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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 16 

Lot 16


Lot 16
Treasury 7, no. 1487

Long-lived Bronze

Coconut shell and bamboo; with no functional foot; made of two convex segments held together with eight bamboo pins around the edges; carved on one main side with an oval panel with an encomium on snuff in relief seal script, followed by one seal of the artist, Youshan, all on a rough, stippled ground, and on the other with an irregular panel, also with a roughened ground plane, with a relief inscription taken from an ancient bronze, with a regular-script transcription beside it: ‘Huiji made this sacrificial tripod for use in his prayer for a long life’
Youshan, 1810–1900
Height: 6.65 cm
Mouth: 0.48 cm
Stopper: coral, in the form of a severed twig

Lot 16 Provenance:
The Fulford Collection
H. G. Beasley
Miss M. A. Beasley
Sotheby’s, London, 2 July 1984, lot 76

Kleiner 1987, no. 210
Orientations, October 1987, front cover and p. 45, no. 19
Treasury 7, no. 1487

Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May-June 1993

Lot 16 Commentary
This magnificent example of a literati coconut-shell snuff bottle is of the simplest construction method consisting only of two convex segments of the shell joined together (see discussion under Treasury 7, no. 1486, and for another example, Moss 1971a, p. 95, no. 145). Although glue was probably used, the two sides are held precisely in place and the join strengthened by the use of small pins. In this case they are made of bamboo (there are eight of them) almost symmetrically placed around the edges, in other examples they appear to be made from coconut-shell (see, for instance, Treasury 7, no. 1369). This is also one of the larger known examples of the type, giving it greater capacity than is usual for bottles made in this manner.

One main side represents a standard for many of these literati coconut-shell bottles from the nineteenth century. It bears a copy of an inscription taken from an ancient bronze (although other ancient inscriptions may also feature) accompanied by a transcription of the text into a more readily legible form. The main reason for late-Qing, scholarly interest in ancient bronzes and stele was because they revealed the origins and evolution of the language. Many nineteenth century scholars collected the bronzes not so much for their own merits as for their inscriptions, and many scholars collected not the bronzes, but rubbings of their inscriptions. This was even more true of a stele, where the original was usually an unmanageable tablet of stone leaving rubbings as the only practical method of ‘collecting’ such inscriptions. Thus the correct interpretation of the ancient scripts was the focus of interest so that a bottle such as this would not only contain its physically addictive content it would also refer powerfully to the psychologically addictive process of scholarship itself.

On the other main side, our mysterious scholar-artist has played an intriguing visual game. He has either written, or borrowed an encomium on snuff, praising its virtues, and signing it modestly with only a seal containing his hao or adopted artistic name. It is all written in seal script confirming the artist’s scholarly nature. Here our mysterious Youshan has not only chosen an ancient script, but has set it against a stippled ground to imitate a relief inscription on an ancient stone stele - he has purposely varied the ground to make it different from the roughened ground of the bronze inscription on the other side.

The encomium reads:

Its taste is sour; its odour, fragrant.
It is used for clearing [the nose so as to] ease [breathing].

Youshan is a hao which means ‘Right-hand mountain,’ or ‘The Mountain on the Right.’ It is not recorded as having been adopted by any likely scholar, so the author of this masterpiece remains, for the time being, unidentified other than by his assumed artistic name. Whoever he was, and he may well be one of the known scholars who signed other works more recognizably, he was clearly well practised in the art of carving, and a master of the ‘iron-brush’ suggesting he was probably also a seal carver, as were so many literati artists.


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Hugh Moss |