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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IX  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2014: Lot 51 

Lot 51

Lot 51
Treasury 1, no. 107 (‘The 1787 Imperial Mallow Poem’)

Nephrite and gold pigment; well hollowed, with a concave foot; incised on one side with a bee flying above a flowering mallow and on the other with a related poem by the Qianlong emperor, preceded by Qianlong dingwei 乾隆丁未 (‘The dingwei year of the Qianlong era’ [1787]) and followed by Zhongchun yuti 仲春御題 (‘Inscribed by the emperor in the 2nd month of spring’), all in clerical script, the incising filled with gold pigment
Imperial, possibly palace workshops, Beijing, 1787–1800
Height: 5.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.50/1.82 and 1.79 cm (oval)
Stopper: bone; silver collar

Kaynes-Klitz Collection
Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 16 November 1989, lot 143

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 26
Treasury 1, no. 107

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

After 1760 there were eight imperial workshops for the production of jade, so the fact that a jade bottle was imperial during the later Qianlong period does not necessarily mean that it was made at the palace workshops. There is, however, some indication that at least some of this particular group were probably made at court. Many of them, for instance, are made from flawed or otherwise undistinguished material, which is typical of palace usage (see discussion under Sale 6, lot 171).

The Qianlong emperor is known to have had the palace workers inscribe large numbers of works of art. One of the reasons for thinking that many of these bottles inscribed with imperial poems are later has been the undistinguished quality of the calligraphy. A group of bottles in chalcedony (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, nos. 164–166), glass (nos. 349–350), and enamelled glass of the Guyue xuan group (nos. 192–204), all of which are imperial and attributable to the palace workshops, also present a marked decline in artistic quality from the height of the palace workshops production of the first half of the Qianlong reign. When these are incised with poems, as the chalcedony and glass examples frequently are, the quality of the calligraphy is often far inferior to the standard for the earlier part of the reign. Both the material of the nephrite flower-and-poem group represented by this bottle and the sometimes less-accomplished calligraphy are, in the light of further research, exactly what one would expect of the last third of the reign and the palace workshops.

Although the jade in this example is not as flawed as many in the group and is of a pleasing, very pale grey-green colour, it would not have been considered an inherently valuable material. The workmanship, however, qualifies it as one of the better examples of the group. The form is elegant, the incising of the clerical-script calligraphy unusually good for a bottle obviously made as an imperial series late in the reign. The freshness of the gilding, which is a weak material and usually mostly worn away if original, suggests that it may have been enhanced, a common practice with bottles with gilded incising and one that permits the modern viewer to see the work of art closer to its original state (although it is not definitely known that all were originally gilded).

For others of the group, see the commentary in Treasury 1.

This particular example is entitled ‘Mallow’, and the poetic inscription reads as follows:

If any flowers open, it must be the whole branch that booms;
And the entire thicket of pale emerald puts forth canine teeth.
Around the roots, unsullied shade—when tall, it becomes a tree.
The leaves curl around their melancholy hearts, pregnant with embroidered flowers.

One property of the mallow, it seems, is that all the flowers open at once. Their long, pale petals are the shape of the canines of dogs (the imagery is not original, odd though it may seem). The bush casts a pleasant shade and can grow tall enough for one to relax under it as one would under a tree.

One odd thing about this poem is that the first and last lines end with hua (‘flower’); ordinarily, it would be hopelessly clumsy to end any two lines with the same word. Perhaps the emperor, if anyone dared call him out on this, would have responded haughtily that the first hua refers to real flowers, whereas the second refers to embroidered flowers or patterns. Such cleverness is admirable in other circumstances, but it seems incompetent in a single short poem like this. Considering that the Qianlong emperor wrote on average several poems a day, day in and day out, usually with the help of a small committee of assistant poets, we can expect a good many clunkers and never-polished drafts, but why would one be chosen as an approved inscription for snuff bottles?


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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