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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 86 

Lot 86


Lot 86
Treasury 4, no.538 (‘Teasing the Crane’)

An inside-painted glass 'teasing the crane' snuff bottle

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; painted on one main side with a summer landscape scene with two scholars delighting in the scenery as they stroll beneath a pine growing with two other trees from a rocky bank, the distance with a stream running through a rocky gorge with mountain peaks beyond; inscribed in draft script ‘Erzhong imitated the method of Huayang shanren in mid-spring of the year jiawu’, with one seal of the artist, Ding, in negative seal script; the other main side with a boy teasing a crane with a stick from a garden terrace beneath a paulownia tree, inscribed in draft script ‘In the year jiawu of the Guangxu period, Ding Erzhong unintentionally painted this while sojourning at the capital, imitating the idea of Bohu’, with one seal of the artist, Erzhong yin (‘seal of Erzhong’), in negative seal script
Ding Erzhong, Xuannan, Beijing, mid-spring, 1894
Height: 6.5 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.55/1.7 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Zhirou Zhai Collection
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1993)

Kleiner 1995, no. 388
Treasury 4, no.538

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

In his inscription, Ding Erzhong places himself in Beijing in 1894, as he does in a bottle from the Virginia Mead Collection the previous year, the first from which we have any recorded works. Although Ding uses the term ‘sojourning’ as if it was a temporary stay, his bottles and his biographers confirm that, despite visits to other places, he was based in Beijing during his early career, when he was concentrating on snuff-bottle painting. In two bottles dated to 1895, one dated to 1896, and one dated to 1898, he also identifies the district of Beijing as being Xuannan, the area to the south of the Xuanwu men, one of the ancient gateways to the city in the southwest of Beijing. Zhou Leyuan also lived in the Xuannan area. Ding began to paint during the last years of Zhou’s career, probably taking to the art between 1891 and 1893, and we can now see that he borrowed both subject matter and style from Zhou Leyuan. His still-life scenes of auspicious objects, which appear on nos. 537, 540, 541, 542, 548, 554 and 559 in this collection, and many times elsewhere, are drawn directly from Zhou’s idea and in many cases his style, although always with Ding’s own distinctive brushwork and individual variations. The cockerel on a rocky outcrop of no. 549 in the Bloch collection; no. 416 in the J & J Collection (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993), and elsewhere in his recorded works, is taken directly from Zhou’s oeuvre (see Sale 3, lot 22). Even the cranes on a rocky outcrop of Sale 1, lot 62, with the pine tree above and peonies growing around the rock, can be seen as borrowed from Zhou, despite the individual style of Ding’s mature years. Alerted to this possible source, we find many instances of a debt to Zhou Leyuan in all but his landscape paintings.

We even have a record of a bottle by Ding Erzhong but bearing the name of Zhou Leyuan shown to Hugh Moss by Edward T. Chow in the 1960s. The irresistible conclusion seems to be that Ding Erzhong was not only inspired by Zhou’s paintings, but knew him and possibly even learned the art from him. He may not have become a student in any formal sense, but he may have learned the techniques from his neighbour and was certainly inspired to adopt the art-form as a living and follow in Zhou’s well-trodden footsteps in painting the images he had made so popular and which were clearly in demand.

That Ding followed Zhou with such mastery and individual style is a tribute to his transcendent skill and accounts for the place in the art Ding achieved after initially following Zhou Leyuan. We can be certain that had Zhou lived to see the full extent of Ding’s success in the field, he would have been extremely proud of how his early influence had been instrumental in inspiring so eminent a career.

There is one other Ding Erzhong bottle from 1894 recorded: Sale 2, lot 101.

There is also an exact copy of this bottle published, which we must deal with to avoid any confusion in assessing Ding’s career and standing as an artist (Deng Zhong’an 1993, p. 111, no. 4.2). It bears the same two subjects, including the unique one for Ding of the boy teasing the crane, both of them copied stroke for stroke. It also has identical inscriptions on both sides. It would be highly unlikely for an artist of Ding’s integrity to produce two identical bottles, with precisely the same compositions and strokes, even down to the lines of stone-work on the wall beneath the child. To be a painter for a living does not imply a lack of integrity, and it is quite clear from what we know of Ding’s career that, like Zhou Leyuan, his artistic integrity was never compromised by his commercial standing. It would be quite out of the question, therefore, for him to add to these identical compositions the same two inscriptions, word for word and similarly placed. It is quite obvious which of the two bottles is the copy. The glass bottle in the Tang Collection is of an atypical form for a Beijing School bottle. It is slightly more flared at the sides, and the foot lacks the separation from the line of the body typical of earlier glass blanks for painting. The Tang example appears to have been produced by the same fakers as those in the Japanese collection discussed under Sale 3, lot 104. The Zhirou Zhai Collection, from which the Bloch bottle comes, was formed in Hong Kong, mostly from local dealers as the source, in the years prior to 1993. It seems likely that this bottle was copied exactly, either in person or from photographs, and the copy sold to one collector while the original was acquired by another.

As we can see from this example, Ding had mastered the art by 1894, and even his 1893 works are impressive by the standards of most painters in the medium. The landscape here is already powerful and painted with great confidence. The attribution to the style of Huayang shanren is a strange choice. There are at least seven people known who used this name, and we have no information on most of them, nor have we identified a painter among them, but there was a Jiang Chao (1624–1672) who, after a rather harrowing career, spent his old age practicing Buddhism on Mount Emei in Sichuan. Shortly before he died, he completed a gazetteer about the mountain. We have not seen the book, but we speculate that it may have included woodblock illustrations, one of which could have served as the inspiration for Ding’s painting.

The subject of the boy teasing a crane represents longevity and the continuation of the family line. The crane represents longevity, and the boy and paulownia, or wutong tree, together represent the wish for ample male offspring. In the inscription accompanying this painting, Ding refers to his source of inspiration as Bohu, the hao of the famous mid-Ming artist Tang Yin (1470–1523) whose versatility is well known and who was one of the few great artists adept at all the major subject categories of Chinese painting (landscape, bird-and-flower, figure, etc.). He was also, incidentally, one of the leading examples of a great artist who painted for a living, which may have some significance in Ding’s choice of inspiration.

It is interesting to note that the glass here is quite different from the standard glass used by the Beijing School artists, and is like a few used by Ye Zhongsan in his early career (see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 509). It is likely to have been from the same source. The material seems brighter, more like crystal, and the detailing of the foot, as with the Ye bottles, is much better carved and worthy of a fine crystal bottle.


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