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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 34 

Lot 34


Lot 34
Treasury 4, no. 452

Fragrant Sleeves

Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and slightly recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; painted on one main side with a river landscape scene with a scholar strolling across a plank bridge from a country retreat, a sailboat and further buildings in the distance with mountains beyond, the upper left-hand corner inscribed with the signature, Xuan, and one illegible seal of the artist; and on the other main side with a poetic inscription in a writing style combining elements from the regular and clerical scripts with one token, and another seal of the artist, Gan
Gan Xuanwen, Lingnan, 1810–1825
Height: 5.6 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.58/1.55 cm
Stopper: coral; gilt-bronze collar

Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart

Lot 34 Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1979)
The Belfort Collection (1986)

JICSBS, December 1974, p.15, figs. 13 and 14
Jutheau 1980, p. 69, fig.1
JICSBS, Spring 1991, p.19, figs. 44 and 45
Kleiner 1995, no. 371
Treasury 4, no. 452
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 34 Commentary
As we mentioned under Treasury 4, no. 451, Gan Xuanwen appears to have received a regular supply of crystal bottles and does not appear to have painted in glass at all. This is one of the more popular forms, with the rectangular shape set with a cylindrical neck and panels raised on all four sides. Variations on this shape were used frequently. Another popular form, although less common, was a hexagonal faceted bottle with a cylindrical neck (see Treasury 4, no. 455). The regular supply of a particular shape of bottle, or series of shapes, suggests that Gan had a local crystal carver who could do his bidding, perhaps a carver from Guangzhou, which was a major centre for the production of a wide range of arts and crafts during the Qing dynasty. If the supply was from a distant workshop it seems less likely that it would remain so consistent throughout his career (but see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 456 for an exception).

This lovely little painting is in the standard ‘good’ condition for an early Lingnan work even though the original colours have turned brownish through long contact with snuff, rendering the entire scene rather sepia in tone, the lines and washes are not scratched or otherwise worn. It is a rather similar process, although through a different agent, to the gradual browning of the ancient paper or silk of a painting. If we could see Song-dynasty paintings in their original state we would be quite surprised after all these years of gazing at them through a patina of gathering darkness. It is possible to see what the original colours were here, and we have as a guide the extraordinary condition of Treasury 4, nos. 450 and 451 to give us some idea of the studio appearance of a bottle like this. Another that has survived reasonably intact is Treasury 4, no. 457, but as a rule, the colours have become subdued by snuff over the years.

The poem reads:

[The bottle is] white as snow and clear all around.
The aroma kept in it is long-lasting.
Working on it between one’s fingers and palms,
[Even] the sleeves are tainted with that wonderful fragrance.

This is again likely to be a poem by Gan himself, or one of his friends (see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 451). Snuff-taking in early nineteenth-century China was at its height, the bottles were collected and produced as art and the contents were considered to be beneficial to health, both mental and physical, thus making it an appropriate, and in the case of Gan and Yiru jushi, a popular subject for inscriptions. A possible indication that the poem was not written for this particular bottle is to be found in the description of the bottle as being ‘white as snow’ where the bottle is obviously colourless, but it is far more likely that this is an indication not to take Chinese poetic sources too literally, unless it refers to the roughened interior surface of the bottle to allow the colours better purchase, which gives it a frosted appearance. However, if a crystal bottle can be compared to jade (see Treasury 4, no. 450), it can certainly be described as ‘white as snow’ without too much stretch of an artistic imagination.

The use of the abbreviated signature, just using the first character of his given name, is unusual but not unique. When using his proper name, or at least the one that includes his family name and the name by which we know him today, he sometimes wrote it in full, sometimes used just the given name, and occasionally just the first character of the given name, as here. He also signed bottles leaving off the second character of his given name, i.e., Gan Xuan, which caused the initial confusion as to whether his name was Gan Xuan or Gan Xuanwen, a problem long since resolved in favour of the latter.


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