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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 21 

Lot 21

   

Lot 21
Treasury 1, no. 186
HK$96,000

The Imperial-Birthday Jadeite

Jadeite with polychrome pigment; well hollowed with a concave foot surrounded by a tiny convex footrim; incised on one side with a linear design of a convoluted natural rock formation with a pine tree, bamboo, narcissus, and lingzhi, and on the other with a poem incised in clerical script followed by ‘Inscribed above is [a poem on] immortals offering birthday good wishes’, the incising filled with colours
Probably imperial, attributed to the palace workshops, Beijing, 1760–1820
Height: 6.33 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.58/2.03 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; mother-of-pearl finial; vinyl collar

Lot 21 Provenance:
Kaynes-Klitz Collection
Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 30 October 1990, lot 118

Published:
Treasury 1, no. 186

Lot 21 Commentary
The more we learn about symbolism in the snuff-bottle world, the more it becomes apparent that a significant proportion of snuff bottles were made as gifts of one kind or another. This unique bottle is a birthday gift. The red-coloured inscription following the poem makes this abundantly clear as does the poem itself and the longevity symbolism of the pine and lingzhi. The narcissus, a flower that blooms in the spring, is associated particularly with the New Year. It indicates annual renewal, again appropriate for a birthday, while the bamboo, although included here as a specific pun (see below), would also suggest that the recipient has the qualities of a gentleman associated with that plant (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 17).

The inscription reads:

In this magnificent hall are assembled many Immortals.
They offer to the host of the sumptuous birthday banquet a hundred year [life-span].
[Like] the fungi that develop into nine stems after receiving [nourishment from] the rain and dew;
[Like] the thousand-foot tall twisting pine [whose swaying branches] brush away the clouds and mists;
[Even] bitter cold does not affect its verdant green and ancient [appearance].
May [your] life be as long as the constant symbols — the sun and the moon.
In addition, there is the bamboo along the Qi River, full of vigour.
Together [let us] sing praises on [the summit of this] mound and wish [you] many happy returns.
         
The Qi River is a tributary of the Wei River in Henan province. The reference to the bamboos along it echoes the wording of the first line of a Book of Poetry song (no. 55) supposedly composed for a Duke Wu of the state of Wei on his ninetieth birthday.

The design, apart from its generally auspicious symbolism, also illustrates an auspicious phrase Qunxian zhushou (The Immortals offer their felicitous birthday wishes). Qun means ‘several’ and xian (Immortals) is suggested by the narcissus (shuixian). The bamboo (zhu) shares the same sound with the word ‘to congratulate’, while the idea of longevity (shou) is symbolized by the pine, the fungus of immortality (lingzhi), the bamboo and the rock.

The style is, in every way, pure court style of the late-Qianlong period which probably persisted into the Jiaqing but seems to have largely lost its influence by the Daoguang period. Despite the longer possible date range, the bottle was probably made during the last decade or two of the Qianlong reign. The fact that the bottle is jadeite would also suggest that it does not pre-date the last decades of the eighteenth century when the material first began to be used in some quantity as an alternative and highly valued type of jade (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 171).

The combination of auspicious subject matter with poems, often by the emperor himself, is typical of a wide range of decorative panels made in the various palace workshops and elsewhere as tribute to the court or on orders from it for the large numbers of imperial residences with their many rooms. They are found in wood, lacquer, cloisonné enamel and other media. Inscriptions on them are sometimes coloured in this way to separate the main poem from the descriptive title referring to it. It is common to find as the initial character of the descriptive title on these panels designations such as ‘To the right ...,’ (as in this case) or ‘above.’ It is a form apparently confined to these courtly wares.

The painterly style of the incising and its obvious artistic qualities may indicate the involvement of a court artist. The simple, commanding and wholly confident linear design, elegantly laid out, speaks of a highly artistic and confident hand, as does the very
effective use of four different colours (blue, green, yellow and red) in so abstract a manner. They may appear to be naturalistic, but that was of secondary concern to the artist who chose and deployed them primarily for their abstract balance. It is possible that the bottle may have been made at the palace workshops as a gift for a prominent courtier, or for the emperor. As a rule, when such panels and other objects with inscriptions were made as gifts for the emperor, they were signed by the donor with the character chen (your servant) preceding the name, but it may be absent here because the donor’s name does not appear. When the emperor was the direct patron, such works of art are often accompanied by some designation of imperial involvement as the author of the poem or the initiator of the order (yuti, ‘imperial composition’, or yuzhi, ‘imperial manufacture,’ also translated as ‘By imperial command). The fact that this otherwise entirely imperial-looking object has neither suggests as an alternative possibility that it may have been a gift within the court but not involving the emperor personally. It is not known to what extent the imperial princes and other high officials had access to production at imperial workshops for their own requirements, but it is likely that, with imperial approval, works of art would have been produced under the patronage of other members of the imperial family.

Whatever its original provenance, this imposing snuff bottle is unique. The jadeite itself is of a relatively undistinguished material, although if it had been hollowed to paper-thinness as was the fashion at about this time, it would have passed as a pleasant enough, slightly bluish-grey material except for one fairly large paler flaw low on one side. The mildly negative qualities of the material have been transformed into positive qualities by its use as an ideal ‘canvas’ for the painting, with the flaw cleverly incorporated into the lower area of the rock. As such, the diagonal streaks visible under close examination give the simply-outlined design greater depth by providing a mysterious, misty background.

It is also very well formed, with an unusual variation on the standard oval shape, with the oval extended and matched with reasonably high shoulders and a beautifully detailed, concave, oval foot. It matches in its design and style a wide range of imperial panels from the latter part of the Qianlong period which decorate various arts, and appear on imperial furniture.

 

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Hugh Moss |