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photographer E-Yaji.

The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 42 

Lot 42

Lot 42
Treasury 4, no. 480

An inside-painted ‘chicks and water buffalo’ glass snuff bottle

(‘The Herdboy Returns Home’)

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a slightly concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a herdboy, seated playing a flute on the back of his water buffalo, wading home between reed banks in a river, with a willow tree on the far bank, and hills beyond, the other main side with two chicks under flowering prunus branches, signed in draft script Zhou Leyuan, followed by one seal of the artist, yin (‘seal’), in positive seal script
Zhou Leyuan, The Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, 1888–1889
Height: 6.95 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.59/1.6 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Lot 42 Provenance:
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 30 October 1990, lot 142

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 323
Treasury 4, no. 480

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

Lot 42 Commentary
The two chicks beneath prunus branches are symbols of fertility, or ample progeny, as explained under no. 476. The probable origin of the herdboy flautist on a water buffalo is revealed through other inscribed versions of the same subject (see Ka Bo Tsang, ‘Decoding Ox/Water Buffalo Designs on Chinese Snuff Bottles,’ JICSBS, Spring 1998, pp. 19 and 20) and is a poem called ‘A Village at Dusk’ written by Lei Zhen of the Song period (about whom virtually nothing is known):

Grasses fill up the pond, and water fills up the banks.
Hills mouth the setting sun, soaked in chilly ripples.
A herdboy returns home sprawled across his buffalo,
Small flute, no melody—but he lets it all hang out.

This poem appears to have inspired artists in various media over the centuries.
We know that it was the inspiration for Zhou himself (see Sale 1, lot 91 for a bottle on which the poem actually appears; we offer a different translation here, freer in some places and more literal in others, but the original text is the same) and other inside-painters who followed him, so we may be reasonably certain that it is the inspiration for Zhou’s painting here. Zhou painted the subject of the boy on a water buffalo many times in his later years. It appears for the first time on a bizarre bottle from the Ralph Hults Collection, where Zhou attempts a large-scale fisherman on one side and the boy on his water buffalo on the other, although the view of the water buffalo is hardly its best, as all we see is the rear end.

His hesitancy with these new larger-scale figure subjects is plain to see, and it is the one recorded exception to the axiom that Zhou never painted less than totally confident and masterly works during his mature period. The standard later version exhibiting Zhou’s complete mastery of the animal and the figure on its back can be seen in Sale 1, lot 47, and was painted a number of times during the last few years of his career, although always, of course, in different compositions.

Although it is undated, we can place this with some confidence in the years 1888 or 1889 by the style of the landscape painting and particularly by the signature. Compared to the earlier version of the chicks under prunus branches (Treasury 4, no. 476), it is more angular, leaning towards the standard signature of his last few years as seen on Treasury 4, no. 504, for instance, but still with the slightly more eccentric draft script for the character Zhou and with the still-exaggerated upward turn of the final stroke of ‘yuan.’ Another indication of the dating of this bottle is that the water buffalo is not at all like those of his final phase of painting, discussed above. There is more outline used here, particularly in the legs and lower body of the beast, and the shading is not as subtle as on later versions. The painting of the lone willow is also an indication of a transitional stage between his early and late works. By 1890, his willows were more standardized, with much subtler washes for the leaves. Here he is still shifting from the small-scale trees of his earlier works to the larger-scale trees of his later paintings. With his later trees, he has mastered them to the point where the details are no longer in question and all he has to worry about is composition. Here he is still working out the formula for these details, and has, therefore, put more thought into how to paint a willow than into where to place it, although the placing is achieved with his normal compositional flair. The difference is in the greater detailing of branches and, particularly, in the colouring and shading of the leaves, which are much more realistic than in his later versions.

Kleiner previously described this bottle as unsigned. It is likely that he worked from photographs in which lighting or positioning obscured the signature.

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