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Part III:
The Rising Importance
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The Marakovic Collection

Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent

Part I: The Imperial Phase
The Daoguang Era, 1821 -- 1851

I274 I277 I.279

Imperial dominance of snuff-bottle style began to wane during the mid Qing as the habit became more national and less Beijing-centric. The Daoguang reign is the last where innovation in some areas continued to come from the court. A great deal more innovation occurred in the broader, non-imperial market, the influence of which was rapidly growing in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Most of the imperial favourites of the eighteenth century continued into the Daoguang, but not all. There are no imperial painted enamels on glass or metal that we can attribute to the Daoguang reign. The first, as we have seen, seems to have petered out by the end of the Qianlong era; the second sputtered to a halt after the Jiaqing emperor abandoned all painted enamels in 1813. Resuming production in the palace would have been difficult even if the Daoguang emperor had possessed the budget and the desire. The needed skills could not be developed overnight, and if the rather inferior enamel-on-glass snuff bottles that came into the imperial collection in 1800 are any guide, the private workshops were not reservoirs of talent to be commandeered, either. If there was an urgent need for masterpieces in these arts, one could always turn to the imperial collection, which was replete with the treasures of the eighteenth century carefully stored away. More work on the archives that have just been published may produce a few interesting details, but this picture of imperial enamelling is not likely to change.

We know more about the output of the imperial glassworks, which continued to turn out snuff bottles (some of them reign marked) for the rest of the dynasty, albeit with interruptions. We struggle in vain to identify any other types of snuff bottles as having definitely been made in the palace workshops of the nineteenth century.

Porcelain is one of the few areas in which the court still set some trends, but that was through the imperial kilns away from Beijing, at Jingdezhen. Quality and quantity of imperial production there were affected, of course, by a Taiping expeditionary force from rebel-occupied Nanjing advancing through the administrative centre at Jiujiang in 1853 and numerous battles and waves of destruction at the hands of various armies in and around Jingdezhen for the next decade.

It is quite clear from extant wares that the spectacular moulded porcelain developments of the late Qianlong and Jiaqing eras held little interest for the Daoguang emperor. A tiny number of moulded porcelains do bear Daoguang marks, but the elaborate, intricate moulded porcelains of the Jiaqing era were abandoned in favour of a much smaller range of simpler, more cheaply produced moulded designs, as seen on the bottle in figure I.277, where a minimum of handwork was required to join the two halves of the mould and tidy up the joint. Perhaps the emperor was distracted by the fact that China, once the largest holder of silver in the world economy, was transferring all its silver to the British to pay for opium; perhaps he was preoccupied with the Opium War and distressed by the Treaty of Nanking that ended it. By all accounts, he was a responsible sovereign who took China’s problems seriously, even though the solutions were far beyond his reach.

Another reason for the lacklustre state of moulded porcelain snuff bottles at this time was that attention was being diverted to a new type of porcelain bottle in which the designs were entirely carved by hand. The carvers (Chen Guozhi 陳國治, Wang Bingrong 王炳榮, Hu Wenxiang 胡文祥, Li Yucheng 李裕成, Yao Weidong 姚位東, and others) often signed their work, which indicates that they saw themselves as more than merely the executors of imperial orders; their reputations were made in the non-imperial marketplace. We can probably distinguish the bottles they made for the court by their use of five-clawed dragons and yellow glazes (actually, as enamels are usually painted directly on the biscuit, they are ‘glazes’ only in the sense of being a monochrome overall covering). Although such protocols began to break down during the mid to late Qing, the Daoguang court still had the power and prestige to cling to them, at least for most of the reign. Another factor in these protocols as it affected the snuff bottle world is that although imperial yellow and five-clawed dragons might, for instance, have begun to be usurped to some extent by hubristic individuals not traditionally permitted their use, it was collectors who were the main impetus for such lèse-majesté. As soon as counterfeiters began to produce bottles for either a local market and or (especially) a foreign collector’s market, where imperial bottles were more in demand than any other type, fake marks were quickly accompanied by the unlicensed use of five-clawed dragons and imperial yellow. The collectors didn’t care about the protocols, and the makers were protected as long as they remained anonymous. But it is unlikely that a five-clawed dragon beneath an imperial yellow glaze on a bottle signed by Wang Bingrong represents a non-imperial, unlicensed use of the imperial dragon and colour. Those who broke imperial protocols under the Qing, even towards its end, tended not to advertise the fact, certainly not so blatantly as to sign their name.

Since the vast majority of imperially-marked Daoguang snuff bottles are porcelain, we shall start with those. The Daoguang emperor seems to have continued the bestowal of large numbers of porcelain bottles. Indeed, there are many indications that he exceeded the annual production of his predecessors, possibly because the demand for snuff bottles was probably at a peak during his reign while, with the possible exception of the imperial glassworks, the palace workshops in Beijing seem to have been hopelessly inadequate. He would have had to rely to a greater extent on the mass-production capacity of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, making porcelain the material of choice.

The Daoguang emperor seems to have favoured certain types of porcelain, among which was a series of bottles with famille rose designs. He followed the lead of the Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors in this, but his taste in subject matter was different. The floral subjects of his two predecessors gave way to genre scenes, illustrations from books and ancient legends, and other figure and landscape scenes borrowed from various sources, although the ever-popular imperial dragon was continued.

Formally, the most popular Daoguang porcelain shapes were more bulbous, including the compressed ovoid form represented by the bottle in figure I.276. Other examples showing this preference for a fuller form are the bottle in figure I.274 and the elongated pear shape of the bottle in figure I.273 (which also appeared in a broader form). The latter bottle has a stock composition of a lone fisherman with his pole resting on a Y-shaped support on the prow of his skiff (in this case it is floating a little above the support, the painter obviously feeling more harried than the idealized fisherman); Bonhams Hong Kong, 28 May 2010, lot 125 (Bloch no. 1319), has exactly the same composition, but with ice and snow instead of springtime blossoms. At least one known snuff dish has this composition, also.

Figure I.274 shows a bottle from one of the most spectacular sets from the period. A snuff bottle from the Bloch collection (no. 1316; Bonhams Hong Kong, 23 November 2010, lot 53) has exactly the same composition and text. The longer text reads


The Commentary on Ancient and Current Matters: The pengqi is a small crab that is born in the mud of the shallows by the ocean. One name for it is changlang. The Categorized Compendium [eleventh century] further states: The pengyue is like a crab but smaller. It only rests in the beach sands. It is particularly plentiful at the Huai River. When the tide arrives, it puts its two claws together as if saluting [in the Chinese manner of greeting by making a loose fist with one hand, enwrapping it with the other, and holding the arms half extended in front of the chest]; thus the local people call it the ‘lad who bows to the tide’.

There is some question of whether the first quotation is from a fourth- or a tenth-century text (the second is probably copying from the first, anyway), and pengqi in the quotation is an error for pengyue (though there is a small crab called pengqi), but such matters do not detract from the delightful effect of adding this little scholium to the picture.

Metrically, the couplet on the side with the shrimp and clams is perfectly regulated and could be part of a poem, but we have not found it in any poems. It reads

Herein the meaning of long life is already present;
Shrimp can also realize the Zen of the clamshell.

The first line may stem from a rhyming text attributed a Song-dynasty lay Buddhist that reads in part

In this is present the road of long life.
On the road of long life
There’s no dawn,
There’s no dusk.
There’s no present,
There’s no ancient.
There’s no myriad phenomenon and no masses of things,
There's no territory and no sovereign soil.

Knowing the full context of the line quoted on the bottle, we can understand that it means the shrimp live in a timeless, non-political world. ‘Zen of the clamshell’ refers to a Chan (Zen) master's style of teaching: as soon the two shells are open, the ‘liver and guts’ are plain to see; in other words, the truth is revealed directly. The phrase is also worded bangge chan 蚌蛤禪, ‘Zen of the clam’, and it has been used both pejoratively and approvingly in Buddhist writings; the context here does not require us to decide which is relevant, for the joke is in making the phrase a comment on the painting.

It was not uncommon for Daoguang imperial bottles to bear inscriptions as part of the design, sometimes followed by the name either of the poet or inscriber. There are similarly written inscriptions on the series of bottles showing Queen Victoria on the throne, which can only have come from the last half of the Daoguang reign, after she ascended the throne in 1837 (the seventeenth year of the Daoguang era). The presence of these intriguing texts on snuff bottles must have made them excellent ‘conversation pieces’, and the quality of the work demonstrates the existence of a high level of enamelling in the Daoguang, despite the worsening political situation.

The bottle in figure I.275 also has an inscription, this time lifted from a famous Tang-dynasty poem; it has nothing to do with the scene, unless it is being memorized by the boy on the other main side. The four lines quoted on the bottle are the first half of poem no. 163 in the ubiquitous Three Hundred Tang Poems, which was compiled in the eighteenth century for the edification of our enamelled lad and millions of his countrymen, with hundreds of thousands of foreigners joining the readership in the last century or so. The author is the eighth-century poet Cui Hao 崔顥 (704 – 754), from whom a little over fifty poems survive. It was written on the famous Yellow Crane Tower in what is modern Wuhan.

The man of the past has already ridden
the yellow crane and gone;
In the present is uselessly left behind
the Yellow Crane Tower.
Once the yellow crane has gone,
it shall not return again;
A thousand years the white clouds
in vain stretch on for ever.

As one might expect for a poem so widely memorized, there are many variant texts. In the case of this inscription, the verb meaning ‘to ride on’ in the first line is normally cheng 乘, not qi 騎; jinri 今日 (‘today’) in the second line is normally cidi 此地 (‘this place’). These changes have no unfortunate metrical consequences and create no awkward meanings; they were made by someone who knew what he was doing. In fact, for various reasons, one could say they improve the lines’ ability to stand alone without the second half of the poem. Clearly, more is at play on this bottle than the enameller's art alone.

The rounded-rectangular form of the bottle in figure I.275 is found in the Daoguang, albeit not commonly. As far as we know, it has a unique design, although the bottle would typically have been part of a set of ten. The bottle in figure I.276 is in the same class insofar as it is a surviving singleton from what must once have been a set. The two bottles are also unusual in their palettes. The bottle in figure I.275 is unusual in its choice of iron red and various shades of grey as the dominant colour scheme (with the restrained use of the other colours of the famille rose palette); the bottle in figure I.276 is likewise extremely unusual for the Daoguang era in its use of only iron red with grey for a genre scene. It is also intriguing that the grey colouring (black enamel applied thinly) is used only for the heads of the four figures in the scene. They represent the Four Ideal Occupations (yu qiao geng du 漁樵耕讀, fisherman, woodcutter, tiller, and scholar).

With the bottle in figure I.277, we come to one of the most popular and impressive moulded-porcelain designs of the reign. These dragon bottles were obviously made in many different sets, as they come from various moulds. Each mould could have been used for multiple sets over the years, and when judging whether two bottles come from the same mould, care must be taken to discount differences in enamelling. It is not uncommon for an enameller to render two blanks from the same mould in different colours, or with details differently added to give the impression of quite different moulds. The design in figure I.277 is a standard one found in many different versions, some in predominantly green, some iron red.

As a rule, they bear the standard four-character seal-script Daoguang nian zhi mark, which was by far the most common for the reign; it also appears on the four previous examples. Obviously, an exemplar was established and faithfully copied, perhaps by a single mark-writer, for several years at a time.

The range of these Daoguang imperial enamelled-porcelain bottles is extensive, and they make a fascinating field for study and acquisition all on their own. A sizeable collection could be made of the many different designs and compositions.

The flaming pearl that got away from the dragon in figure I.277 has been captured by the green dragon on the snuff dish in figure I.278. The two pieces are not part of a single original set. The styles of the dragons are quite different, the bottle having a four-clawed dragon (remarkable for the precision of its drawing and the use of varying shades of the green enamel to suggest volume and enliven the surface) suitable for an ennobled commoner, the dish being painted with a five-clawed dragon reserved for imperial use. The marks differ as well: the dish has an unusual six-character mark (Da Qing Daoguang nian zhi), a choice undoubtedly inspired by the much larger space available on the dish. If a cylindrical foot might encourage a larger, more complex mark on a snuff bottle, as we suggested above, that would be even truer of the broad bottom of a snuff dish.

One of the most impressive and intriguing groups of Daoguang imperial porcelain bottles (although it may have begun earlier and probably continued into the following reigns) is represented by the bottles in figures I.279 - I.280 - I.281. For a recent summary of our current understanding of the group, see Hugh Moss, ‘The Wrong End of the Dragon’, JICSBS, Winter 2008, pp. 16 – 22), although further research is needed to discover the connection between wrapped pillars and these bottles – they may simply resemble pillars wrapped in dragon-rugs, rather than being inspired directly by them

Only one of these bottles has been discovered with a reign mark, and it is of the Daoguang era. No other marks are found, other than a spurious Qianlong mark on the occasional later-Qing version made for a collectors’ market. The frequent use of a biscuit (unglazed) flat foot or a very slightly concave foot engraved with concentric circles (seen in figs. I.279I.281, I.283, and I.284) suggests that they were never intended to be reign-marked as a rule. Whatever the origins of the design, the high standard of painting and potting, the ubiquitous five-claw imperial dragon, and the fact that they were obviously made in a number of different sets suggest an imperial group ordered over and over again during the early to mid nineteenth century.

These bottles come in a dizzying variety of sizes and designs, but the core group is strictly cylindrical, with a broad, flat lip with an exaggerated flare; the lip is sometimes excessively wide, giving the impression of being almost as wide as the bottle, an effect created in part by the fact that it is sharply flared on a short neck. The dragons on this group are usually alone and charge around the bottle in one direction or the other with enormous verve and energy. They are generally said to be in ‘pursuit’ of a flaming pearl – although of course with a continuous design on a cylindrical surface, the pearl might as well be in pursuit of the dragon.

They sometimes have formalized clouds, and in one rare version each of the dragon’s feet is placed neatly on a little formalized puff of cloud. Others have more than one beast or other variations, and some even have a wan 卍 design (the fylfot or sauwastika pattern) as a ground. Variants often have glazed bases, foot rims, straight cylindrical necks, and so forth. The influence of these magnificent bottles is found on bottles of other forms, confirming their importance as a mid-Qing group.

The main difference between the bottles in figures I.279 and I.280, apart from the direction of the dragon and the taller neck of the second bottle, is that the first is of the creamy, crackled huashi porcelain, while the other is of the standard white porcelain with colourless glaze. The bottle in figure I.281 is an unusually small version with the decoration reduced to the dragon and pearl, without clouds or waves. The bottle in figure I.282 is a very rare variant with an iron-red dragon set against an otherwise unrecorded design of underglaze-blue formalized fu (blessings) and shou (longevity) characters. Although the bottle is of the standard shape for the group, the foot is glazed, rimmed by a distinct foot rim, and decorated quite capriciously with a small iron-red leaf.

A likely spin-off from this group is found in a small series of superbly painted iron-red versions, usually shorter than the standard blue-and-white dragon-pillar bottles, but still often with the widely flared lip and biscuit foot with concentric circles (as in figs. I.283 and I.284). They are never less than spectacular and, again, obviously made in repeated sets despite their current rarity. The two in the Marakovic collection are both of the huashi range of porcelain; they are probably from the same set, as the compositions match very closely and they are only one-tenth of a centimetre different in height. (Note: the unusually appropriate matching porcelain stopper in figure I.284 is not only not the original, it was not originally a stopper at all; it is half a bead given a coral-coloured glass collar.)

The depiction of a dragon ‘bringing its son out onto the ocean tides’, dai zi shang chao 帶子上潮, is a rebus for ‘bringing one’s son into court’, dai zi shang chao 帶子上朝, and represents the hope that sons might follow in their father’s footsteps in serving in high positions. (There is also a dish in Chinese cuisine by this name, made with a duck and a pigeon; some versions of the recipe use chicken.) The design was a common one on early Qing ceramics.

In the ceramics industry there is a tendency for multiple types to be produced in the same kilns. Once a pottery is set up, it is incidental whether it is producing underglaze wares in either red or blue, enamelled wares, monochromes, or moulded and carved wares. Principal firings were often communal, and potters simply put their wares in the appropriate kiln (or in their appropriate position in the kiln if certain conditions of temperature or oxidization were required). Enamels could be simply added by any potter in a small muffle kiln, probably private but possibly also communal. So we may expect variations on a theme across a wide range of wares, and we find it with the pillar bottles.

One of the most impressive underglaze-red dai zi shang chao versions is the bottle in figure I.285. The neck and foot have been reduced to standard types, but the basic cylindrical shape and dragon design link it to the main group. An association with the group is also discernible even in the bottle in figure I.286, although the elongated-oval form, which is not specifically Daoguang, takes us far enough away from the pillar form that we are free to see it simply as a standard evolution of long-existing dragon designs on porcelain snuff bottles.

The sole reign-marked glass snuff bottle from the Daoguang period in the collection is an object lesson in caution regarding rules-of-thumb (fig. I.287). If it had no mark, its unremarkable form, which might have been made at any time during the Qing, and extensive crizzling would suggest an early date. True, the detailing of the base area and foot is not as crisp and purposeful as one would expect of an eighteenth-century bottle, but the slightly uneven rounded outer foot rim could be taken as the result of a later repair to remove chips. The wheel-cut mark, however, is entirely credible and typical of the calligraphically-challenged wheel-cut marks of the second half of the Qing dynasty. We can discount the significance of the crizzling, as crizzled glass occurs sporadically well into the nineteenth century.

Once we have that Daoguang mark, we know how to interpret the form, the detailing, and the crizzling correctly. When we get into the unmarked wares, however, the problems of identifying Daoguang bottles are as difficult as they are with Jiaqing bottles, although the longer reign presumably improves the success rate of guesswork a little. The delightful pale ruby-pink-suffused glass bottle in figure I.288, with its unusual combination of a chi feline and a tied sash, is from the mid Qing and could well be from the Daoguang era, but might be earlier. This type of glass, with a sandwiched layer of ground ruby-glass fragments contained between transparent layers, is typical of imperial output, and the design suggests an imperial product, so assuming this was carved at the imperial glassworks, or at least for the court if done elsewhere, then the style would not be out of the question for the reign. We have already noted the Daoguang – Xianfeng decline in the quality of glass production, but if that was a slow slide over thirty years’ time, decent glass bottles were probably still being produced, probably in large quantities, in the early Daoguang era.

The bottle in figure I.289 is also a likely early-Daoguang piece. It shows a slightly devolved style based on the late Qianlong style but not quite as fluently and convincingly carved. The subject matter is also a valuable clue. A series of Zodiac animal bottles occurs in other media, notably porcelain, during the first half of the nineteenth century, giving us a little more confidence in dating this bottle to the Daoguang than we might otherwise have had. Our confidence is also bolstered by the bottle in figure I.290, a blue overlay. It is a design we know from the height of the Qianlong period, but the style is not as convincing, and the snowstorm ground has a distinctive milky appearance. The Chinese called this ground lotus-root powder (oufen 藕粉), and it was considered the best and was among the earlier grounds for cameo overlay bottles, although we cannot be sure when these first appeared. The white flakes are possibly glass, but may also be some other material ground into the glass, given the fact that they tend not to melt into the surrounding colourless glass to soften the edges, as one might expect if they were also glass. The Spanish-real glass overlay in the J&J collection (Art of the Chinese Snuff bottle, no. 385) has a remarkably similar appearance. It can be no earlier than 1796, based on the coin copied. Clearly, lotus-root powder remained a desirable and achievable ground for overlay snuff bottles for an extended period. The Marakovic bottle, given the quite typical imperial and northern mask handles, is likely to be an imperial bottle, possibly made at the imperial glassworks and carved at the palace workshops’ lapidary workshop in the early Daoguang.

There are many different densities related to the lotus-root-powder ground, and preferences among them might have been a matter of taste on the part of the customer or technical control on the part of the glassmaker. An alternative white ground is seen in figure I.291, which shows a late version of a splendidly impressive group that probably began in the Qianlong era. In this group, multiple patches of different-coloured overlay are applied as a single plane to a ground that varies from a transparent, watery colour to a translucent dense milky white, and then each colour is carved with a separate chi dragon. As many as eight different overlay colours are known (although the higher the number of colours the more alike some of them become); most bottles, however, have between three and seven colours of overlay.

Several features suggest a nineteenth-century date for the bottle in figure I.291, possibly a Daoguang one, although it is equally possible that it represents a last imperial fling in the post-Taiping era known as the ‘Tongzhi revival’, when arts and crafts began to flourish again.

Dating undecorated snuff bottles from the nineteenth century is hampered by the lack of dated bottles to function as guides. But we can make some educated guesses. The well-hollowed red jadeite bottle with the reasonably wide neck shown in figure I.292 might be as late as the Daoguang era—we may assume that such simple ovoid bottles in precious materials continued into the reign—but it might be as early as the late Qianlong. The faceted forms in glass of the nineteenth century should be paralleled by the occasional equivalent in other materials, and the bottle in figure I.293 may be an example of this. The earlier counterparts with which we dealt (figs. I.164 - I.165 - I.166 - I.167, for instance) were more crisply carved.

Another unique faceted stone bottle is the delightful and impressive crystal one with dense inclusions of coppery-red rutile needles (fig. I.294). The slightly rounded side panels and the less-than-perfect faceting suggest it is not earlier than the mid Qing, so it, too, may date from the Daoguang.

We can be reasonably certain of a later-Qing date for the crystal bottle in figure I.295. With its imperial design of kui dragons, it is probably made at or for the court, but the carving represents a step down from the standards of the Qianlong period. Alas, it could have been done at any time during the nineteenth century, so even if we discount the ten years of the Taiping upheavals as being an unlikely date for it, we still only have a thirty per cent chance of being correct if we attribute it to the Daoguang reign.

The bottle in figure I.296 has auspicious subject matter of the same general type as the bottle in figure I.268 and could have been made at any time from the late Qianlong into the mid nineteenth century. However, it belongs to the so-called silhouette group, a series of more interpretive bottles carved in agate, on which a thin plane of colour is edited to make the design; many of this series can be attributed with some confidence to the nineteenth rather than the eighteenth century, based on subject matter (foreign soldiers and other figures, for instance), on the often rudimentary hollowing out of the areas into the inner shoulders, and on careless detailing of the foot. Thus, this bottle is an example of a likely Daoguang type even if it is not of the period.

Among a number of organic bottles we can safely attribute to the Daoguang era, there is one rare gourd in the Marakovic collection that bears a Daoguang reign mark, shown in figure I.296a. It is a snuff pot, of the wide-mouthed variety, typical of Daoguang fashion, and again is decorated with the supposed imperial favourite of two doves and Pekinese dog.