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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 52 

Lot 52

Lot 52
Treasury 4, no. 479 (‘Homeward-bound Fisherman’)

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a slightly concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded foot rim; painted on one main side with a fisherman in a straw raincoat and hat walking across a rustic bridge in a river gorge, inscribed in cursive script Xingwu renxiong daren qingshang, jichou zhongdong Zhou Leyuan zuo 星五仁兄大人清賞,己丑矢冬周樂元作 (‘For the pure appreciation of Xingwu, an honourable senior acquaintance, executed by Zhou Leyuan in mid-winter of the year jichou’), followed by one seal of the artist, yin 印 (‘seal’), in negative seal script, the other main side with auspicious objects (a natural rock sculpture, a vase with crackled glaze and ring handles containing flowering peonies, a jardinière of calamus and an Yixing teapot), inscribed in draft script Rugu hanxin 茹古涵今 (‘Encompass antiquity and take in all the modern’), followed by Zuo yu Ouxiang shuxuan 作於藕香書軒 (‘Executed at the Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance’), followed by one seal of the artist, yuan 元, with another in the lower left-hand corner, Le yin 樂印 (‘seal of Le’), both in negative seal script
Zhou Leyuan 周樂元, The Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, mid-winter, 1889
Height: 6.56 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.58/1.64 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; glass collar

Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1980)
Gerd Lester (1986)

Kleiner 1995, no. 380
Treasury 4, no. 479

British Museum, London, June–November 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997
Christie’s, London, 1999

Here the bottle is inscribed for Xingwu, but it is likely that Xingwu was the eventual recipient rather than the patron, although there is one intriguing possibility. The name Xingwu was also that of Sun Xingwu 孫星五 the snuff-bottle painter. It is just possible that Zhou knew Sun and presented him with this bottle, perhaps in the process inspiring him to become a painter himself. Once Sun Xingwu himself began to paint, he faked a Zhou Leyuan bottle with a dedication to himself (Sale 5, lot 113).

However, Xingwu was not an uncommon name; it might have been shared by any number of people in the capital at that time. As a commercial artist, it is questionable how often Zhou would have spent his time making gifts for others when he could have been earning a living. Finally, Sun Xingwu did not begin to paint until several years after the date on this bottle, suggesting that if he was inspired by it, it either took a while to sink in, or he was a slow learner.

On the other hand it may be significant that Sun’s fake Zhou Leyuan with a dedication to himself is also dated very early for Zhou, suggesting the possibility that Sun might have known Zhou over a period of time before becoming a snuff-bottle painter himself, and knew how early Zhou had begun to paint.

In studio condition, the painting here represents Zhou’s ‘Blue Period’ at its best, with unusual and powerful renditions of two of Zhou’s most popular themes, the auspicious objects and the landscape, although the landscape is a rare one, with its large-scale pines and the fisherman heading home across a plank bridge. The pines are the forerunners of the standard large pine tree subjects of his last few years, but here sit half-way between the earlier, small clumps of pines in monumental landscape settings and the later, more intimate paintings where the pines take over and the landscape is merely a setting for them (see, for instance, Sale 2, lot 66, the finest and grandest of his later paintings of pine trees as the main subject).

The balance of the auspicious objects on the other side is, yet again, completely satisfying with calligraphy and seals offsetting the objects and an exquisite formal tension set up by the positioning of the various auspicious elements. The placing of the teapot, in particular, bespeaks an artist in total control of the formal side of his art. Set partly obscured by the crackled vase, it subtly continues the line of the jardinière of calamus grass, providing a strong horizontal anchor to hold the powerful diagonal of the rock and the vertical elements of the vase of peonies and the calligraphy and seals.

There is an interesting variation of Zhou’s studio name here, which we also see on Sale 6, lot 145. Instead of using the usual form of zhai to mean ‘studio’ he has substituted the term shuxuan, but the meaning remains the same. There is little doubt that it is still the same place in his home at Xuannan but for some reason he has altered the nomenclature.

It should be noted that the phrase we translate ‘encompass antiquity and take in all the modern’ is the name of one of the forty scenic spots and its associated complex of buildings in the eighteenth-century Yuanming yuan. But there is no reason to think that Zhou Leyuan was trying to paint an idealized version of that scenic spot; the phrase was very common in other contexts, as well.


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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