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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 10 

Lot 10


Lot 10
Treasury 4, no. 469
Estimated: HK$96,000

Annual Abundance

Pale brown crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and protruding flat foot; painted on one main side with two catfish swimming amidst aquatic plants, inscribed in draft script ‘Painted from life by Zhou Leyuan in a winter month in the year yiyou’, the other main side with three large fish (catfish, carp, and mandarin fish) and four minnows, also swimming around aquatic plants
Bottle: 1740–1860
Painting: Zhou Leyuan, Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, winter, 1885
Height: 5.06 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.60/1.62 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Lot 10 Provenance:
S. Marchant and Son, Ltd. (prior to 1968)
Hugh Moss (1987)

Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 4, p. 57, fig. 10
Snuff Bottles of the Ch’ing Dynasty, no. 220
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 311
Treasury 4,no. 469

Hong Kong Museum of Art, October–December 1978
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

Lot 10 Commentary
The main fish depicted here are the catfish (nianyu), the carp (liyu) and the mandarin fish (guiyu). The image of the catfish alone would conjure up the phrase, niannian youyu, meaning ‘[May you be blessed with] abundance year after year.’ The combination of the images of the catfish and the carp would yield another phrase, niannian dali, meaning ‘[May you be blessed with] great profit year after year.’ The combination of the catfish and the mandarin fish would produce yet another phrase, niannian dagui, meaning ‘[May you be blessed with] great honour year after year.’ The pair of catfish together may also imply conjugal harmony (which is probably much easier to maintain with all that abundance, wealth and honour).

The year 1885 was obviously an important one for Zhou Leyuan. Having established his new style, better suited to inside-painted snuff bottles than the old, lantern-painting style with which he began his career (see under Treasury 4, no. 466), his works appear to have become very sought after in 1885. While there are only a few bottles from the preceding years, there appears to have been a sudden burst of activity in this year. Bearing in mind that what is recorded in Hugh Moss Records is an incomplete survey of what exists in the world, and that what still exists is only a part of what was originally produced, we can still assume that if there are only a couple of bottles in the Records for one year, and then suddenly more than a dozen from the next, it indicates a trend and suggests he painted many more bottles in the year from which more survive. 1885 was also a key year in terms of his repertoire. Prior to this year his paintings were mostly of landscape or auspicious objects, the latter appearing on the majority of his earlier output. In 1885 he suddenly broadened his range considerably, presumably in response to his obvious success and the demand for his paintings. It is sensible for a commercial artist to expand his range as his customer-base grows, offering more choice and avoiding the impression that one paints only a couple of subjects with any success. It is equally inevitable for a serious artist to explore an expanded range of subjects as his art evolves, and it will evolve more rapidly if more work is being produced. His fish paintings first appear in this year and are immediately masterful and become an enduring and endearing part of his subsequent repertoire. In the same year, he also brings his tiny figures out of the landscape to give them star-billing as the main subject. Exotic birds first appear, as do the insects on a rocky bank and the boy on the buffalo (one of the few newly introduced subjects where one sees any hint of artistic hesitance and uncertainty), and, finally, the charming naughty school children of Treasury 4, no. 471. 1885 was clearly a fruitful year both artistically and commercially.

Apart from the rare and lovely shape of the earlier crystal bottle, this is one of Zhou’s great masterpieces from the first half of his career. The depth of the crystal and the roundness of the interior hollowing have inspired Zhou to create a wholly convincing underwater world, furnished with wonderfully understated aquatic plants. In it the fish are so finely painted in their various positions that one can read their movement into the scene, feel the tensile, casual, confident flip of a tail as it guides the fish through the water, turning in this direction and that. It is intriguing that in a bottle with a continuous curve inside and having painted the same subject on each side, Zhou did not make it a continuous scene as he did with Treasury 4, no. 470, which is from the same month. The two sides are very clearly meant to be read as separate paintings, as can be seen from the narrow side. One possible reason for this is that he was experimenting with a new subject, but his confidence is so obvious in every other aspect of these two works, that there must be more to it than that. It is possibly contained in the symbolism. As a continuous subject the number of fish would not be so significant and it would be harder to isolate the imagery of the two catfish on their own, which offers the additional symbolism of marital harmony. It is perhaps significant that they are absent from Treasury 4, no. 470.

Easy link to this page: http://www.e-yaji.com/auction/photo.php?photo=177&exhibition=1&ee_lang=eng


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