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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 33 

Lot 33

   

Lot 33
Treasury 2, no. 307
HK$168,000

Your Steed Awaits

Jasper; well hollowed with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved on each main side with a cameo design of a standing horse
Official school, probably imperial, 1740–1840
Height: 5.2 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.68/1.71 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; turquoise collar

Lot 33 Provenance:
Ko Collection (Tianjin or Beijing, 1943)
Christie’s, London, 8 November 1976, lot 154
Belfort Collection (1986)
Published:
Jutheau 1980, p. 116, fig. 1
Kleiner 1995, no. 282
Treasury 2, no. 307
Exhibited:
L’Arcade Chaumet, Paris, June 1982
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 33 Commentary
There is ample evidence that the workshops that carved chalcedony also carved jasper. There are plenty of examples where chalcedony or agate bottles can be matched up to their jasper equivalents to show that the same workshop and in some cases the same hand carved both. Most of the popular themes of the Official school are regularly found in both materials, and jasper equivalents of chalcedony or agate subjects can be seen, for instance, in Stevens, 1976, no. 482; Zhongguo biyanhu zhenshang (Gems of Chinese Snuff Bottles), nos. 313–315, and Moss 1971, nos. 120, 122, 123, 124 and 129. No. 313 in Zhongguo biyanhu zhenshang is decorated with two rather similarly rounded horses in the same style and might be from the same hand, and both are linked stylistically to the previous four examples in the Bloch collection (Treasury 2, nos. 303–306), suggesting the possibility of the same workshop for all of them.

This is one of the masterpieces of parti-coloured cameo bottles. Not only is it of unusually small size for a bottle of this type, but the material is as striking as that of Treasury 2, no. 304, with its five distinct planes of colour. Here we have four, rare enough in its own right in snuff-bottle production, cleverly ranged by the artist to allow an impressive contrasting relief of a different colour on each side. It is also rare in being carved in far more convincing three-dimensionality than is usual. Although by definition any relief carving is three-dimensional, the tendency was to treat the relief, at least to some extent, as a raised plane for a distinctly two-dimensional depiction (see discussion under Treasury 2, no. 304). Here the horses are fully rounded rather than linear profiles. It is also extremely rare in that one horse is not in the usual Official school profile style, but is shown as a three-quarter view from the back of the beast, another indication of sculptural realism which sets it apart from the group as a whole. Even the more usual profile on the other side is extraordinarily realistic. Compare it with Treasury 2, no. 301, for instance, a horse set in a very similar pose, and the difference is immediately obvious between the standard, flat, simplified and typically Chinese rendition of a horse-type and the specific sculptural realism of this one, with its three-dimensional body fully and convincingly sculptured in the round. It is probably from the same workshop and hand as the other masterpieces of the subject and there are many similarities of stylistic detail, but something here has inspired the artist to vary the overall standard for the subject, possibly the influence of Castiglione. In the field of enamels we know that court artists, whether Chinese or Jesuit, prepared designs and even became involved in the task of actually painting bottles, and we may assume that they would also have been involved in the production of other snuff-bottle arts at court. Castiglione produced a number of horse paintings, including the famous long handscroll of one hundred horses (click here for a relevant example), and what set them apart from the usual Chinese renditions of horses was his ability to depict them in any position and from any angle with equal dexterity and conviction.

 Now, it is clear that artists long before the Jesuits had challenged themselves with other-than-side views (and this was largely an artistic interest, since a person judging horses is likely to look first at how they trot, which requires viewing from the side). We have examples from the Five Dynasties; from Zhao Mengfu and another Yuan artist; and not one but two from Tang Yin in the Ming, and a great many on ink blocks. But the basic point remains the same, whether the inspiration is Jesuit or traditional art, the models and ideas were most likely to be found in the court, where these works and the people who were familiar with them could be found.

 

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Hugh Moss |