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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 43 

Lot 43

   

Lot 43
Treasury 5, no. 894
HK$456,000

Steeds of Good Fortune

Transparent ruby-red and colourless glass, suffused with air bubbles of various sizes and small white flakes; with a flat lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; carved as a single overlay with a horse and a bat on each main side, the horse in each case with its halter tied to the ring of the mask-and-ring handles on the narrow sides
1750–1780
Height: 5.9 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.68/1.83 cm
Stopper: jadeite; vinyl collar

Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart

Lot 43 Provenance:           
Hugh Moss
Paula J. Hallett
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd. (1985)

Published:
Snuff Bottles of the Ch’ing Dynasty, no. 50
JICSBS, Winter 1984, p. 13, fig. 17 (image reversed)
Kleiner 1987, no. 89
Treasury 5, no. 894
Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art, October-December 1978
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May-June 1993

Lot 43 Commentary                      
The horses depicted here represent the very epitome of glass overlay carving of naturalistic subjects from the Qianlong period. The manner in which the horses are rendered is the result of close observation married to an astonishing level of technical command of the medium. We were enthusiastic about an exceptional carving of two horses on a small jasper bottle in this collection, lot 33, (Treasury 2, no. 307), which comfortably surpassed the general standard for hardstone carving of the subject, and there is some similarity between those horses and these. In both cases, the artists show the ability to depict the creature from any angle with equal conviction, rather than resorting to the familiar side view. The horses here may appear to be viewed from the side with heads turned back, but the body of one is turned slightly to face the viewer while the other is turned slightly away. The similarities, however, end at that point, for, fine as it was by hardstone carving standards, even the masterly jasper version is put firmly in the shade by these horses. Apart from the totally convincing naturalism of the animals, the technical mastery of the medium and such detailed carved on so small a scale is astonishing. Where one hoof is tipped to reveal the underside, the carver has added every detail from life; where one horse strains against its halter, its lips are drawn back by the effort and the teeth bared. Nowhere in the snuff bottle arts are horses rendered with more conviction or greater technical prowess, and very rarely is anything approaching this quality to be found on glass other than snuff bottles. Whoever was responsible for this masterpiece was surely among the most gifted carvers ever to set foot in a lapidary workshop in China.

We can link this to the example illustrated in Treasury 5, no. 893 and to the J & J overlay cited there, both of which feature horses - those on the latter also on a snowstorm ground - and are masterly, fluent carvings. Neither, however, is in the same class as this example for sheer mastery of every aspect of the carver’s art. They are probably from the same hand, or team of designers and carvers, but that final touch of genius was reserved for this bottle. On the bannerman bottles the horses are as fluently depicted, but, since they are only part of the subject rather than the most important part in terms of symbolism, less effort has been expended on detailing them. The J & J horse has similarly detailed hooves, but fails to reach the level of aesthetic commitment embodied here. The overall subject on the other examples is as dynamic, but the depiction is as if of post-horses which could be changed en route, making it irrelevant which one finally entered Beijing bearing news of victory. Here, on the other hand, the impression is of a finely-executed portrait of a particular horse.

We described the creator of a jade fruit-form in this collection as ‘The Castiglione of Jade Carving’ (Treasury 1, no. 62). Whoever carved this bottle could be dubbed ‘the Castiglione of glass carvers,’ which raises an intriguing possibility. We know that designs were drawn up by court artists - including the Jesuits - for palace workshop products. When Niccolo Tomacelli arrived in Beijing in 1722 and was pressed into service to make enamels, it is recorded that ‘although he was not himself an expert in enamels, he was able to get by in the workshop with the help of designs provided by Castiglione,’ (Chang Lin-sheng 1991a, p. 103). On the twenty-sixth day of the tenth month of 1740, the archives also show that Castiglione was commanded to draw some good floral designs for enamelled wares (ibid., p. 103, note 23). The same would probably have applied to other arts, and for a work of this calibre it is quite possible that the life-drawing skills are those not of the carver, but the artist who drew up the design. It is just possible that the artist may have been Castiglione himself. Serving the emperor until his death in 1766, he was one of the finest equestrian painters of all time. If the emperor wanted a horse design drawn by one of his court painters, Castiglione would have been the natural choice.

By which circuitous route we arrive at the question of original provenance. Our conjecture about Castiglione would imply manufacture at an imperial facility. While it is feasible that a court design might have been sent to a private workshop accompanied by an order for a particular work of art, it is far more likely that the court would use its own facilities, certainly while they were at their peak. Whether this imperial lapidary workshop was at court or at Suzhou (or elsewhere) is another matter. Indications of an imperial product here are found in the materials - which we know from reign-marked wares other than snuff bottles were standard for the palace workshops - and in the mask-and-ring handles. As well carved and individualistic as the horses, these represent a typical courtly feature. The contrast in detail between this and the bannerman bottles may indicate a difference in time and focus, or that a different artistic team was involved. If this bottle were produced a few years earlier than the others, or intended as a birthday presentation from the palace workshops to the emperor, the differences might be explained.

Two other bottles feature a horse tethered to a mask-and-ring handle (one from the Claar Collection, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 12 May 1970, lot 423, and the other from the Art Institute of Chicago, JICSBS, Spring 1990, p. 13, fig. 18, where the horse is not so well carved and is tied to the opposite handle). Both are in red overlay, and while the concept is similar, they are not taken from the same design. A related idea is also expressed in another red overlay bottle, not of comparable quality (Sotheby’s, New York, 22 November 1988, lot 206), where the horse is tethered to a ring in the circular frame containing it. For an overlay displaying the more standard subject of a horse tethered to a hitching post, see under no. 895, and for a bottle linking that bottle to this one, Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 16 November 1989, lot 23, where a horse of precisely this composition is tied to a hitching post, and on the other side is a similar qilin to that on no. 895, where the carving style is the same. For the dating of this general group of bottles, see under Treasury 5, no. 895.

The idea of tethering horses to the loose-rings is a master-stroke, but more than merely an example of creative originality, it is part of the symbolic message. The motifs on both main sides are intended to be read in unison. The bat (fu) with two (shuang) tethered (shuan) horses, heads (shou) emphasized by being turned back, stands for the auspicious wish ‘[May you be blessed with] both good fortune and long life’ (fushou shuangquan). The character meaning ‘to tether’ (shuan) is composed of the ‘hand’ radical on the left and the character quan (complete) on the right. Although this is pronounced shuan, part of its form evokes the character quan. A second, perhaps more straightforward, way to interpret the rebus here is Mashang de fu, Above the horse comes a bat ‘Immediately comes good fortune’.

 

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