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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IX  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2014: Lot 55 

Lot 55

Lot 55
Treasury 2, 255 (‘The Clear Sun in Winter Crystal’)

Crystal; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded foot rim; carved on one main side and the two narrow sides with a continuous winter scene with a scholar, holding a staff and followed by his attendant, approaching a country monastery with several separate structures and a further pavilion set high on a grassy outcrop half-way up a towering cliff, with a pine and one leafless tree beneath clouds and the sun carved from a natural orange flaw in the material, the other main side inscribed in clerical script with a poetic quotation
The Rustic Crystal Master, 1740–1880
Height: 5.71 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.59/1.91 cm
Stopper: crystal

Robert Hall (1993)

Treasury 2, 255

University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong, 1999

The decorative style of the artist we have called the Rustic Crystal Master (see Sale 8, lot 1021) is consistent and recognizable, although it is worth remembering that in a Chinese workshop environment it may represent several hands working under the direction of one master, who would himself perhaps undertake only certain crucial work to maintain style and quality. Once his assistants were well trained, he might have very little to do with much of the output, perhaps only designing and supervising. The popularity and longevity of his style may also have influenced other local workshops, thus confusing the issue.

What we can detect in the case of the Rustic Crystal Master is the influence of the tradition of literati painting. His signature wares were clearly developed for literate patrons, and they reflect in many ways the long-established painting style with which they would all have been familiar and that was one of the artistic pillars supporting the entire aesthetic structure. A series of fairly standard, well-established shorthand forms are used to depict various landscape elements and the art concentrates on how they are put together. The art was not one of constantly trying to find new ways of reflecting external reality as it was. The art was in using basic elements of external reality to explore and reflect a transcendent, inner reality. The artist concentrated not on precise depictions of trees, rocks, dwellings, or figures, but on the more subtle languages of how they were depicted. For this, standard forms were adequate and creativity shifted to the more esoteric languages of form, line, colour (often expressed in painting only in terms of tones of black ink and water), and texture.

Although the snuff bottle is three-dimensional, much of the surface decoration is conceived as two dimensional, even if in slight relief. On a hardstone bottle, relief carving or incision is the only means of making a permanent line. Painted pigments nearly always wear off through use and are rarely employed. It is probably significant with the works of the Rustic Crystal Master that the vast majority are in relatively low relief. Sale 8, lot 1021 is typical in being distinctly painterly. In this example the relief is a little higher, but the style remains the same.

Another feature of this master’s work and of the school in general is the creative use of flaws in the material. As a general rule, the carved bottles were not of flawless material but had icy flaws running through the stone. The inclusion of such icy flaws is standard in crystals of any size; areas of pure stone or large crystals of entirely flawless stone are the exception to the rule. In the works of the Rustic Crystal Master, icy flaws are used as landscape elements, however subtly, to add texture, even colour, to the landscape scene and give a wintry feeling. It is almost certainly no coincidence that so many of his works in this sort of crystal are winter scenes, with bamboo and pine bearing their perennial foliage but other trees left bare.

A related standard for this school is the use of the discolouration commonly suffusing flawed areas. These patches are often quite dramatic, usually of this yellow-to-brown range of colours, and always brilliantly used. There is also a powerful reference to literati painting in the joyous use of these natural flaws. Naturalness was what literati painting aspired to, in depiction, in form, in line, and in every other aspect of brushwork painting.

We know from the couplet, which the scene obviously illustrates, that the winter scene depicts the morning sun.

In the clear dawn, as I entered the old monastery,
The morning sun shone on the lofty grove.

These are the opening two lines of an eight-line poem by Chang Jian 常建 (eighth century) that was included in the Three Hundred Tang Poems anthology, published in the mid-Qianlong period, and in numerous other anthologies from the Tang to the Qing dynasties as well.

The combination of poetry and a visual response to it, or of a poem responding to the visual image, was standard to the literati tradition of painting from the Song dynasty onwards and is yet another indication of the close links between the Rustic Crystal Master and his literati audience.

One or two of his works have crystal stoppers, which may indicate that originally this was a standard pairing. It seems natural that a taste for using local material should extend to the stopper, possibly another minor clue that these wares emanate from a crystal-producing region. Perhaps they usually had crystal stoppers as supplied from the maker, but the stoppers were often quickly replaced in the face of a nationwide prevailing fashion for contrasting stoppers. In this case it is unusually suitable to have a stopper in matching material without an intervening collar, as it accentuates the icy feeling of the bottle.


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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