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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part II  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 23 November 2010: Lot 41 

Lot 41


Lot 41
Treasury 4, no. 498

A Picture of the First Rank

Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted with a continuous scene of a landscape with drifting mist and clouds revealing a pale rising sun and distant waterfalls, the foreground filled with an ancient pine, a crane perched on a rocky outcrop, peonies and lingzhi, with two swallows flying nearby, inscribed in draft script ‘Painted by Zhou Leyuan at the capital on a spring day of the year renchen at the Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance,’ followed by one seal of the artist, yuan yin (‘seal of yuan’), in negative seal script
Bottle: 1740–1892
Painting: Zhou Leyuan, Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, spring, 1892
Height: 6.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.54/1.9 and 1.88 cm (oval)
Stopper: carnelian; plastic collar

Lot 41 Provenance:
Arts of China, Hong Kong (1986)

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 319
Treasury 4, no. 498

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 41 Commentary
This is another of Zhou Leyuan’s late masterpieces painted in crystal. In this case, we cannot be sure whether the bottle is an old one or one Zhou commissioned. It is of a shape that could be as early as the mid-eighteenth century, but its appearance so frequently among the Beijing School artists, and particularly with Ma Shaoxuan, where many of his portraits are in very similar bottles, does leave open the possibility of later manufacture. Hence the broad dating range we have left for the bottle. 

The painting has the same expansiveness as lot 66. As with that bottle, the vessel’s width allowed Zhou a broader canvas, and being an unusual bottle for Zhou’s output gives it that extra zest as a work of art. It also follows a somewhat similar compositional structure to lot 66, where the main subject is set on what appears to be high ground, in this case not a grassy knoll but a jagged outcrop of rock covered in grass or moss, while the rest of the painting is set beyond and apparently below the foreground, giving almost a bird’s-eye view of the distant landscape. The distance is also somewhat similar in consisting of waterfalls and streams running down through mountainous terrain shrouded in clouds. The sun is so faintly adumbrated here that one would be forgiven for missing it entirely. It is on the side with the crane, in the upper right-hand corner, and is a hemisphere of very pale orange rising out of the clouds.

The symbolism is multiple, as is so often the case. The crane is a standard symbol of longevity, fortified by the pine and lingzhi, which are also symbols of longevity. The peonies stand for wealth. The two swallows are a standard symbol of marital bliss. However, the fact that the crane stands on one leg and is, in this case, linked to a pale rising sun, gives us the main meaning of the subject. The crane on one leg illustrates the saying yipin dangchao (‘First rank at the imperial court’). The crane was the symbol of the first rank, and it was always shown on the insignia badge of a civil official appointed to that position. Since the sun is barely visible, we can assume that Zhou added it solely for the purpose of fortifying this image of the crane on one leg, thus giving us a clue to the correct reading of at least one aspect of its symbolism. In common with the literati tradition, Zhou seems to have avoided denoting a particular time of day in his paintings. Specific time was irrelevant to their intention and, since the ultimate aim of literati painting was timeless transcendence, potentially inefficient.

This is another of the Blochs’ bottles that is in virtually studio condition, particularly evident in the painting of the peonies, although the still visible sun painted in so pale a wash of orange also indicates its pristine condition. The white and pink Zhou used for his peonies has, as a rule, usually suffered from contact with snuff, which seems to take a particularly heavy toll on white pigment. Here the colours are almost entirely intact, giving us a clue to what it was that Ye Zhongsan and his sons copied. So many more of their works have survived unused, since they were made at a time when the function of the snuff bottle was being replaced to a large extent by its qualities as art. A great deal of the Ye family output after the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 was made for collectors with little intention of using them for snuff, and many for foreign tourists who were frequent visitors to Beijing in the years from 1912 to 1949.

The calligraphy here is typical of 1892, when so many of his inscriptions were confined to the date, his name and studio name, and the fact that it was painted at Beijing. It is written in his distinctive and beautifully controlled angular calligraphy. Although the Ye family were able to copy Zhou’s painting style very closely, so closely in some cases that at their best they might almost be taken for Zhou’s own, they were unable to master his calligraphy. On the finest of Ye fakes, it is always the writing that lets them down and proves beyond doubt that they are not by the master.


Easy link to this page: http://www.e-yaji.com/auction/photo.php?photo=861&exhibition=6&ee_lang=eng


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Hugh Moss |