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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 88 

Lot 88


Lot 88
Treasury 4, no. 467

Autumn Delight in Nature

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a convex footrim; painted on one main side with two scholars seated on a plateau beside a river and beneath autumn trees in a mountainous gorge, inscribed with a dedication in draft script with one indecipherable seal of the artist, and on the other main side with a group of auspicious objects (a natural rock sculpture, a vase with mask-and-ring handles decorated with several examples of the trigram qian from the Eight Trigrams, containing branches of flowering prunus, a jardinière containing calamus grass and a tripod incense burner with ‘heaven-soaring’ handles), inscribed in draft script with a poetic inscription followed by ‘Written in the eleventh month of the year jiashen by Zhou Leyuan following the ancient style’
Zhou Leyuan, Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, eleventh month, 1884
Height: 7.49 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.57/1.62 cm
Stopper: coral; stained walrus-ivory collar

Lot 88 Provenance:
N. C. Shen
Gerd Lester (1986)

Kleiner 1987, no. 264
JICSBS, Spring 1988, front cover
Arts of Asia, September–October 1996, pp. 84 and 85, fig. 21
Treasury 4, no. 467

Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Christie's, London, 1999

Lot 88 Commentary
The inscription on the side with the auspicious objects is derived from a heptasyllabic quatrain entitled ‘Peonies,’ composed by Pi Rixiu (circa 834–883), a Tang poet gifted with many literary talents:

When all the pretty blossoms are gone it starts to give off fragrance.
Called ‘King of Flowers,’
Its purity is unrivalled in the whole world;
Its scent [too] ranks first in the Jiangnan region.

The Jiangnan region is the area south of the Yangzi River that includes Suzhou and Hangzhou, two cities already well established as cultural centres by the Qing period. The dedication which appears on the landscape side of the bottle reads:

For the pure appreciation of Songquan, the honourable fourth elder brother. [Presented by] Xiqing.

As we have noted under Treasury 4, no. 465 and elsewhere, Zhou Leyuan was a commercial artist. He painted for a living, accepting commissions. It is to his eternal credit that his art never reflects the whims of the marketplace other than in the occasional inscription which demonstrates that a bottle was made to order. Here we have a bottle commissioned by Xiqing to present to Songquan as a gift, and wherever we see dedications on Zhou’s bottles, we may assume that the name inscribed was either that of the patron, or quite often, the name of the person to whom the patron wished to give the bottle.

Zhou’s mastery of the medium, and the subject of the auspicious objects, is demonstrated quite clearly in this early work. The rock is a formal powerhouse, confidently claiming the foreground of the composition and dominating it completely with its convoluted form and exquisite shading and brushwork. The landscape scene is also one of his finest early landscapes, with all of the poetic mood we expect of these early masterpieces. The peaks towering above the two scholars, who sit conversing in a gorge beneath blossoming trees, are as moody and powerful as any in the medium and, again, the brushwork is sublime.

We talk of brushwork in inside-painted bottles despite the absence of a brush. All early inside-painted bottles were apparently done with bamboo pens, sharply bent at their point to allow access to the interior surface. The pens probably varied, since a study of the brushwork exhibits everything from a rounded, straightforward line which could have been made by the point of a sharpened bamboo stick, to the occasional stroke with ‘flying white’ in it. This is the white space left in brushwork when the brush moves so fast, or is twisted sharply, or begins to dry out, or is otherwise manipulated so that parts of the brush are not in touch with the paper and leave white gaps in the black markings. Easily achieved with a brush, it could only have been achieved with a pen if the end of the pen were frayed into its individual fibres, which is quite possible with bamboo. Although hard and woody in appearance, it is in fact a fibrous grassy plant. There are some Japanese fly-whisks (and whisks for the Tea-Ceremony) where handle, binding and hairs are all made up from a single piece of bamboo, the hairs being formed by splitting the bamboo into its component fibres without breaking them. It would be possible to split the end of a tiny pen similarly so that one had a brushy effect, and this must be what Zhou Leyuan and others did to achieve some of their markings. Even a cursory examination of the wonderfully fluent calligraphy of Zhou’s earlier works suggests that somehow the pen was made to act like a brush, for the modulation in the strokes and the energy miraculously equate to brushwork on paper. It is also evident in the painting of the rock, where close examination reveals lines with ‘flying white’ and places where a single movement of the pen quite obviously divides into more than one streak of ink.


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Hugh Moss |