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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 40 

Lot 40


Lot 40
Treasury 2, no. 319

The Ink-Play Master’s Butterfly

Agate; extremely well hollowed, with a slightly convex lip and concave foot surrounded by a small convex footrim; carved on one side with a low-relief, partially cameo design of a butterfly and peach flower
The Cameo Ink-play Master, possibly imperial, Official school, 1770
Height: 5.04 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.70/1.68 cm
Stopper: coral; pearl finial; vinyl collar

Lot 40 Provenance:
Robert Hall (1987)

Treasury 2, no. 319

Lot 40 Commentary:
This bottle is part of a small sub-group of the Official school that represents the height of both chalcedony carving and ink-play agate in the snuff-bottle field and, therefore, in the whole of Chinese history, since the snuff bottle was both the last imperial fling and the epitome of so many art forms. This carver may have had his own workshop, but he also appears to have worked for the court and possibly at the palace workshops or some other imperial facility. The palace workshops were often staffed with artists co-opted from private workshops around the country and the honour of working for the emperor was rarely turned down. We have dubbed him the Cameo Ink-play Master because all of his recognizable works are cameos to some extent, and yet he also managed to combine his varied relief work using different colours in the material with some of the most imaginative and masterly ink-play works in the entire medium. The extraordinary fish bottle in the J & J Collection, for instance, is his (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 133).

The period of this mysterious artist is uncertain. We dated the J & J example to 1730–1860, not then having made the association with the other bottles of the group. There is also the one in this collection (Treasury 2, no. 362) marked with the hall name of the Fifth Prince Ding, who died in 1854, but this name, while it is inscribed on the bottle itself rather than on the foot, is of the incised type of mark that can be added to a work of art at any time after its manufacture. The bottle might have been an old one when acquired by the prince. The foot, the normal place for such inscriptions, was obviously too small and since the inscription does not form a coherent part of the design, it could have been added either at the outset or decades later. One or two of the bottles from the group might be independently considered nineteenth century, but others would be comfortably dated as Qianlong, so we are not much wiser. What we do know is that at least some of his works were made before 1854, so for the time being it seems safe to consider him a mid-Qing master, working at some time between the late Qianlong period and about 1860. The Daoguang chalcedony with the doves and Pekinese dog (Treasury 2, no. 313), which could easily be mistaken for a Qianlong product except for the subject matter, attests to the continuing capacity for fine workmanship well into the nineteenth century, as do the two Tongzhi dated bottles (Treasury 2, nos. 315 and 379).

For other examples by this master, see Treasury 2, nos. 320–325 and for the one from the Prince Ding Collection, Treasury 2, no. 362, where it is grouped with other bottles bearing the prince’s hall name. There was another sold recently in China (China Guardian, Beijing, 21 October 1996, lot 1932) and a more obvious example from the J & J Collection is illustrated in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 156. Others are illustrated in Moss 1971, nos. 145 and 148 (also no. 146, which is now in this collection [Treasury 2, no. 322] and no. 147, the J & J fish), and in Sotheby’s, New York, 22 September 1995, lot 150. It now seems possible that the green relief chalcedony, no. 211 in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993 (better illustrated in colour in Stevens 1976, no. 520) may be from the hand of this master whose works are linked as much by technique and genius as by any predictable style. No. 521 in the same publication may also be by him. One more example, definitely by the master and decorated with a five-clawed dragon which, from the mid-Qing period implies an imperial product, remains as yet unpublished (Hugh Moss records). The bottle with the five-clawed dragon also has a distinct flat upper neck rim of typical palace style. This is a very unusual feature on any Official school bottle and may indicate that the Cameo Ink-play Master worked, for at least part of his career, at the palace workshops.

Although a discreet example, this bottle bears all the master’s hall marks. It is superbly made and hollowed and of an intriguing and exciting material. It is also well realized with masterly technique, but above all it is his extraordinary use of the natural markings in the material which sets it apart and identifies it as one of his creations. The gorgeous, transparent agate has striations running through it which the artist has aligned vertically as narrow-side decoration of considerable power, leaving the natural planes of colour in the stone on one main side, where they have been perfectly interpreted as a flower-head and a butterfly. The insect’s body and head take advantage of a darker line of colour, with an eye incised into the head, and the wings are carved using a natural paler splash in exactly the right place. It is a masterly ink-play agate and, like many of the finest, perfectly integrates editing of the coloured areas with additional detail in the ground colour, in this case the antennae, legs and rear-wing ends.

It also has another common feature of this master’s works: a high gloss finish. Intriguingly, when one compares the plain areas of this bottle with many others of the Official school, there seems to be no difference in polish, and yet a high gloss is the impression one gets from most of his works. It would appear to be an illusion set up by the extraordinary perfection of carving, finishing and polishing of the carved details that gives the impression of a higher gloss, indeed in some cases even a glitter.

The Cameo Ink-play Master favoured no particular shape, allowing his ink-play as much free-rein in interpreting form as decoration. Where there is decoration, he lets the form follow the dictates of the markings in the stone. Here the shape is probably prompted by the vertical banding on the narrow sides, positioned slightly off-centre to balance the relief at the front, which required a fairly narrow bottle with a continuous, even contour and no footrim to avoid any visual conflict with the powerful vertical banding. No doubt the fact that the main decoration was also perfectly suited to a circular frame was also taken into account.

The butterfly (die) is a long-acknowledged homonym for a word meaning a person seventy years of age. The idea of long life is here enhanced by the image of a peach flower, although among its array of symbolic significance, this particular connotation is perhaps more readily recognized in the fruit, the mythical peaches, believed to be able to prolong the life span of those fortunate enough to partake of them, than in the flower.


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Hugh Moss |