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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1031 

Lot 1031
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Lot 1031
Treasury 5, no.1002 (‘Enchanting Poetry’)

Transparent, bluish emerald-green glass, translucent milky white glass, and transparent deep sapphire-blue glass; with a slightly concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat foot rim; carved as a double overlay with a continuous rocky landscape scene with two blossoming prunus trees set against highly formalized clouds, in which, on one main side a man sits in an open-sided pavilion while a young servant sweeps the snow from the ground outside his window, and on the other main side a figure leans on a walking staff watching two seated figures playing weiqi, the neck with a band of pendant, formalized plantain leaves
Height: 6.92 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.68/1.4 cm
Stopper: coral

Mei Ling Collection
Sotheby’s, New York, 15 March 1984, lot 45
Sotheby’s, New York, 3 October 1980, lot 75

Kleiner 1995, no. 165
Snuff Bottles from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch (illustrated folder) Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July 1997
Treasury 5, no.1002

British Museum, London, June-October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July-November 1997

There is a group of double-overlay bottles, clearly by the same designer – carver team and characterized by plantain-leaf borders round the neck. Not all those associated with the group display these necks, but they occur with sufficient frequency to constitute a core group. Sale 1, lot 8, which is among those without the plantain neck, is an outstanding carving, probably early, related to this group. There is no doubt that they are the work of the same production team, and they have customarily been dated to the first half of the nineteenth century, as was this example on its last outing. Viewed independently, this seems perfectly sensible, but they are only one spectacularly visible aspect of a much broader and very large group of carvings. It is possible to sensibly link bottles that include most of the standard types of overlay, from red overlays on snowstorm grounds to these complex double overlays in a wide range of colour combinations.

Several key bottles from this school assist us to establish the dating quite clearly and with a level of confidence both unusual and exhilarating. Sale 1, lot 8 can be dated to around 1780, but possibly slightly earlier, since the carving detail is so much finer than that of the bottle by which we are able to date it so accurately (Sale 6, lot 155). Another, lacking the plantain-leaf neck but unquestionably from the same school, is replete with documentary information rare in snuff bottles (Jutheau 1980, p. 63, no. 4; Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 15 November 1989, lot 22, and Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 3 November 1994, lot 840). A double overlay of white on black on pink, it displays on one side a saddled horse and on the reverse three goats and the sun. With the horse we find a banner inscribed: ‘The highest ranking official at court’ (dangchao yipin當朝一品) and around the neck, in overlay relief, dispelling any doubt that it was part of the original design, is inscribed: ‘A gift from the inner [palace] of the Qianlong Emperor’ (Qianlong neishang 乾隆內賞). While the carving is not as fine as on Sale 1, lot 8, it is clearly imperial and from the late Qianlong period. There are two other landmark bottles for this group (Sotheby’s, London, 23 March 1988, lot 5, re-offered by Sotheby’s, London, 21 June 1995, lot 19, and Rachelle R. Holden 1994, no. 48). They are almost identical double overlays with black on white on a sapphire-blue ground, decorated on one side with a Pekingese dog and two doves. This design, a reported favourite of the Daoguang emperor, does not seem to have occurred before the beginning of his reign, allowing us to date these two bottles to the early years of the Daoguang period. (It is only in a later work on porcelain by antiques expert Chen Liu 陳瀏 [1863 – 1929] that we learn that the Daoguang emperor was fond of doves and one of his consorts was fond of small dogs, ‘so the porcelain cups of the time were often painted with these two creatures’ [成廟喜鴿而貴嬪喜小狗,故當時瓷碗多畫此二物]. We have found no contemporary corroboration for this lore, but the dove-and-dog motif is indeed found on a variety of snuff bottles that are plausibly attributable to the Daoguang era.) Spectacular and striking double overlays they may be, but the two Daoguang bottles betray much greater technical carelessness than the Qianlong gift. Control of the foot is lax, and the neck exhibits unevenly applied white with no attempt to create a band of decoration or defining neck rim—poor craftsmanship that would have been unacceptable a few decades earlier. From these comparisons, we may assume that the Qianlong gift was carved at the end of his reign. Since this is a gift from the emperor himself, it could have been made any time up until his death in 1799, suggesting the most likely date to be in the 1790s. The Qianlong gift does not necessarily imply that it is intended for the highest ranking official, although that remains a possibility. The phrase danqiao yipin was also commonly employed to wish the recipient attainment of high office, a sentiment which, whether explicit or in the form of a rebus, was intended to encourage an official to do his best for the emperor who bestowed upon him the honour of such a gift.

It would seem reasonable to date this bottle to the period between about 1780 and 1795, somewhere in the 1780s being perhaps the most likely. The middle layer of clouds provides another feature linking this bottle to the dragon bottle of Sale 1, lot 8, also suggesting that this must be later. On the dragon bottle the clouds, while formalized, remain readable as such since they display the traditional curlicues as well as the interconnected wisps, meaning both artist and audience know exactly what was intended. In the absence of the earlier example there would be a danger of misinterpreting the middle ground design here, since it has become formalized and simplified to such an extent. This does, however, supply an indication of how a subject is repeated in less satisfactory fashion on the slippery slope of declining standards.

The foot rim on this bottle remains confident, although the colour change from green to white occurs (albeit very neatly) halfway up the inner foot rim, but sharp, crisp edges are replaced by a more rounded profile, which seems typical of the later Qianlong version for the school. By the time we get to the Daoguang examples, the rendering of the foot rims becomes very lax.

Tsang 1994, pp. 5 – 6 identifies the man in the pavilion as Zhuge Jun 諸葛均chanting poetry from a book. Zhuge Jun was the younger brother of the great strategist Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181 – 234). According to the Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 (‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’), the first two times Liu Bei 劉備 (first sovereign of one of the three kingdoms, Shu-Han 蜀漢) came to Zhuge Liang’s thatched cottage to beseech him to become his advisor, Zhuge Liang found ways to be absent. On the second visit, which took place on a snowy, windy day, Liu Bei asked if the ‘master’ was at home, and the boy who answered the door said, yes, he was in the hall reading. Of course, it turned out to be Zhuge Jun, not Zhuge Liang. (Only on the third visit would the patient sovereign succeed in meeting Zhuge Liang.)

One might object that on this bottle we only see a servant outside sweeping and a man in a pavilion open to the elements, scarcely enough to suggest that this is Zhuge Jun about to receive a visit on a snowy day. But the other side, with two chess players and an observer, could easily be an illustration of the old story of a man who comes upon two immortals playing chess in the mountains; he watches the game to its conclusion, whereupon he discovers that his staff has rotted away and generations have passed in the world from which he came. If that side of the bottle implies a narrative, it is reasonable to see the other side also as a scene from an iconic story, and even if Zhuge Jun is not a particularly important character in his own right, Tsang’s theory is plausible.


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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