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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 49 

Lot 49


Lot 49
Treasury 4, no.581 (‘Ma Shaoxuan's Preface’)

An inside-inscribed rock-crystal 'Lanting Preface' snuff bottle

Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a slightly concave lip and protruding concave foot surrounded by a flat footrim; inscribed on both main sides with an extract from Wang Xizhi's `Lanting Preface', followed by ‘The foregoing is] an extract’, and by one seal of the artist, Shao, in negative seal script, the shoulders inscribed ‘[Executed] in the year wuxu of the Guangxu period by Ma Shaoxuan’, followed by one seal of the artist, Shao, also in negative seal script, the inscriptions all in regular script
Bottle: 1770-1898
Painting: Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing, 1898
Height: 7cm
Mouth/lip: 0.49/1.29cm
Stopper: jadeite

Sigurd Larsen
Bob C. Stevens
Sotheby's, New York, 26 March 1982, lot 240
Janos Szekeres
Sotheby's, New York, 27 October 1986, lot 230

Stevens 1976, no. 840
Chinese Snuff Bottles and Dishes, no. 293
Snuff Bottle Review, December 1978, p. 8
JICSBS, Autumn 1986, p.1
Kleiner 1987, no. 288
JICSBS, Spring 1988, front cover
Kleiner 1995, no. 411
Ma Zengshan 1997, p. 84, figs. 87 and 88
Treasury 4, no.581

Mikimoto Hall, Tokyo, October 1978
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Galeries Lafayette, Paris, April 1990 Creditanstalt, Vienna, May—June 1993 British Museum, London, June—November 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July—November 1997
Christie’s, London, 1999

Here are extracted the first twenty sentences (as defined by the original Chinese text, rather than Lin Yutang's translation, for which see Sale 1, lot 28) of Wang Xizhi’s famous work.

Ma's calligraphy in regular script was excellent by any standards and extraordinary considering the constraints of writing with a pen rather than a brush and on the inside surface of a snuff bottle. Although most of his works are backed with one side of calligraphy in regular script, he did, from time to time, do bottles which were entirely calligraphic. As a rule, these either consist of excerpts from, or the entire text of, the ‘Lanting Preface' or some famous ancient poem. Ma Zengshan believes that Ma first thought of producing bottles inscribed only with calligraphy in 1898, but we have a record of one from 1894 and others from 1895, 1896, and 1897, apart from later versions.

We suspect that this bottle was made for Ma to paint. There was a series of pear-shaped crystal bottles apparently made for the Beijing artists from the early 1890s into the twentieth century and, although of a much longer, more elegant form, this fits into the group. This and the others all display certain signs that they were made at the turn of the century rather than earlier. Here the detailing of the foot is unusual: the protruding foot has been scooped to give the impression of a recessed foot, but it ends up as neither a proper recession nor a normal concave foot. The unusualness of the form, however, does allow that it might just be an earlier, plain crystal bottle that happened to have an eccentric foot. Bottles of a series of elongated forms similar to this are known without any decoration.

Whenever it was made, it inspired Ma Shaoxuan to produce one of his great masterpieces, with the characters faultlessly aligned in the tapering shape. Ma has gradually expanded the format of his calligraphy as he moves down the bottle to give the impression of evenly spaced calligraphy despite the unevenness of the form and he has achieved it so cleverly that without callipers one would not normally notice that there is a difference in breadth of three millimetres between the calligraphy at the top and at the bottom of his inscription. This cleverly gives the impression that the characters are in even, vertical lines while, at the same time, giving the impression that they also fill the available space. The addition of the inscription around the shoulders also helps with this illusion by diverting attention formally from the narrower upper area of characters and providing a wider stretch of characters to offset this narrowness.


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Hugh Moss |