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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 7 

Lot 7

Lot 7
Treasury 1, no. 7
HK$144,0000

Two Faced

Nephrite of pebble material; very well hollowed
Possibly imperial, perhaps palace workshops, Beijing, 1740–1840
Height:  6.86 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.90/1.75 and 1.73 cm (oval)
Stopper: jadeite; incised bronze collar with traces of original gilding

Lot 7 Provenance:
J.W.A. International (Boston, 1991)

Published:
Randal and Ju 1991, no. 47.
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 37
Treasury 1,no. 7

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

Lot 7 Commentary
The Bloch collection, with its unusually rich concentration of pebble bottles of all sorts (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 6), allows a detailed look at this rather neglected area. This example is extraordinary in a number of ways. The form lacks a foot, which is normal for pebble bottles where the shape is dictated entirely by the original pebble form, and yet it has a formal neck. The impression is of two bottles combined: a natural pebble shape and a formally perfect white nephrite. This is common to the group represented by Treasury 1, no. 9, but those usually have a formal foot to match the neck. The skin, which appears to be entirely natural, is cut very precisely, probably from a pebble quite a bit larger than the bottle, creating an even, beautifully coloured and textured area covering almost all of one main and one narrow side.

The combination of pure white pebble-nephrite with its own skin, or an artificially-stained skin, was a popular one for the snuff bottle connoisseur of old, and for obvious reasons. Other examples in this collection are Treasury 1, nos. 8 and 9 and the combination is seldom less than delightful. Here the colour combination and the precise separation between the two colours create a powerful abstract element in the design. The bottle is as pleasant in the hand as any known bottle, but the formality of the neck, which would be more typical as the upper area of a standing sculptural form, prevents it from lying comfortably, as most pebble bottles do, flat on a table. The obvious intention was for it to live perhaps in a pouch, and be seen only in the hand. As a collector’s piece, however, it is one of the few bottles without a foot which might be improved as sculpture by a sensitively matched stand of some kind.

Apart from the known love of pebbles and pebble material at court, there are three features which suggest the possibility of this being an imperial bottle made at the palace workshops. It has a wide mouth, a distinct, flat upper neck-rim, and it is hollowed very well leaving a relatively deep foot area (0.68 cm deep — see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 75). It is strange enough in any case to have a neck on a bottle of this type, but in adding one it would seem improbable that a centre other than the palace workshops would have chosen to put such a distinctly palace neck onto the form. A similar bottle of pebble form with a neck, tentatively attributed to Suzhou, is in the J & J Collection (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 42) but it is quite different and less formally correct. It is the sort of neck that might have been added to a standard pebble form at any production centre.

Close examination of the surface to check for artificial colouring reveals an interesting phenomenon characteristic of pebble material. Because the surface is actually transformed by weathering rather than just chemically stained, its different layers have varying properties of hardness, creating a textured surface of duller areas of polish which resemble at first glance the dabs of artificial colour on simulated material of this type. The difference, however, is that on natural material the darker material is darker because it is very slightly thicker, being fractionally in relief above the paler areas. With stained material, however, the colour initially concentrates in the slightly recessed areas and the initially paler surface is worn still paler by handling over the years, reversing the effect.

 

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Hugh Moss |