17001900 Length: 7.31 cm Mouth: 0.54 cm Stopper: jadeite, carved as a twig with a leaf growing from it Condition: one tiny, insignificant irregular flaw with very slight brown colouring in it; workshop condition
Provenance: Jade House (Hong Kong, 1985) Published: Kleiner 1995, no. 72 Treasury 1, no. 5 Exhibited: British Museum, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, 1997
Commentary It is tempting to refer to this bottle as flawless, that being the immediate impression it gives. It appears to be not only of unusually white colour but also without flaws, and because of this the simple, natural looking pebble shape is allowed to speak freely and powerfully without interruption. In fact, closer examination will reveal tiny flecks of more intense white, like snowflakes against white clouds and, near the mouth, the trace of a tiny fissure bearing a hint of brown colour, presumably from the original skin of the pebble now otherwise entirely removed. To even mention this may seem like nit-picking in so wonderful a bottle and there is no question that these flaws pale into insignificance in the face of the dominant visual qualities of purity, whiteness and sensuous form.
This is properly described as a pebble bottle since the shape is inspired by the natural form of the stone. It is also probably of pebble material, since it is unlikely that a bottle of this form would have been carved from a block of mined material and the tiny remaining fissure carries a trace of some skin-colour in it. Even if it were from mined stone, however, it would still qualify as a pebble bottle, allowing for the understanding that there are two distinct types, those from pebbles regardless of their shape, and those of pebble form (also see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 62).
This is a bottle to be held in the hand, having no foot to allow for a vertical interpretation without a separate stand. It is so abstract a form, however, that it actually works as well flat on a table as standing upright, and we have shown it upright simply because it is the easier way to reveal its qualities in a photograph, despite possibly giving a misleading impression of how it would naturally be viewed. One only has to handle it to understand what is lost by such a rigid, formal and distant display.
White pebble-shaped snuff bottles are extremely rare, the whole point of a pebble-form bottle being to refer to, and use the qualities of, nephrite pebbles with their long-established meaning within the culture, defined to a large extent by the inclusion of at least some of the skin. Perhaps that was the original intention of the carver, but finding such a lovely white core material and perhaps a less appealing skin, he may have just kept removing it until it was all gone. It was probably, however, intended this way as a subtle reference to pebble material without the obvious use of skin.
The hollowing is irregular, as in no. 57. Functionally it is well hollowed, but it does not follow the outer profile, leaving the thin area of one narrow side quite thick and the foot unusually deep. The deep foot may be an indication of a palace workshops source (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 75) where such a pebble would have fitted comfortably into imperial taste under the Qianlong emperor and perhaps thereafter. It is interesting to note that this white material with still whiter flecks is typical of several Qianlong palace nephrite bottles (see, for instance, Treasury 1, nos. 40 and 62) and it is possible that the deep foot on formally symmetrical bottles translated in the palace into irregular hollowing, including a deep foot for irregular shapes, in which case both this and the moth (Treasury 1, no. 57) might be imperial bottles.
The stopper here is an independent masterpiece. A mottled piece of jadeite has been imaginatively used to allow a rich and brilliant area of emerald-green to act as a leaf growing from a paler, greyish-white gnarled twig. It would grace any irregularly shaped bottle, and is a perfect foil for the simplicity and purity of this one.