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The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 59 

Lot 59


Lot 59
Treasury 5, no.766 (‘Gold-Star Secret’)

A brown aventurine-glass snuff bottle

Streaky, semi-opaque brown glass suffused with crystalline copper ( known as ‘aventurine-glass’) and with air bubbles of various sizes; well hollowed, with a flat lip carved with a slightly recessed gutter, and a concave foot surrounded by a flat footrim
Attributable to the imperial glassworks, Beijing, 1736-1800
Height: 5.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.64/1.96 cm
Stopper: glass, carved with a coiled chi dragon, with integral collar

Provenance: Hugh M. Moss Ltd., Hong Kong (1999)

Treasury 5, no.766

Aventurine-glass results from the reduction of copper oxides to pure copper in crystalline form during the glassmaking process, leaving a mass of tiny, sparkling crystals within the material. First recorded at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it is thought to have been the invention of a glassmaking family named Miotto from Murano. Aventurine-glass is found in blue and green, but the original was translucent brown glass evenly flecked with crystalline copper, and became known in China as ‘gold-star’ glass (jinxing boli) or wendulina. Both terms are used in the archives from the Yongzheng period to the middle Qianlong (sometimes in the same entry, which makes one wonder if they were always perfectly synonymous); wendulina predominates in the Yongzheng archives, and jinxing boli in the Qianlong archives (Yang Naiji 1985, pp. 240 – 241). It was imported into China as early as 1700 and intrigued the court so much that the glassworks seems to have spent the first few decades of the eighteenth century trying to make it. They had succeeded by 1741, when d’Incarville and de Broussard produced ‘aventurine and blue glass’ (Yang Boda 1987, p. 79 and Gugong wenwu yuekan, no. 168, p. 41). Xia Gengqi 1995, p. 26, says that the records show that the two Jesuits worked at the Yuanming yuan and this type of glass was developed there, but since this was no more than a branch of the imperial glassworks, their precise location at the time is incidental. Although this reference has been taken to indicate the first time aventurine-glass was manufactured in China, it seems more likely to have been the first time it was successfully made at the imperial glassworks, as confirmed by D’Incarville in his Catalogue Alphabétique (thought to have been completed by 1748; see Curtis 1999, p. 73). He refers to his early unsuccessful attempts to make aventurine-glass: ‘The Chinese imitate it at Canton, but poorly. I tried to make it by order of the emperor, but I was not successful. I melted a piece of aventurine that came from Europe. It yielded me, at the base of the melting pot, a morsel of yellow copper. I myself made use of copper; apparently I am lacking some essential circumstance. I experimented with lead glass [and] I allowed what I had mixed to cool too soon. The copper filings blackened. Some say that it is necessary to use yellow talc; others claim that it is powdered gold, which has not yet been melted’ (Curtis 1999, p. 73). The most likely date for d’Incarville’s unsuccessful attempts would be in the early part of 1741. He arrived at Guangzhou only in October 1740 and would have had to journey to Beijing and settle in before receiving orders from the emperor. The records show that he was successful in making aventurine glass some time in 1741. The account of his early failed attempt seems to have been written before he mastered the art; had he written his account later, he would probably have indicated where he had gone wrong, rather than speculating whether he should use yellow talc or powdered gold.

The material was, he says, produced at Guangzhou prior to 1741, but the quality was low. Certainly, there is evidence that the Chinese could not yet make aventurine-glass in 1713, when Teodorico Pedrini wrote requesting a particular kind of glass be sent from Europe. He described it as: ‘red glass with gold sparkles, like a sunflower, and that shines, which ... they do not yet know how to make’ (Curtis 1995, p. xvii). Despite his use of the term ‘red glass’, the ‘gold sparkles’ seem to confirm that he is writing of aventurine-glass.

Since striations in the glass run straight across the neck, we know this example was carved from a solid block, but whether that block was imported from Europe or made in the imperial glassworks is less clear. We believe that it may be of locally produced material, since it lacks the homogeneity of the standard Italian import. The glass here is translucent and variegated, the tiny coppery flecks of an even, small size, but not so consistently glittery as those in the imported material, being mixed with streaks and areas of duller colour. This makes it distinctive and provides a good deal of its particular appeal.

This is one of the finest of all aventurine-glass bottles, and the form allows us to date it to the Qianlong period. An extremely rare feature of the detailing, and an indication of the care taken over the form, is found in the treatment of the lip. Instead of the standard flat or concave lip, the lapidary has carved out a shallow central trough or gutter, which is as pleasing as it is rare.

Knowing that hardstone bottles for the court were regularly carved at Suzhou and, during the mid-Qing period, also at Yangzhou, we cannot be absolutely certain that this was carved at Beijing. The likelihood remains that it was, since this was the case with other instances of this form (the Qianlong-marked plain blown glass bottles being examples). The most likely date, if we are reading the variegated material correctly as being local, would be in the few decades after 1741, but, erring on the side of safety, we have allowed a broader dating range.


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