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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 134 

Lot 134


Lot 134
Treasury 6, no. 1186

Pillar of the Court

Crackled, colourless glaze on cobalt on beige porcelain; with a very slightly convex lip and flat circular foot; painted in underglaze blue with a continuous design of an imperial five-clawed dragon in pursuit of a flaming pearl; the unglazed foot carved with concentric rings; the lip, inner neck, and interior glazed
Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen, 1800–1860
Height: 8.02 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.79/1.80 cm
Stopper: coral; gilt-bronze collar

Lot 134 Provenance:
Sotheby’s, London, 6 June 1988, lot 16

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 177
Treasury 6, no. 1186
JICSBS, Winter 2008, p. 17, fig 2

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum of Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

Lot 134 Commentary
An error of judgement over the group of bottles represented by this example led to a re-assessment of their period shortly after the publication of Treasury 6. Hugh Moss wrote an article to correct this error (‘The Wrong End of the Dragon,’ JICSBS, Winter 2008, pp. 16-22). They represent an early-nineteenth century imperial group, and since the publication of Treasury 6, one has come to light bearing a Daoguang reign mark (Hugh Moss Records). They remain, as a group, one of the most striking of imperial blue-and-white porcelain snuff bottles, and, as an imperial group despite a usual lack of reign-marks, obviously still rank as important. What the authors did write in Treasury 6,still holds, that despite the prominence given to an example from the Arthur Loveless Collection by Lilla Perry (Perry, Adventures, no. 57), their excellent qualities have been somewhat overlooked until quite recently.

Apart from being one of the most imposing of all groups of underglaze-decorated bottles, they are also quite obviously imperial (five-clawed dragons are standard in the group). The strictly cylindrical form is attested in palace snuff bottles from the second half of the Qianlong period (see, for instance, the enamelled glass bottle in the imperial collection in Li Jiufang 2002, no. 6, another of which is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection) and there is marked Jiaqing-reign porcelain example of the same form with an imitation guanyao glaze in the imperial collection in Beijing (Li Jiufang 2002, no. 33) but as a rule it did not become popular with ceramic snuff bottles until the early-nineteenth century.

These cylindrical bottles are undoubtedly the subject of the mention made by Zhou Jixu in his commentary (with a preface dated 1893) on Zhao Zhiqian’s late nineteenth century book on the subject of snuff and snuff bottles (Zhao Lynn Commentaries II): ‘Old porcelain snuff bottles are all round in the shape of a pillar. The decoration on them might be either a dragon embracing a pillar, or a lone figure fishing in a snowy river, or twelve lotus blossoms, all of which are superior objects’. He is typically sweeping in his claim that all old porcelain snuff bottles are of this shape — but if the competing forms of imperial porcelain snuff bottles from the early-Qianlong Tang Ying group were largely invisible to Western students of the second half of the twentieth century, they may also have been to Zhou Jixu in the second half of the nineteenth.

Their design source is made obvious by the strictly cylindrical form and by their decoration: they are inspired by a practice that was common at the court and in other imperial palaces for formal occasions. Columns would be decorated by wrapping them in carpets woven with a dragon design that, when the carpet was laid flat on the floor, showed a dragon sliced into two or three separate parts that only became a coherent whole when the two edges of the carpet were joined by wrapping them around the column. The carpets are known as ‘pillar rugs’ or ‘pillar carpets’, so the designation of ‘pillar bottles’ for the snuff bottles inspired by them would seem appropriate. Normally, these are said to be the product of Tibet and Mongolian areas, and some sources state that they are for the use of the Living Buddha, the Dalai Lama. However, the Qianlong emperor, who made full use of the čakravartin concept, the notion of the Buddhist ruler to moves the world towards enlightenment through the extension of his political power, would certainly have been the first to co-opt such a symbol. (Hong Taiji had been declared a čakravartin a century earlier, but the Qianlong emperor was not passive in such matters.) Naturally, dragon-carved pillars are all over China, in Daoist and Confucian temples and in shrines to culture heroes, and it would be difficult to state categorically that they had no resonances with the pillar bottles. However, the similarity between the Buddhist pillar-carpet designs and the bottles is so remarkable, the concentric rings on the bases is so descriptive of a rolled carpet, and the ubiquity of the five-clawed dragon is so telling, that it is almost irresistible to see, at least in the early stages of the combination of this shape and this design, the echoes of čakravartinism.

The painting here is on the type of surface discussed in Treasury 6, pp. 49-50, which became popular during the mid-Qing period, and which allowed far better control of line despite the use of underglaze pigments, but the type is also found on normal porcelain surfaces. What is so impressive about the entire group, and certainly the best of them, is the extraordinary verve of the painting, regardless of which surface underlies the design. The dragons are powerful, dynamic beasts with a vivid presence, as impressive as any dragon subject on snuff bottles. They are among the masterpieces of underglaze decorated snuff bottles and deserve greater respect than they have been afforded in the past.

For other examples see JICSBS, Autumn 1999, p. 13, fig. 1; Au Hang 1993, no. 268; Sotheby’s, New York, 17 September 1996, lot 163; Sotheby’s, New York, 17 March 1997, lot 370; Kleiner 1997, no. 90, (a splendid example on a crackled, beige ground). Underglaze-red versions are known, although they are considerably rarer. (See for instance Lin and Philips 1983, no. 105; and Kleiner 1997, no. 91.) As a rule, the dragon’s eyes are in underglaze-blue. Another still-rarer variation has a blue dragon on a red ground (Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 28 April 1993, lot 494). They also exist with a colourless glaze (appearing white) and engraved dragons where only the eyes are in underglaze-blue (see for instance Sotheby’s, New York, 17 March 1997, lot 371). One of these was already in the Bragge Collection prior to 1876. Bragge, Bibliotheca Nicotiana, no. 159, records the object: ‘Cylindrical, tall, white; five-clawed dragon and clouds, incised under glaze; stopper, a kylin in ivory; 13 rings on bottom’. Right down to the concentric rings on the biscuit base, there is no doubt as to what type of bottle this entry designates. A still rarer variation is the iron-red example of Treasury 6, no. 1269, although it is different in form, shorter and without the widely flared neck. For other examples of the overall group of dragon pillars, including some rare variations, see Treasury 6, nos. 1270–1274.

The dragon is vested with many symbolic meanings: authority, power, regality, superiority, and even long life (because of its sinuous body). The flaming pearl it plays with is probably originated from the Buddhist cintâmani, a fabulous gem capable of responding to all wishes.


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Hugh Moss |