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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 8 

Lot 8

   

Lot 8
Treasury 5, no. 1001
HK$672,000

Star-Tailed Dragon

Translucent milky white, transparent sapphire-blue, and translucent white glass; with a flat lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved as a double overlay with a continuous design of two four-clawed dragons, one amidst formalized clouds, the other rising from formalized waves
Attributed to the imperial glassworks, Beijing, 1760–1790
Height: 6.82 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.70/1.42 cm
Stopper: ivory; gilt-bronze collar

Lot 8 Provenance:    
Robert Kleiner (1991)

Published:         
JICSBS, Winter 1992, front cover
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 120
Treasury 5, no. 1001, and front and back covers of one volume

Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March-June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994-February;1995

Lot 8 Commentary
This bottle is technically one of the finest and artistically one of the most spectacular known pieces of later Chinese glass. Comparing it with Treasury 5, nos. 1002 and 1003 where three different colours are contrasted, demonstrates the refinement of producing an essentially straightforward double overlay not only with two colours the same, but a visually undemanding white. Combined with an attractive form, magnificent design, masterly balance of lines between the upper and middle planes of colour, and breathtaking command of the medium, it is revealed as a transcendent masterpiece. Some earlier bottles display finer detail and more perfect finish (the ground plane here undulates very slightly, but not enough to disturb the eye), but nothing is endowed with more striking power in the combination of visual impact, artistic quality, and technical control. On an ‘Ooomph’ scale of one to ten, this is an emphatic, unquestionable, unanimous ten (and we briefly considered eleven).

We discussed under Treasury 5, no. 940 its relationship to a group of dragon carvings which we believe spans the late Qianlong period and extends into the nineteenth century, where the characteristics of the group were examined. That example bears a cyclical date that corresponds to 1780. We believe this to be an imperial product, for if it is not, there seems little point in the Qianlong emperor having his own workshops, to which he could co-opt all the best carvers. Another example, related to this bottle, in white with a red middle plane and a white ground, has the plantain neck of Treasury 5, nos. 1002-1004 (China Guardian, Beijing, 21 April 1999, lot 1100) and a dragon clearly related to this one, while the plantain neck and lesser quality link it to the others. A useful clue is provided by its five-clawed dragon since at that time such beasts were the exclusive prerogative of the imperial family. We noted under Treasury 5, no. 940 that the entire group, including this example, was linked through a series of poems in seal script to a group of other likely imperial wares, including the bannerman bottles discussed under Treasury 5, no. 893. We also noted that dragons, some with five claws, were a mainstay of the group. At the same time, however, it was common practice for the court to produce four-clawed dragon decoration on works of art for distribution to the ennobled. The early nineteenth-century decline in palace arts, including carving, is widely acknowledged, documented, and evident in other wares. Thus, in view of the comparisons we can make with this collection, and the extraordinary quality of this bottle, we believe that it must be from around the same time as Treasury 5, no. 940—give or take a decade. As a work of art it fits comfortably into the late Qianlong period. The extraordinary quality of this example, surpassing even that of the dated one, further suggests that this probably preceded it, hence our dating. The footrim is deep, very crisp, and sharp-edged, being as confident as any carved, and the line at the meeting of the white rim and the blue of the foot is admirably controlled, all constituting further indication of an eighteenth-century date. The only hint of a late eighteenth-century date here might be the fact that the middle of the foot fades to the paler under-colour, but it does so very evenly in contrast to the irregular bleeding exhibited by so many nineteenth-century glass bottles.

The motif of the dragon and clouds, signifying vast good fortune, is discussed under Treasury 5, no. 978. The standard design of a large dragon in the sky, above a smaller one emerging from the waves, illustrates the saying: ‘The hoary dragon teaching its young’ (canglong jiaozi), an allusion to the loving guidance a father would give to his son.
Were practically every group of overlay bottles not related to every other, we would have given names to some of the core groups. This was to have been described as made by the ‘Star-tailed Dragon Master.’ A problem arising from any such effort is that we are not sure to what extent the master is the designer or the carver. In the imperial workshops of the Qianlong emperor there were doubtless carvers who, given the incentive, could produce a masterpiece of this sort, and the artistic personality may reside more in the artist who drew up the design than in any individual carver.

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Hugh Moss |