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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 54 

Lot 54


Lot 54
Treasury 3, no. 383 (‘The Mythical Egg Soapstone’)

A soapstone 'phoenix' snuff bottle

Soapstone, adequately but not extensively hollowed, with a flat lip and no foot; carved in low relief with a continuous design of two fenghuang with branches of flowering peony
Height: 5.2 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.45/.96 cm
Stopper: green glass with pink glass finial

Edith Griswold
Sotheby’s, New York, 31 May 1994, lot 771

Treasury 3, no. 383

This superb little carving ranks as one of the finest of all surviving Chinese soapstone snuff bottles. The material is, like Sale 1, lot 23, the mottled creamy and reddish Shoushan stone, although with more of the beige, creamy colour. Shoushan means ‘longevity mountain’, and it is the region where a great deal of soapstone was mined. One of the distinctive materials from that area has this range of reddish colouring, sometimes in a creamy matrix, and colour is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of all the different soapstones from this area. Shoushan as a term is normally applied only to stone that is heavily figured with this range of dark, mahogany-red colour. If this bottle were made purely from the beige or cream-coloured material, it would be harder to recognize as specifically Shoushan material and, depending on its colour, translucency and consistency, it might attract another name. It is one of the problems with the connoisseurship of stones in this field that so often the distinguishing names relate to colours, textures, or markings in the stone, and thus different sections of a single mined specimen might end up with two entirely different names. What distinguishes this example among Shoushan stone is the obviously dendritic nature of much of the red colouring. Had the artist not chosen to depict the imperial bird, the dendritic potential in the stone might have suggested other possible subjects.

Correctly speaking, the feng and the huang are the male and female of a fabulous bird in Chinese mythology (commonly translated into English as the ‘phoenix’). Because of its magnificent appearance and rarity, it has long been revered as the most regal bird among all species and, by extension, emblematic of the emperor and the empress. The peony, apart from, or perhaps partly because of, being one of the most spectacular and exuberant flowers known, symbolised prosperity and honour.

The carving here is in extraordinary condition for so soft and fragile a material in a bottle that must surely be at least a century old. The design is exquisitely carved and detailed with great fluency. It should be remembered, however, that standards for soapstone carving are quite different from those for the carving of many other materials, and particularly the other hardstones. The seventeenth-century school of soapstone carving in Fujian province, where a group of artists rose above the usual anonymity of the Chinese craftsman to become famous as artists in their own right, created artistic and technical standards for soapstone carving and sculpture that have never been bettered.

The combination of a superbly carved exterior with a well-carved but not extensively hollowed interior, proves, yet again, that degree of hollowing has very little to do with quality as an absolute. Soapstone being a fragile and weak material, additional thickness in the walls added strength, so soapstone bottles were never excessively hollowed out. Soapstone bottles hollowed to the same extent as the super-hollowed jade bottles of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, upon which our standards of hollowing are based, would have shattered very easily.


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Hugh Moss |