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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 39 

Lot 39

 

Lot 39
Treasury 1, no. 117

The ‘Room Full of Orchids’ Suzhou Jade

Nephrite of pebble material; extremely well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed foot surrounded by a flat footrim; carved with an orchid, lingzhi, and another plant growing from a rocky ground beneath an inscription in relief draft script, ‘Living with a gentle person is like being in a room full of angelica and eupatorium’
Suzhou, 1680–1770
Height: 5.69 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.72/1.75 cm
Stopper: mother-of-pearl; coral collar

Lot 39 Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (London, circa 1969)
The Loch Awe Collection
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (Hong Kong, 1986)

Published:
Kleiner 1987, no. 41
Treasury 1, no. 117

Exhibited:
Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 39 Commentary
There must have been a good many snuff bottles produced between the late seventeenth century, when they would have begun their rise to popularity, and the end of the Kangxi reign, when known imperial enamels on metal and glass were made at the palace, but where are they, and how can they be identified?

A study of the entire field reveals that only occasionally do we have the luxury of imperially-marked or otherwise precisely dated or datable groups, so their absence from this early period is not, in itself, unusual. Indeed, prior to the latter part of the Kangxi reign, although ceramics produced at Jingdezhen may have been reign-marked during the first half of the reign, wares from the palace workshops tended not to be. All we can do at present, it seems, is to allow that certain types are stylistically possible for the late seventeenth century, even though they may, in fact, have been made later. Our most likely clues in identifying the rest of the missing early Qing bottles must surely be by comparison with other known wares outside the snuff-bottle field, and at Suzhou we are fortunate in this respect. It is likely that the output of this prolific centre for the production of jades from the Ming and Qing dynasties will provide us with as rich a source of clues as we can reasonably expect to find, revealing the qualities of non-imperial, early-Qing snuff bottles.

The Suzhou jade-carving industry flourished from the late Ming dynasty onwards, and there are a number of pieces that can be dated to the seventeenth century, a task undertaken with particular devotion by James Watt (Watt 1980 and Seattle Art Museum, Watt, and Knight 1989). From this, a sense of early-Qing Suzhou style can be established.

There is a standard group of wares associated with the seventeenth century whose style would have been dominant during the early-Qing period at Suzhou. They were predominately white nephrite, frequently featuring inscriptions and the signature of the late-Ming jade carver Lu Zigang; the classic multi-plane relief carvings of serrated rockwork and fully evolved landscape settings, making full use of the colours and flaws in the material, probably were in evidence as early as the Kangxi period. The main problem is that this style seems to have extended well into the eighteenth and possibly even the nineteenth century as an alternative to the more fully evolved, classic Suzhou style typical of the Qianlong period. 

With this example, we are faced with precisely this dilemma. Stylistically, it would fit comfortably into the output of the late seventeenth century; as a carving, independent of its form, a Kangxi date would certainly be acceptable. It is of the popular white material beloved of the early-Qing Suzhou jade carvers. (As a rule, late-Ming and early-Qing Suzhou carvers seem to have favoured flawless white material for smaller carvings, but the use of pebble skin was also a seventeenth-century feature that appears to have become more and more popular as the school evolved into the Qianlong period. Watt illustrates a pendant dated to the Kangxi period and signed by the carver Zhiting that relies heavily on skin colouring, although not with the clarity and obviousness of the later, classic Suzhou wares; Watt 1980, p. 216, no. 217). At this point, we can begin to fill our early-Qing gap only with candidates that might equally well have been made during the first half of the eighteenth century, but at least it is a start.

Watt illustrates a plaque with somewhat similar qualities and style to the seventeenth-century plaques that he dates to the mid-Qing period, suggesting it could be as late as the early nineteenth century (Watt 1980, p. 217, no. 219). It may also be earlier, of course, but even the possibility of so late a date suggests that the style continued well into the Qing dynasty and that a possible early date does not necessarily imply a probable early date for carvings of this style. Again, at present we simply do not have enough criteria for more precise dating of such bottles, but at least the proposal of candidates for so early a period for our field is a start.

The inscription is from Kongzi jiayu [School sayings of Confucius, a Han work], and is part of an argument that if one associates with people better than oneself, one will be gradually improved, just as one who enters a room filled with fragrant plants will gradually cease to notice the fragrance because (Confucius says) one has been transformed to be more like them. Lan in early texts refers not to orchids but to a certain fragrant grass that was dried and hung up to ward off baleful influences; two translations often used are thoroughwort and eupatorium.

 

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