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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 38 

Lot 38


Lot 38
Treasury 5, no. 829
Pale Antiquity

Translucent yellow glass; with a concave lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; carved with a continuous formalized archaistic design with a central band of four buffalo heads and, on the narrow sides, addorsed birds framed between bands of lotus petals, with further, similar bands at the upper neck and around the base, the narrow sides with mask handles
Imperial glassworks, Beijing, 1736–1770
Height: 5.15 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.61/1.81 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Lot 38 Provenance:  
Drouot, Paris (Millon-Jutheau), 5 and 6 March 1985, lot 48 bis
Robert Hall (1987)
Hall 1987, no. 42
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 66
Treasury 5, no. 829
Robert Hall, London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May-June 1993
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March-June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994-February 1995

Lot 38 Commentary    
The range of imperial yellows is discussed under Treasury 5, no. 689, which represents the darker end of the range, while the mid-range is represented by Treasury 5, no. 828, and the paler end by Treasury 5, no. 797, where its apparently early use is discussed. All can be dated to no later than the mid-Qing period and reveal a fairly wide range of yellow glass to have been produced concurrently at court. This superb example, from the paler end of the range, is obviously of the same small, imperial group as the previous one. They must have been made within a short time of each other, probably by the same lapidary or at least from drawings prepared by the same court artist. Although pale yellow may have been available during the first half of the eighteenth century, with the evidence of this bottle we may be sure it continued to be used in the mid-century, alongside the darker colour.

The style of carving here and on the other similar examples from the Dwyer, Wise, and Mullin Collections cited under Treasury 5, no. 828, is identical, with reign marks on two serving to date the others. The subject matter here is by far the most intriguing of the group, however, with its wider range of archaistic motifs and its eccentric handles. As part of the Manchu response to China’s ancient material culture, the Qianlong emperor not only gathered together an immense collection of antiques, but compiled and published a massive volume, illustrated with wood-block printed drawings, on his collection of ancient bronzes (see under Treasury 2, no. 300). The enormous effort and imperial enthusiasm devoted to this project, published in 1751, may have propelled the emperor towards the archaistic decorative trend of the first half of his reign. A great patron of the arts, he produced and collected on a grand scale, taking an intense personal interest in both aspects. To gather together such a formidable collection of ancient bronzes (although part of it was undoubtedly inherited from his forebears), all of which he researched and published within fifteen years of his accession to the throne, is a testament to his enthusiasm. During that period it is only natural that his predilection for the ancient should expand to embrace massive patronage of the new, of which this bottle may be one result.

The significance of the various elements shared with Treasury 5, no. 828 are explained there, but in this example the kui dragons have moved up to the shoulder band, where the archaistic bodies are joined to chi dragon heads - a bizarre and purely Qianlong departure from ancient style. Mid-eighteenth-century palace artists were particularly inventive in their contribution to archaism. What appear to be further kui dragon bodies round the main body are revealed, upon closer examination, to be highly formalized taotie masks. This is clear from the two small eyes set on either side of the central, vertical and distinctly abstract lines of the kui-like elements, but which, once the eyes come into focus, metamorphose into a delightfully bizarre nose, the nostrils of which rest on the base-band of lotus petals. A lotus-sniffing taotie seems uncharacteristically gentle for so fierce and voracious a creature, held by legend to have devoured its own body in a fit of gluttony (see Treasury 2, no. 261 or Treasury 4, no. 491), but we appear to have one here. Once alerted to the hidden aspects of this design, one looks upwards for formalized horns only to discover a pair of what appear to be buffalo heads with two horns apiece (although they may also refer to the traditional taotie, whose image was distinctly variable during the Qing dynasty). Completing the archaistic potpourri, pairs of addorsed birds are placed on the narrow sides, beneath the mask handles. These are carved in a much more realistic style, similar to the handles on Treasury 5, no. 828. Strongly suggesting parrots practising Irish dancing, they are recognizable as drawn from typical bird motifs taken from bronzes of the late Shang or early Zhou dynasties. Above them we find surprisingly realistic taotie masks - if realism in the realm of myth is not an oxymoron. Carved in a quite different style, they are well rounded and extremely well detailed, with bifurcated horns, a mass of carefully engraved hair, and what appear to be impressive beards, each curling back in two great sweeps from the centre of the chin towards the ears. In a rare departure from the norm, the masks have no rings. For another example with the same design and certainly by the same hand, see Franz 1999.

The concave lip is elegantly carved and may be an exception to the general rule of flat lips on early glass snuff bottles but, if re-cut, is well executed (see discussion under Treasury 5, no. 784). In terms of quality there is little to choose between the bottles in this group, but the iconography of this one is by far the most intriguing.



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