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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 96 

Lot 96

   

Lot 96
Treasury 7, no. 1501
HK$168,000

Handful of Snuff

Gourd and ivory; with a flat lip and slightly concave foot; from a four-part mould, with a design repeated on each main side of a shou (longevity) character enclosed by confronting kui dragons, the narrow sides with mask-and-ring handles, the inner neck and lip made from two segments of ivory joined together
Imperial, palace workshops, Beijing, 1770–1840
Height: 5.87 cm
Mouth/lip: 1.16/1.86 cm
Stopper: ivory, carved as half the inside of a walnut; integral ivory collar and separate ivory spoon carved in the form of an open hand; original

Lot 96 Provenance:
Hugh Moss
Bob C. Stevens
Sotheby, New York, 25 June 1982, lot 201
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd. (1987)

Published:
Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 4, p. 50, fig. 18, and p. 51, fig. 19
Stevens 1976, no. 730 (the spoon illustrated separately on p. 17, no. 11)
Chinese Snuff Bottles and Dishes 1978, p. 114, no. 328
Arts of Asia, September-October 1990, p. 93
Treasury 7, no. 1501

Lot 96 Commentary:
There are several features that set this magnificent gourd apart. The design is a rare one and has been emphasized by the darker patination of much of the relief, giving it somewhat the appearance of an imperial glass overlay bottle of the mid-Qing period. The ivory lip and inner-neck liner are obviously original, and because of the thickness of the lip, creating an upper-neck-rim, form a prominent part of the aesthetic equation. In this case, the inner-neck and the lip are made of two separate pieces of ivory, rather than the standard one (see, for instance, Treasury 7, no. 1498); it is perhaps a mildly lazier option. It has mask-and-ring handles typical of several of the known Qianlong palace gourds, although it is not reign-marked. Finally, of course, it has a magnificent and rare original stopper and the most exciting spoon of any known snuff bottle, carved as a substantial arm and hand.

We suspect this has to be the most famous of all snuff-bottle spoons, not because there are not many other rather spectacular examples, but because this is the famous Stevens bottle, and he was the first to illustrate spoons separately, focussing on their independent merit as works of art. In his book, Stevens showed an illustration of twenty-one stoppers, complete with their spoons, removed from bottles in his own collection (Stevens 1976, p. 17). This was among them and was obviously the star, despite some fairly stiff competition. Although other old spoons are known carved with hands, often with loose-rings as bracelets on the wrist (and endless modern versions inspired by them), none is on this splendid scale, nor as convincingly carved. This is a real hand, and of substantial size. It is also held out, as if soliciting a gift which, given the role the snuff bottle played in polite bribery and corruption at court, seems rather appropriate.

The method of construction is the same as for Treasury 7, no. 1402. It is the primary mould system, where separate sections of wood are carved with a negative image and strapped around the growing gourd. Each section of the mould covers a quarter of the bottle, with dividing lines vertically at the centre of each main, and each narrow side. The raised lines where the fruit has tried to grow out of the tiny gap between the moulds is more obvious on the two main sides, although it has been cleverly incorporated into the design by serving as the centre of the shou character; palace gourd artists knew the limitations of their craft well, and so used the bulging joint-lines positively.

This subject is a typically imperial one, found with variations on a wide range of palace snuff bottles, and includes the ancient form of the dragon derived from Bronze-age decoration (kui). Kui dragons are highly stylized beasts that can often resemble the usually more sinuous, lizard-like chi dragons, as they do here. The difference between the two lies mainly in the degree of stylisation of the image, although it may be impossible to draw a line at the precise point of demarcation between the two. In this case, although the bodies are rounded and sinuous, they are also radically formalized with limbs turned into scrolling patterns; while the heads are also obviously formalized. Kui and chi dragons were the most popular form of dragons on imperial snuff bottles, and many other works of art. They occur far more often on imperial snuff bottles than the regular five-clawed dragon officially representing the imperial family. Any of these dragons can be seen as representing the emperor, but the elongated bodies of kui and chi dragons also symbolize longevity thus enhancing the more obvious symbolism of the shou character.

Wang Shixiang, the great expert on gourds, tends to date bottles of this type to the Daoguang period, and he is probably right, but see discussion under Treasury 7, no. 1505. If from the Qianlong reign, we might expect it to have a reign mark, but the fact that so many Qianlong moulded gourds are marked, does not necessarily mean that they did not also produce unmarked examples.

 

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