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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2013: Lot 39 

Lot 39

Lot 39
Treasury 1, no. 21 (‘Chi in Clouds Pebble’)
HK$325,000

Nephrite of pebble material; very well hollowed, with a recessed foot; carved on each side with a chi dragon with flames on its flanks
Possibly imperial, 1730–1850
Height: 6.76 cm
Mouth/lip: 1.04/1.59 cm
Stopper: coral; turquoise finial; silver collar

Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (Hong Kong, 1992)

Published:
Treasury 1, no. 21

This is one of the most exotic pieces of pebble material known in the snuff bottle world. The core material is of variegated black and speckled grey-beige colour, while the unusually thick outer skin is equally varied and quite fascinating, with a honey-brown surface giving way to an intriguingly dark-brown speckled layer. A cross-section at the foot reveals the unusual thickness of this outer skin and its relationship to the other two colours. The three main colours then blend into each other unevenly, creating swirling, ragged markings as if ink and colours have been bled into each other, wet, on the sophisticated xuan paper of the Chinese artist. The result is a dynamic impression of swirling storm clouds that would have been immensely powerful without any decoration. With the selection of the two superbly carved, low-relief, sinuous dragons, the clouds find their ideal companions, and the dragons, associated with the sky and with rain as well as with the Emperor, complete the creative magic that the artist must have seen hidden in the pebble when he decided upon this subject.

The carving of the beasts is ideally matched to the material and, undoubtedly because of the intensely evocative nature of the storm-cloud nephrite, the artist has cleverly confined the beasts to a shallow relief plane, integrating them with the cloud-like markings of the stone and giving the impression that they are engulfed in the clouds, whereas in fact they are, in terms of relief carving, entirely superimposed upon them.

The carving of the dragons is masterful and imbues them, despite the low relief, with immense musculature and power. Both creatures have thin, flickering flames emanating from their haunches in a style derived from mythical beasts of antiquity and also sometimes found on chi dragons of the Qing period, although those on the beast carved out of the softer skin material have been almost worn away through handling because of the delicacy of the carving. The extensive wear all over this bottle speaks of a great deal of handling, and it is easy to see how a bottle with such a strong tactile appeal proved irresistible to generations of snuff takers. It is difficult to put down today, even without the added incentive of its original addictive contents.

The very tentative imperial designation is based upon the subject matter (see discussion under Sale 6, lot 196) and the known imperial love of pebble material, and the mid-Qing dating upon its unusually wide mouth in relation to the lip. It is not a type of pebble material frequently found in bottles made at the palace, however, and with existing records of gifts made by officials from all over the country for the emperor and presented as tribute, it is quite possible that a bottle of this sort may have been made at a non-imperial workshop but with a subject designed to appeal to the emperor. It is always worth bearing in mind the very uncertain nature of our knowledge of what was made where.

 

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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