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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 93 

Lot 93


Lot 93
Treasury 1, no. 130

The Meng Haoran Suzhou Jade

Nephrite; well hollowed with a convex foot surrounded by a broad, flat footrim; carved on one side with Meng Haoran on a donkey riding beneath a blossoming prunus tree which grows from a rocky outcrop, a lingzhi fungus growing from the rocky ground, an attendant on foot following the scholar and reaching up to pick a branch of prunus, and on the other side with a walled compound in a rocky landscape, with three houses tucked into the base of a cliff
Zhiting school, Suzhou, 1740–1850
Height: 7 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.70/2.48 cm
Stopper: coral, carved as a fan-tailed goldfish; vinyl collar

Lot 93 Provenance:
Adolph Silver
Sotheby’s, London, 6 March 1979, lot 63
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (London)
Irving Lindzon
James K. Li
Christie’s, London, 12 October 1987, lot 348 and front cover

Christie’s International Magazine, September–October 1987, p. 29
Antiques Trade Gazette, 7 November 1987, p. 18  
JICSBS, Winter 1987, p. 28
Christie’s Review of the Season 1988, p. 392
Arts of Asia, January–February 1988, p. 128
Arts of Asia, September–October 1990, front cover
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 42  
Oriental Art, Spring 1994, p. 36
Kleiner 1995, no. 94
Treasury 1, no. 130
Sin, Hui, and Kwong 1996, no. 138
University of Hong Kong and Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong 1999, p. 93.

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
British Museum, June–October 1995
T. T. Tsui Museum, 1996
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1997
University Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Hong Kong, 1999

Lot 93 Commentary
It is difficult to maintain a prejudice against larger bottles in the face of the mastery of this or Treasury 1, no. 131, which are two of the most impressive Suzhou carvings known. This is of the fully evolved, classic Suzhou style for which the so-called ‘black-and-white’ material became a favourite (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 129). Here the term is almost accurate, although the black is actually a dark, charcoal grey and the white is a distinctly greenish-grey colour.

The dating of the different stages of evolution at Suzhou is still uncertain, although we have previously offered some tentative suggestions (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, pp. 62–66 and 75–76). Bottles of this group seem to represent the peak in the evolution of Suzhou carving-style. The first phase was dominated by the seventeenth-century style derived from Lu Zigang of the late Ming dynasty, or at least paid homage to him through the constant use of his name. It consisted of superb quality, low-relief carving and favoured white nephrite with frequent use of inscriptions, often in literate and elegant relief running or clerical script. This style probably continued well into the mid-Qing period, particularly for the production of the series of small plaques and pendants which were always a major part of its core production, but the masterly levels of quality do not appear to have been sustained much beyond the end of the Qianlong period.

The second phase probably began to evolve during the Kangxi period, but was certainly established by the early Qianlong. It consisted of a shift to the use of contrasting natural colours in the material, including the skin of nephrite pebbles. There is a lovely pendant signed by the carver Zhiting (Watt 1980, no. 217 and for further discussion on this early carver who also made snuff bottles see Treasury 1, no. 122). The Watt piece has the brown skin of a white pebble used to depict a chi dragon, which hints at the use of contrasted colours in the cameo technique that was to come later. This cameo technique eventually evolved into the classic bottles of the Suzhou group, where the clever use of different colours became a main language of the art form, and where multiple layers of contrasting colours were imaginatively used to separate the different elements of the design.

One feature of the classic, fully evolved group is that many of them are fairly large bottles, and as we have already suggested, large bottles do not seem to have evolved as a standard form until the Qianlong period (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, p. 66). Another feature which suggests that they did not evolve until this time is that several of them have unusually small mouths in relation to their lips, a virtuoso technique which appears to have evolved only in the eighteenth century, becoming a standard during the Qianlong period.

Bottles such as this, which must have been very costly, demanded the committed skill of a master lapidary over an extended period of time. They also postulate a sustained taste for the miracle of stone carving they represent, which would have gradually become satiated over a long period of time. No high-quality art form lasts indefinitely, particularly one linked to function. Collectors and connoisseurs get bored and move on to other more intriguing, newer art forms. Then the earlier examples become valued as collector’s items, even while the functional dictates of the art form continue to evolve. This process in fact inhibits the same style of carving from continuing for too long at a peak, since the artists are eventually perceived as merely copying those done decades earlier. As they lose interest in such derivative wares, less time is spent on their production, and a decline sets in. It is unlikely that this group remained at its peak for as much as a century, although the vast popularity of the snuff bottle would allow the possibility.

The inclusion in the classic group of this distinctive black-and-white material is also a clue. The material itself seems not to have been introduced in any quantity until the Qianlong period, and there is certainly nothing in this multiple-plane cameo style of carving that could be convincingly dated to a period earlier than the mid-eighteenth century. At some time during the Qianlong era a fairly large quantity of this distinctive material obviously became available to the lapidaries at Suzhou. It is possible that this sudden influx of material was related to the conquest of Turkestan and the subjugation by the Qianlong emperor between 1757 and 1759 of the troublesome tribes who had been standing between him and ready supplies of his beloved jade material (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 114). Thereafter, until insurrections in the early nineteenth century interrupted it and the loss of the region eventually brought it to an end, vast quantities of raw material flooded into the court from the region as tribute twice a year. The re-opening of the trade routes under Chinese control would have allowed easy access to jade workshops elsewhere in the Empire. The only dated bottle from the classic group (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 126) is dated to 1792 and it is likely that the group was produced between, say, the late 1750s and the Daoguang period. This would fit into the overall pattern of evolution quite comfortably, with the gradual deepening of relief and use of skin and natural colours in the material beginning in the early eighteenth century and reaching a peak after the late 1750s with the flood of new raw material, including this distinctive colour. Since provincial production did not follow directly the dictates of the court, the death of the greatest patron of the arts in Chinese history in 1799 would not have affected Suzhou production as much as it did palace production, particularly since the emperor’s influence was always against such carvings rather than in favour of them. We may assume that this peak production continued well into the nineteenth century, perhaps beginning to decline, along with other art forms, during the Daoguang period. The watershed for Suzhou production was probably the Taiping Rebellion which raged through eleven provinces between 1851 and 1861, costing an estimated twenty-million lives and wreaking untold havoc on the economy, the arts and imperial prestige (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, p. 405). It is unlikely that production at this level of quality could have survived much beyond that conflagration even if it had been maintained until then. We have allowed a little latitude in our dating range, but feel that the most probable period of production for these classic Suzhou carvings was between 1760 and perhaps the end of the Daoguang period.

This example ranks among the finest of the classic output with its unusually crisp and clear distinction between the three layers of colour. The sharp contrast between them and the fluency with which the artist has incorporated them into his design is the epitome of the fully mature Suzhou style. The manipulation of the various planes of carving is also powerful. The highest shows up in the dark robes of the two figures which, set against the lower planes, gives a considerable sense of depth and the impression that the figures are almost walking off the bottle on their diagonal ground plane.

The scene is a wintry one, not easy to depict with black jade, but in fact the artist has managed it in the typically imaginative, understated and abstract manner of the Chinese artist for whom a suggestion was all that was necessary to convey a great deal of visual information. The rockwork from which the prunus tree grows, and the outcrop below it, are both placed so as to take advantage of a thin halo of paler material which acts as snow sitting on top of the rocks. That, together with the icy-looking colouring of the material, is enough to create an impression of intense cold which causes the two figures to hunch their shoulders as they shiver in their clothes.

The subject of a sage on a donkey followed by an attendant holding a branch of prunus has been variously interpreted but recent research by Ka Bo Tsang has allowed us to identify this particular figure as Meng Haoran (see JICSBS, Summer 1994, pp. 8–10). Meng Haoran (689–740) was a native of Xiangyang in Hubei province. He was a reclusive poet who attempted the jinshi examination when he was about 40 with a view to embarking on an official career. When he was unsuccessful he withdraw to private life, travelling widely. He is known for a fondness for going in search of prunus blossoms in the snow, although there is some question as to whether this was a later embellishment upon his intriguing and well-known life. What is certain, however, is that later depictions of him illustrate this pursuit and several later literati refer to him in their poems and inscriptions on paintings as seated on a donkey, attendant at hand, searching for prunus blossoms in the snow.

For other Suzhou bottles showing the same subject, see Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 5, p. 136 (also illustrated in Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 16 November 1989, lot 139), and White 1990, p. 17, Pl. 1. For other different versions of similar themes, see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, p. 503.

For further consideration of the Zhiting school at Suzhou, see Treasury 2, nos. 365-379.


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