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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 1 

Lot 1

   

Lot 1
Treasury 1, no. 1

A Pale Green Nephrite Pebble-Material ‘Egg-Plant’ Snuff Bottle

(‘Damo Pebble’)

Nephrite of pebble material; well hollowed
1730–1860
Height: 7.12 cm (measured at right angles to the lip)
Mouth: 0.7 cm
Stopper: glass, in the form of a stem

Lot 1 Provenance:
Robert Hall (1988)

Published:
Treasury 1, no. 1

Lot 1 Commentary
Nephrite is a variety of amphibole made up of densely matted fibrous crystal of the minerals tremolite and actinolite (silicates of calcium and magnesium). In its pure form the colour is white, but metallic oxides, mostly iron, will produce a wide range of other possible colours. The main source of nephrite for the Chinese was the Kunlun Mountains, which form the boundary between Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang province) and Tibet. Until quarrying of raw material began in earnest in the late sixteenth century, jade merchants relied for their supplies upon two main rivers that flow out of the Kunlun Mountains and pass on either side of the oasis town of Khotan. Appropriately named the White Jade River (Yurungkash) and the Black Jade River (Karakash), they supplied for centuries the bulk of nephrite for Chinese and, across the Central-Asian trade routes, northern Indian and Turkish lapidaries. Yarkand, another oasis town in the same region, also became an important centre for the supply of nephrite once quarrying began. It became the trading centre for material from the main quarry at Mount Mirtagh, from which single blocks of up to 6,000 kg could be supplied (see Watt 1980, p. 27).

For centuries, river-bed pebble and boulder material was all that was available to the Chinese, and they were so highly valued that when mining began in the late Ming dynasty it was a century or more before Chinese connoisseurs overcame their preconception that mined material was inferior to so-called ‘water’ material. Because of their reverence for jade itself and because of its original pebble source, the Chinese have long continued to use the weathered and discoloured skin of pebbles and boulders in their carvings. This reverence even led, early on, to the artificial staining of jade to simulate or enhance black and brown pebble-skin material. By the time the snuff bottle evolved during the first half of the seventeenth century, both river-bed and quarried material were available to the Chinese lapidary. The predominance of pebble material and even pebble-shaped bottles, however, demonstrates the continuing passion of the Chinese connoisseur for river-bed nephrite. It also demonstrates a natural symbiosis between a small pebble of nephrite and the snuff bottle as a tactile form that fits comfortably into the hand.

The nephrite here is of the type known to Qing connoisseurs as ‘yellow steamed chestnut’ (see discussion under Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 45) and it is characteristic of the material favoured by the school of carving for which we have coined the name Master of the Rocks school. It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which this school, with its trademark genre and mythological scenes, also made undecorated bottles, since the style of the decorative carving is what mainly characterizes the school. It seems more and more likely, however, that heavily decorated and plain bottles were made in the same workshops, even though there is no way of knowing whether the common material is more likely to suggest a plain product of the Master of the Rocks school or production elsewhere by a workshop that happened to use similar material.

Whichever school it comes from, this example qualifies as a pebble bottle, in both the sense that it is from pebble material and the sense that it follows the form dictated by the original pebble shape. As a rule, bottles conforming to the shape of the original pebble retain extensive areas of richly marked skin, as this one does on one main and both narrow sides. The skin is entirely natural and has not been enhanced by artificial staining. The colour contrast between the variegated golden-brown colour of the skin, with its richly textured surface breaking up in dendritic patterns at its edges, and the lovely, even, yellowish lime-green core is as striking as any known. Although we have illustrated the bottle upright, it also works at a number of different angles in the hand—where it is, in common with most snuff bottles, at its best.

The choice of a stem-shaped stopper allows for an additional reading of the natural pebble form as a fruit-, or vegetable-form (an eggplant, perhaps). This alternative reading might not have occurred to the original maker but it is entirely in keeping with traditional Chinese aesthetics, where audience creativity in constantly reconsidering the art object even allows for physical changes such as the addition of inscriptions and collectors’ seals on ancient paintings.

In the intriguing game of visual interpretation of natural markings, which was central to the snuff bottle aesthetic among Qing connoisseurs, the skin on one main side here can be read as the popular image of Putidamo. Putidamo, whose name is often shortened to Damo, is known in English as Bodhidharma (and in Japanese as Daruma), was the twenty-eighth Indian patriarch and the first of six Chinese patriarchs of Buddhism. He became a missionary to China in the early sixth century. He is reputed to have settled in the Baima Si, a temple in the capital city of Loyang, where he sat in meditation for nine years. He is commonly depicted wrapped entirely in his robes, only his face and neck showing. A popular alternative image shows him before his vigil, crossing the Yangzi River standing on a single reed on his journey from Guangzhou to the capital. Although abstract, the skin on the main side of this bottle provides a delightful image of the seated Damo, the darker markings of the upper segment of the skin forming the mouth and eyes of his large head, the robed body a simple oval.

 

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Hugh Moss |