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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 100 

Lot 100


Lot 100
Treasury 7, no. 1658

Taklamakan Sunrise

Translucent carnelian-agate, and tortoiseshell; made up of three segments of tortoiseshell, one for the main frame, one for the neck, and one for the foot, and two convex panels of carnelian-agate; with a flat lip and protruding concave foot with a very shallow convex foot rim
Attributed to the palace workshops, Beijing, probably circa 1723
Height: 3.6 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.57/0.85
Stopper: pearl; silver collar

Lot 100 Provenance:
Thewlis Collection (1990)
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd. (1992)

Thewlis 1990, no. 87.
Treasury 7, no. 1658

Lot 100 Commentary:
This extraordinary little bottle has an exact counterpart in the Kay and Ian Hardy Collection, although missing its original foot. It is likely that a small series was made, perhaps from a single source of carnelian agate with evocative markings. It is a lovely material, and has the honey-comb markings associated with imported, ‘western agate’ as it was known in China (see Treasury 2, no. 258). This gives a powerful effect, in one of the agate panels, of sunrise in the desert.

The construction method here is similar to that of the tortoiseshell bottle in the Bloch collection without panels of a different material (Treasury 7, no. 1565). The main frame is made from manipulated tortoiseshell, which is thermoplastic and can be easily bent and manipulated (see under Treasury 7, no. 1565), and the complete lack of any join allows only one way in which this can have been achieved: by taking a flat sheet, cutting a hole in it, and then manipulating the disk shape into the curved form of the frame. To this are then added the cylindrical neck and the foot - both of which are clearly separate pieces with obvious joints visible with transmitted light. This method of construction makes the main frame far stronger than it would have been had the easier method been used of taking a strip of material and bending it into a circle and joining the two ends. The joint would always be a weak point and be under tension from the natural spring in the bent material.

The wear on both this and the Hardy bottle is considerable. This may be less convincing of old considerable age in a single example, but when the only two known examples are both very well worn, it is a more reliable indication of age. The concept of inlaying circular panels of one material into a bottle of another was first used as early as the Kangxi period in the palace workshops, as there are two Kangxi enamel bottles with inlaid panels. One is inlaid with moulded-gourd panels (Li Jiufang 2002, no. 128), the other with Japanese lacquer panels (Chang Lin-sheng 1991, no. 3). There is also the coral bottle with similarly inlaid panels of enamelled gold in the Baur Collection that bears a Qianlong reign mark, but seems to match a record of manufacture in 1728 from the archives of the palace workshops (see Treasury 6, no. 1073). This method of construction was obviously an early standard at court, and the fact that there are two identical bottles with carnelian panels would also be typical of courtly production. It is also clear that during parts of the Yongzheng reign, relatively small bottles were popular.

Combining all these features we feel justified in tentatively linking this bottle to palace workshops production in the first year of the Yongzheng reign. In the Qinggong Neiwufu zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [Comprehensive compendium of Imperial Household Department workshop crafts archives from the Qing palace - Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2005), vol. 1, p. 4a, there is an entry for 1 September 1723 describing a snuff bottle with hawksbill turtle shell walls inlaid with agate. Since shell bottles of this type inlaid with agate are extremely rare, it seems likely that a small group of the type was made at the palace workshops in the early Yongzheng reign, and that this and the Hardy examples have survived.


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