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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 12 

Lot 12

 
   

Lot 12
Treasury 7, no. 1570

Singing in the Breeze

Transparent brown amber with some darker brown flecking and organic inclusions, both the interior and exterior surfaces covered with a fine network of crizzling; well hollowed, with a flat lip and flat foot; engraved in clerical script with the poem ‘Listening to Flute-playing on the Yellow Crane Tower in the Company of Senior Secretary Shi Qin’, divided onto the two main sides, the first two lines on the first side preceded by the seal yinfeng (to sing in the breeze), and followed, in running script, by ‘[A poem] randomly chosen and scribbled’, followed by the name seal Baishi, and the last two lines (read left to right, the opposite of the normal order) on the second side with the seals nongyue (to admire the moon) on the left and shanren (hermit) at the end of the last line, on the right
Wang Baishi, 1830–1850
Height: 4.7 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.51/1.65 cm
Stopper: pearl; coral collar

Lot 12 Provenance:
Private collection
Sotheby’s, London, 6 June 1988, lot 97

Published:
Treasury 7, no. 1571

Lot 12 Commentary
The poem ‘Listening to Flute-playing on the Yellow Crane Tower in the Company of Senior Secretary Shi Qin’ is by the prolific Tang poet, Li Bai (701–762), the famous drunken poet who, according to legend, met his end trying to grasp the reflection of the moon in the water beside his boat after a few too many. He may not have been entirely sober when he dreamed up the title of this particular poem, which is almost as long as the poem itself. The poem reads

A certain immortal arrived at Changsha,
Turned westward towards Chang’an, but could see his home no more.
In Yellow Crane Tower someone plays a jade flute.
In the river city ‘plum blossoms fall’, though it is the fifth month.

Changsha, capital of modern Hunan province, was the place to which the statesman and poet Jia Yi was exiled in the Han dynasty. Li Bai is on his way to exile in the same general direction, but even further away, so the second line expresses the anguish of both men longing for the capital, Chang’an (modern Xi’an). On the Yellow Crane Tower (an ancient landmark in what is now Wuhan on the Yangzi—the ‘river town’ of the poem), Li Bai hears the flute tune ‘Plum blossoms falling’ and transforms it into the conceit that the blossoms are falling in the town months after the end of their season.

Baishi is best known as the carver of a small series of hornbill snuff bottles of masterly quality, but he also made at least three amber snuff bottles, all with inscriptions and seals only, without the pictorial content we have come to expect of his hornbill carvings. Apart from this one, there is one in a private English collection (A2 in the list of his known works given under Treasury 7, no. 1569), and a third is recorded in Hugh Moss Records (loc. cit., A3). Strangely, some of the seals that appear on his amber bottles do not appear to have been used on his hornbill examples, but the style of carving, choice of texts, and the seals giving the name Baishi all suggest beyond a doubt that they are made by the same man.

Baishi’s dated works suggest a likely period for his more plentiful undated bottles. The roughened interior here may indicate that Baishi was using an earlier bottle in this case, since by the Daoguang period, when he seems to have worked, the fashion for polished interiors was probably well established, even if not universally followed.

 

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Hugh Moss |