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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VI  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2013: Lot 178 

Lot 178

Lot 178
Treasury 4, no. 500 (‘Zhou Leyuan’s Honourable Person’)
HK$75,000

Pale brown crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and a flat foot; painted with a continuous scene of a rocky outcrop with a katydid crawling on it above cabbages and a white flowering plant and three fan-tailed goldfish swimming in a pond beyond it, inscribed in draft script ‘Executed by Zhou Leyuan on a certain day in autumn of the year renchen,’ with one seal of the artist, Le yin (‘seal of Le’), in negative seal script
Zhou Leyuan, The Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, autumn, 1891
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar

Provenance:
Trojan Collection
Robert Hall (1993)

Published:
Hall 1992, no. 77
Treasury 4, no. 500

Exhibited:
Christie's, London, 1999

This subject, with the rocky outcrop wrapped around the bottle in a continuous scene, is the standard later version for Zhou; he painted it most frequently in 1891 and 1892, although its antecedents can be traced back to his early career. The painting is in close to studio condition, although there is some loss to the tails of the vermilion-coloured goldfish, which were painted in a pale colour that seems to have suffered the most from contact with snuff, although here we can still see the pale vermilion wash used to depict the tails. See also Sale 4, lot 4. The subject is always superbly painted, as with all Zhou’s mature works, with his usual, impeccable compositional grace and extraordinary technical facility. For another example of this classic, late version of the subject, see Sale 4, lot 77.

It is tempting to see this bottle as an old crystal bottle at the time of painting, as was Sale 2, lot 66, but the evidence is against it. Although it would have been easier to find old crystal bottles than old plain glass ones suitable for painting inside during the late Qing period, there is also ample evidence that the artists ordered custom-made crystal bottles in the same way that they ordered glass bottles, and this is one of the shapes we believe was more likely to have been custom-made. In this small size, it is a flat shape that is unusual in existing crystal bottles without painting, and it was used sufficiently often by the artists of the Beijing school to suggest that they were made during the same period that they were painted. The shape appears elsewhere in Zhou Leyuan’s output, and is a standard for Ye Zhongsan (see, for instance, Sale 4, lot 9, for a slightly taller version of the form) and it was also used by Ma Shaoxuan. As a rule, earlier crystal bottles would probably have been more capacious and bulbous than those frequently painted by Zhou and others at the turn of the century. Most of the painted examples are quite flat, better suited to painting than to capacity for snuff, which also seems to suggest that they were made at the time for painting inside. It is also likely that the output of Zhou Leyuan, working alone in the art form for most of his career, is indicative of the impracticality of buying old crystal bottles on a regular basis during the 1880s and early 1890s. At that time collectors and snuff-takers were still vying with each other for old bottles of merit and they would presumably have been expensive enough to prompt Zhou to have crystal bottles made as a rule, rather than pay the price of an old one. Zhou’s main output was in glass, which again suggests that crystal bottles were much more expensive to make, and even more costly to acquire from antique dealers if old. By the 1920s and 1930s, when Ye Zhongsan and his sons were producing large numbers of bottles, the market for old bottles had become so poor that for a few years they were able to work almost exclusively in old crystal bottles, suggesting, as Ye Bengqi confirmed to Hugh Moss in his 1974 interviews in Beijing, that it was cheaper to acquire existing crystal bottles than to buy even new glass ones.

 

This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s

 

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