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Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part II  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 23 November 2010: Lot 7 

Lot 7


Lot 7
Treasury 5, no. 774

Lingzhi and Incense

Opaque, variegated ruby-red, brown and orange glass (known as ‘realgar-glass’); with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; the narrow sides carved with mask-and-ring handles
Height: 6.22 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.62/1.39 cm
Stopper: coral; pearl finial

Lot 7 Provenance:
Eugene Sung (1977)
Gerd Lester (1986)

Kleiner 1995, no. 131
Treasury 5, no. 774

British Museum, London, June-October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July-November 1997

Lot 7 Commentary
Once realgar-glass was established as a standard type, it was free to evolve within the framework of glassmaking, leading to endless possibilities. Glass like this, despite being an obvious part of that evolution, has become quite different from the material that originally inspired it. At first glance, were we unaware of the popular development of realgar-glass at court, we might believe this example to have been inspired by jasper or agate as expressed through the colourful medium of the glassmaker. The colour range, however, is the same as in classic realgar-glass: ruby-red (turned to vermillion by the orange with which it is mixed) and brown (here turned to khaki, again by the mixture with yellowish-orange). This example looks atypical only because of the large areas of this khaki-brown colour. The streaky orange areas are typical of realgar-glass.

Kleiner dated this bottle very early, suggesting a range from 1700–1760, with the imperial glassworks as provenance, citing a similar bottle with a Guyue xuan mark (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 346) to support his attribution. The palace remains a likely place of manufacture, but the Guyue xuan mark could not have been used prior to about 1767, when the Guyue xuan was built.

There is another compelling reason to ascribe a mid-Qing date to this bottle. Mask handles on early-eighteenth-century bottles tend to follow the ancient models, taken from vessels of the Bronze Age of China. The standard rings on these vessels were originally functional, and made circular because that was the most practical shape. It seems unlikely that exaggeratedly elongated rings of this sort would have appeared much before the second half of the Qianlong reign, when the need was felt to have something new and innovative. It is also interesting to note that while there are no bottles with elongated ring-handles that can be dated to the early eighteenth century with complete certainty, and the majority of Qianlong examples have circular rings, exaggeratedly elongated rings are standard for the school of glass-carving attributed to Yangzhou, and known to have flourished in the early nineteenth century. With the Guyue xuan mark on the J & J bottle, probably made shortly after 1767, we begin to perceive the trend towards an oval ring in preference to such an exaggeratedly elongated one, as we do on another similarly marked bottle in this collection (Treasury 5, no. 780). It is likely that the evolution of the mask into creatures other than taotie was also a feature of the Qianlong period. Here, the eyebrows of the standard model have been swept upwards to curve into two long, horn-like shapes flanking the bald pate. They are similar in feeling to the masks with elongated, upward sweeping eyebrows on Treasury 5, no. 772, which offers perhaps a better comparison with this bottle, and can be dated to the mid-Qing period by its mark.

Hints of transparent ruby-red can be discerned round the neck and near the base on one side, suggesting that in this case it was applied mainly on the surface and has been partly lost to the carving and polishing process, despite the fact that the concentric rings around the mouth prove this bottle to have been blown. The lapidary’s function extended further than simply adding mask handles and detailing mouth and foot here, however, as suggested by the interruption of the swirls of yellow glass where the masks are carved. The entire surface of the bottle seems to have been reduced by a millimetre or two to achieve the perfect formal integrity desired by the carver.


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Hugh Moss |