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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 76 

Lot 76

   

Lot 76
Treasury 7, no. 1537
$84,000

Beside the East Window
         
Variegated brown, black, and red lacquer on wood; with a flat lip and protruding concave foot; engraved on one main side with a branch of flowering prunus and on the other with a couplet in clerical script followed by the signature, in regular script, Kuisheng
Lu Dong, Yangzhou, 1800–1850
Height: 7.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.60/1.29 cm
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar

Lot 76 Provenance:
Trojan Collection (1993)
Robert Hall (1993)

Published:
Hall 1992, no. 68
Treasury 7, no. 1537

Lot 76 Commentary:
Comparing this bottle to Treasury 7, no. 1536 reveals Lu Kuisheng skills as an artist. Both are of the same subject and each is simply engraved apparently following the style of the eighteenth-century Yangzhou painter, Wang Shishen, but the composition is quite different. In the same way that Wang Shishen, while painting his favourite prunus blossoms over and over again would re-invent his composition afresh each time, so does Lu. The elements remain the same, of a broad-stroke main branch, tapering and elegantly turning, dotted with moss, from which grow smaller twigs with flowers and buds, but in both cases the artist has become so familiar with the nature of the prunus tree that he needs no pattern to follow. It is, like all great Chinese painting of the literati tradition, an exercise not primarily in depiction but in brushwork (whether with a real brush, or its metal equivalent becomes a minor distinction) and, in the case of Wang Shishen, ink tones. For Lu also, the blossoming prunus tree, representing, among other things, the honourable gentleman or ideal scholar, was a favourite subject and appears on other of his wares, but never as a repeated composition (for a splendid teapot imitating Yixing ware, see Wang Shixiang 1987, no. 151; another also with prunus design but of different form, is in the Shuisongshi shanfang Collection).

In this instance, Lu has been guided by the more elongated shape of the bottle, stretching his composition to fill the space available. The broader, shorter grouping of two branches on the other example gives way here to a single main branch, stretching from base to neck as it twists this way and that to elegantly fill the available space.

The two poetic lines read:

Dangling beside the window of a monk’s abode on a leisurely day,
The blooms on the prunus branch are coaxed by the [balmy] east wind.

The construction of this bottle is more obvious than on some of his works, since Lu has conveniently left the interior un-lacquered and the wood base is visible inside the neck. The original bottle has been constructed from two halves and joined vertically at the narrow sides. With a lacquered bottle there would be no point in going to the trouble of hollowing out a solid piece of wood when the lacquer covering would hide any seams. Since two separate halves makes the process of hollowing much easier, that is what Lu has done - although the chances of him having made the wooden bottle are probably slim since such less artistically-taxing tasks could easily be left to a workshop assistant – and we know Lu had a number of assistants. Once the two halves were glued together, layers of black and brown lacquer were added. When building up a surface of lacquer, whether it was intended to be deep enough to carve in relief, as with cinnabar lacquer, or shallowly engraved such as here, or even left plain, such as on Treasury 7, no. 1521, it is necessary to build up a thickness with the application of several layers. Each must be allowed to dry before the next is added, and this must be achieved in a high level of ambient humidity, whether natural or controlled - as it had to be in the dry north of China in workshops in Beijing (see under Treasury 7, no. 1538).

Although this appears to be black lacquer, good light reveals that it is in fact a variegated black and brown with some slight splashes of cinnabar-red showing through in places. The process appears to have been one of adding brown and black layers, with some touches of red perhaps almost accidental in the process or intentionally random, and then polishing them down to a smooth surface. A painter will often be unconcerned with colours remaining on the palette or brush which end up on paper or canvas as slight, random variations and can be quite fascinating. In the same way, a lacquerer such as Lu, using a variety of colours of lacquer in his workshop, may have been similarly unconcerned, appreciating the accidental, random nature of the splashes. Once one gets past the impression of an even, black surface, it is independently fascinating because of the variation and becomes a counterpoint to the precise, intentional engraving of the prunus.

As always with the works from Lu’s hand, close examination of, and reflection upon his art is rewarding, and his masterly status always confirmed. There is no such thing as a poor Lu Dong lacquer piece, although in the Shuisongshi shanfang Collection is a second-rate engraved inkstone-box and cover by a trainee where the inscription states, wisely, that it was only ‘supervised’ by Lu Dong. Lu was one of the most important lacquer artists in the history of the art who has been ignored over the past century only because of the old prejudice born of ceramic connoisseurship that anything later than the Qianlong period was necessarily degenerate or third rate. This is obviously nonsense, as we now know, but was an influential prejudice until quite recently. Today the works of Lu Dong, and many other individual artist/craftsmen of the Qing dynasty are gaining the recognition and respect they once enjoyed in China, when they were being made. They are again becoming sought after by a growing band of fully-aware connoisseurs.     

 

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Hugh Moss |