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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2013: Lot 74 

Lot 74

Lot 74
Treasury 1, no. 141
HK$250,000

Nephrite of pebble material; well hollowed, with a recessed, rounded-rectangular foot; carved with a landscape scene with a tree growing from a rocky crag above three figures, two of whom are sitting on the ground with a bowl of fruit and two cups in front of them, one holding what appears to be a rod while the other strokes his beard, while a third stands behind looking on and a wisp of cloud emerges from behind the head of one of the seated figures and curls upwards to frame the distant sun, as another drifts around the rocky crag and extends onto one narrow side of the bottle above one of the mask-and-ring handles, with the rocky ground continued beneath the bottle to act as one irregular side to the otherwise formal footrim
Master of the Rocks school, 1740–1860
Height: 6.6 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.55/1.90 cm
Stopper: lapis-lazuli, carved and reticulated with a chi dragon; silver collar

Provenance:
Sotheby’s, London, 6 June 1988, lot 224

Published:
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 53
Treasury 1, no. 141

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

Under Sale 6, lot 175, we discussed the similarity in quality and artistry between the Master of the Rocks school and the Suzhou school of carving. Another feature linking the two is seen here in the continuation of the design under the foot. This represents more than a simple design choice. It is also a mark of commitment on the part of the artist and, significantly, occurs only on the best works from both schools (although the best can also be found without this feature). To continue the design beneath the foot requires extra work to carve rocks, water, or whatever, but it also requires additional imaginative input. The detail is to some extent, therefore, a luxurious extra that seems to confirm the commitment of the artist.

The material here is the standard for the school, with its yellowish olive-green pebble material combined with a richly varied brown skin. Another feature of the school worth noting, and which distinguishes it stylistically from the classic Suzhou school wares, is the use of the colour. At Suzhou, natural colours in the material were used brilliantly but in obvious ways, to completely separate elements of the design. The use of colour by this school is generally more subtle. It is used in some instances to separate details (see, for instance, the branches and leaves of the tree), but as a rule, a great deal of the subject is carved using brown on brown.

The ground colour is usually only defined to differentiate broad areas of sky, or sometimes water, from the main body of the landscape. The details of figures, trees, rocks, etc. are then carved in the brown skin, leaving a much subtler tonal difference between relief and ground plane. This can be seen here with the group of figures. Being in higher relief, they use more of the skin and are, therefore, darker; the ground on which they are set is paler and seeps to the core colour as it shades off to the distant horizon. This gives great subtlety of depth to the subject. The established Suzhou school tended to create depth in a more straightforward way, by the use of multiple planes of carving, with each colour committed to a particular detail, whereas here the depth is more painterly and more subtle. A Suzhou bottle is instantly impressive, even at a distance, whereas these are more like Chinese paintings: one needs to become absorbed in them to perceive their subtler meaning and hidden depths, which is, doubtless, why we have taken so long to recognize their very considerable merits.

This use of the subtle potential of the skin was obviously what the school was all about, since most of the carving tends to be concentrated in areas with brown skin and, as here, large areas of the core material are usually left undecorated.

Other than the figures in landscape and the subtler use of colour, the standard features of the school are found here: the towering peaks made up of confidently but simply outlined jagged planes, the ground plane of similar style but oriented horizontally, the well-carved gnarled tree trunks and branches balanced by both realistic and abstract use of clumps of leaves, and the wispy clouds curling in and out of the design elements to give an impression of depth (see discussion under no. 137 Lot 32 in this sale).

Another feature of these bottles is their excellent formal integrity and hollowing. The interior hollowing here closely follows the exterior profile, as in most really painstaking hollowing. The school never followed the mid-Qing trend for virtuoso hollowing, preferring, it seems, to concentrate its skills on the artistic interpretation of the material, but this example is unusually well hollowed.

One obvious basic division in the depiction of taotie masks for mask-and-ring handles is whether or not the creatures have pronounced ears. One standard type of mask has the entire head surrounded by a series of formalized curls without visible ears (see, for instance, no. 116 in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993) . Another has defined ears, in which case the curls are usually absent, or greatly reduced. The beasts of this particular school have the most distinctive ears of them all. They hang, like those of a cocker-spaniel, from high on the sides of the head down to the jowls, framing the face. These long, curving, floppy ears seem unique to this school; individualistic masks on certain wares made at or for the court sometimes have similar ears, but they always seem to be smaller.

 

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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