they might overlap by almost a century during which one gradually gave way to the other as the standard form of recessed foot. Although there are known Daoguang bottles with a perfectly flat foot to demonstrate continued high standards well into the nineteenth century, as a general tendency these details may provide a useful clue as to dating.

 

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Hugh Moss |