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photographer E-Yaji.

The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 12 

Lot 12

Lot 12
Treasury 4, no. 556

An inside-painted glass ‘ducks and landscape’ snuff bottle

(‘The First to Know’)

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and flat foot; painted on one main side with a landscape scene with a group of trees in the foreground and a man in a boat on a lake flanked by a rocky shore, the other main side with two ducks swimming near a reedy bank beneath the overhanging branches of a willow tree, inscribed in draft script ‘Executed by Erzhong in an autumn month in the year gengzi at the request of the honourable Yinnan,’ with one seal of the artist, Erzhong, in negative seal script
Bottle: 1800–1900
Painting: Ding Erzhong, probably Nanjing, autumn, 1900
Height: 5 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.7/1.6 cm
Stopper: carnelian; stained walrus-ivory collar

Lot 12 Provenance:
Arthur W. Sharfeld
Sotheby’s, London, 24 November 1964, lot 131
Sydney L. Moss Ltd. (1964)
Hugh Moss
Sotheby’s, New York, 3 November 1982, lot 275
Eric Young
Sotheby’s, London, 3 March 1987, lot 147

Kleiner 1987, no. 262
Arts of Asia, July-August 1987, p. 119
Treasury >4, no. 556>

Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 12 Commentary
Ding’s career as a snuff-bottle painter, if our records are any indication of the overall output, peaked in the three years 1897, 1898, and 1899. There are four bottles recorded from 1893, the first year from which we have surviving bottles; two from 1894; three from 1895; seven from 1896; ten from 1897; 12 from 1898 (although in one case only one side was painted in that year, the other, strangely, bearing the date 1903); eight from 1899; three from each of the years 1900 and 1901; seven from 1902; three from 1903; six from 1904; two from each of the years 1905 and 1906; none from 1907, and one from 1908. There is then a gap until 1914, when one bottle is recorded, and another longer gap until 1927, when there is one more. This excludes twenty-one undated bottles and one that has an obviously wrong date on it (Treasury 4, no. 562). From this it is obvious that Ding concentrated his efforts on snuff bottles between 1893 and 1906, with his greatest production in the three years from 1897 to 1899, although there is another busy period between 1902 and 1904. While he was at his peak artistically from 1895 through to 1902, it is interesting to note that his two recorded works from 1906 are not as impressive as his earlier works. The painting lacks the commitment so obvious at the height of his career, although the calligraphy remains excellent. He seems to have been losing interest in the art by 1906, although he managed to regain a good deal of his composure in his one bottle of 1908, and the one dated to 1927, in the Pat Miller Collection, is also very good. As an artist, he was obviously losing interest in the art of painting inside snuff bottles after 1905, shifting towards calligraphy, fan-frame carving and, particularly, seal carving.

The landscape side of this unusual little bottle might also suggest a lapse in commitment if it were not for the lovely painting on the other side. This is certainly not his most impressive landscape, particularly after the magnificent examples we have seen so far from this collection, nor does it have the abstract power of Sale 1, lot 62, and we believe this may provide the clue to this apparently anomalous work from 1900. The style is taken from the orthodox school and might be mistaken for a small album painting without the bottle containing it. It is even reminiscent of the sort of landscapes Gan Xuanwen painted, and it is just possible that Ding saw one of his works and decided to paint such a scene, although he would not have had to look far to find dozens of similar images as album paintings. One of the clues lies in the red tree in the foreground, with its foliage delineated by a series of circles in ink filled with colour. This is one of the standard, orthodox methods of depicting a tree, but one not used anywhere else in Ding’s output. We believe that Ding Erzhong moved with his family to Nanjing at some time in 1900, and this unusual little landscape may reflect the taste of new clients, unconnected to the prevailing taste at Beijing. The use of this strangely shaped glass bottle would also suggest that he had already moved and was trying out new supplies of blank glass bottles, whether old or new. From 1900 onwards, very few of his bottles are the standard Beijing blanks.

To offset the simple landscape painting, the other main side is painted with a rare and charming subject for Ding: ducks in a spring river beneath a willow. It is a delightful subject and, although simple, well up to Ding’s high standards. He painted this rare subject once again in 1901 but without the willow and with an enormous red sun rising through the clouds at the water’s horizon (Hugh Moss Records). The subject is reminiscent of a poem written by the eminent Northern Song poet, Su Shi (1037–1101), entitled ‘On an Evening View of a Spring River by Hui Chong.’ The second line in this poem, ‘The ducks are the first to sense the warmth of the water in a river in springtime’, has inspired many pictorial compositions since the poem was written. In terms of snuff bottles, different interpretations of the theme appear most frequently on overlay glass bottles, but others are known in inside-painted bottles, including Sale 2, lot 18, by Zhou Leyuan, where there is more discussion of the multiple meanings of Su Shi’s couplet.

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