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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1059 

Lot 1059
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Lot 1059
Treasury 5, no.1010 (‘Raw Silk’)
HK$687,500

Translucent white glass and slightly streaky pink glass; with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded foot rim; carved as a single overlay with a continuous scene of silk worms and cocoons set against a leafy branch of a mulberry tree on one main side and with a single leaf on the other
Probably Yangzhou, 1775-1890
Height: 6.58 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.72/1.32 cm
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar

Provenance:
Mr and Mrs Lionel Rosenberg
Sotheby’s, New York, 26 November 1991, lot 138

Published:
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 122
Zhao Ruzhen 1994, p. 43
JICSBS, Spring, 1997, p. 10, fig. 34
Treasury 5, no.1010

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

This rare single-overlay version of the silkworm subject is obviously related to Sale 1, lot 61 and Sale 7, lot 171. Were it not for the rare subject, there would be few clues that this probably comes from the same Yangzhou school. Once the connection is posited, however, we notice that this bottle is of an unusually flat shape that is repeated on a number of the more exuberant multiple overlays of the school; the foot rim is not particularly well matched to the overlay colour; and the undulating ground plane retains traces of the lapidary’s tools. Pink grounds and white overlay are found elsewhere in both the multiple overlays of the school and its lower-relief single-overlay counterparts, endorsing attribution to it.

A date in the mid-Qing period, reasonable even in the absence of a link to Yangzhou, becomes irresistible in the light the two that bear Qianlong dates. One of those was in the Stevens Collection and now graces the Holden Collection (Stevens 1976, not. 1006; Sotheby’s, New York, 25 June 1982, lot 10; Rachelle R. Holden 1994, no. 95; and JICSBS, Spring 1997, p. 12, figs. 45 and 46, where figs. 47 and 48 are a modern copy of it.) The other was in Sotheby’s, New York, 31 May 1994, lot 671, and JICSBS, Autumn 1994, p. 3, fig. 2. Both have dates corresponding to 1786; both have overlay relief Qianlong marks unusual for being on the side, not the foot. We once thought those two bottles were part of a group of overlay bottles in the Bloch Collection that includes Sale 6, lot 113, but since we now think that bottle was made for a Yu Changsui 于昌遂 (1829 – 1883) between his retirement to Yangzhou in 1861 and his death there in 1883, the reign-marked bottles obviously represent an earlier stage in the tradition.

As for this bottle, although it is spectacular as an overlay combination, a critical look at the carving reveals it to be more decorative in nature than Sale 1, lot 61 and Sale 7, lot 171, without that level of total commitment that made them such masterpieces. This may be an early prototype, produced while the carver familiarized himself with the art of carving overlay, or it may represent a later, more standard rendering of a typical subject now betraying signs of weariness resulting from repeated use. A third possibility, always worth bearing in mind when dealing with the work of commercial craftsmen in China, is that it was made for a less discerning or exalted patron. If we imagine Sale 1, lot 61 and Sale 7, lot 171 being made for the court of the Qianlong emperor and this one being produced for a local salt merchant whose wealth exceeded his artistic sensibility, we may have the reason why this one exhibits a less painstaking finish and a generally lower level of commitment.

Compensating for our minor quibbles over detail, however, we find a striking colour combination and a very well-conceived and powerful composition. The formal layout of the white relief and its balance with the pink space beneath is nothing short of masterly, and a few extra hours spent on it could have elevated it to the same heights as the other two silkworm-subject bottles.

The unusually long neck contributes greatly to the elegance of the composition. It is also a cogent reminder of the difficulties of judging whether the neck of a snuff bottle has been reduced to hide damage, for if we judged Yangzhou necks by this one, all would appear reduced. One might reduce the length of the neck here by more than half a centimetre and still leave a bottle of perfectly acceptable shape, yet the additional length achieves a far more balanced result.

This is among those bottles in the Bloch Collection that in recent years have been copied in China from earlier publications (see JICSBS, Spring, 1997, pp. 10 and 11, figs. 33, 35, and 36 for the modern fake).

 

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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