Imperial, Official School, attributed to the palace workshops, Beijing, 17401800 7.4cm high.
Treasury 2, no. 340
The Imperial Vase Agate
Agate; very well hollowed with a flat lip and a recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved with mask-and-ring handles Imperial, Official school, attributed to the palace workshops, Beijing, 17401800 Height: 7.4 cm Mouth/lip: 0.68/1.22 cm Stopper: pearl; gilt-bronze collar Condition: workshop condition
Provenance: Robert Hall (1996) Published: Treasury 2, no. 340
Commentary: Clues as to the nature of undecorated bottles made at court are offered by this magnificent agate bottle. We are in no doubt that very large numbers of plain quartz bottles would have been produced at and for the court, as they were in glass and other materials, but the lack of distinctive decoration and the fact that there must have been many more private hardstone-carving workshops around the country than, say, glass factories, makes them far more difficult to identify. Form, hollowing, lip and foot styles, mouth-size, and in some cases specific materials are all we can go on. Working from decorated, inscribed, or reign-marked examples that can be reasonably attributed to imperial workshops, we can begin to build up the criteria for identifying the plainer examples. From this we can arrive at a series of imperial attributes for plain bottles. We must bear in mind that these attributes may also exist, either individually or even as a group on non-imperial wares, but despite this problem a clearer picture of the less obviously imperial production will emerge.
This agate masterpiece is a step in that direction, and allows us tentatively to include a fairly large group of bottles within the imperial fold. There are many superbly made agate bottles with no more than mask handles of an imperial type that share the excellent and extensive hollowing of this example with similar neatly carved details and lovely material which, left plain, is allowed to assume a prominent aesthetic role.
Here three features allow an imperial and palace workshop attribution. The mask handles are typical for the court, with exquisitely carved and finished, well-rounded masks, their formalized curls surrounding a bulbous pate, the high forehead with two curved lines carved into it, like empty parentheses, the lower jaw missing, the rings neat and rounded, set beneath a bulbous, broad nose. These are precisely the masks that appear on a wide range of palace glass bottles, on jade and a variety of other materials, many of which can be attributed to the court, and much more of which was also probably imperial (see also discussion under Treasury 2, no. 294 and for other similar handles, Treasury 2, nos. 277, 295 and 321). A second imperial feature is the lipped upper neck rim (see Treasury 1, no. 75) which is an even stronger indication of imperial stylistic habit when one considers the third feature, the shape of the bottle. Like so many palace forms, it is derived from ceramics, being a compressed danping (gall-bladder vase).
The magnificent little late-Qianlong palace agate, Treasury 2, no. 356, is taken from the same shape and also has a lipped rim. The ceramic form would not normally have a lipped rim. It is simply a feature of snuff bottles at the court so common that it even gets applied in the snuff-bottle arts to forms that would otherwise not have it. With these clues to hand, we can now look at many examples with fresh eyes and see the likely imperial connection. The magnificent and famous agate which was the subject of the 1977 Hong Kong Museum of Art exhibition poster and is now in the J & J Collection (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 116) has identical mask-and-ring handles. It is similarly well hollowed and detailed at the foot and lip, and is of the same sort of range of material. Many, many more now fall into a similar category.
Apart from its valuable clues for imperial attribution, this is one of the great masterpieces of agate snuff-bottle carving. A delightful piece of material, suffused with banding in different colours and of different patterns and textures, it is exquisitely carved into a rare and extremely elegant form for a snuff bottle. The mask handles have been placed with unquestionably confident balance. To analyse this form is to understand that had they been placed only a millimetre or two higher or lower it simply would not have worked anything like as well. Miraculously, considering the differences in dynamics of the banding on each of the main sides, the artist has also managed to achieve a perfect balance not only with the form but with the natural decoration, offsetting the formality of the handles and their positioning with the asymmetrical but powerful lines of the banding on each side. It is even rewarding to read the natural markings as landscape imagery in the ink-play mode (see Treasury 2, no. 274) where there are many different possibilities.
One possibility would be to see the foreground as a broad river on both sides with a plain beyond and mountains in the distance, or as steep cliffs with mountains immediately beyond. With our modern flight-inspired perspective, one could even see it as an aerial view of a broad river snaking through a plain, although that would have been an unlikely intention at the time. In any of these the vertical streak low on one side is a tree, the dark streak straddling one narrow and one main side above the mask-handle possibly a hawk or eagle, possibly even two, in flight, allowing the aerial view. However it is interpreted, it is a delight.
It also has a splendidly matched old stopper, probably not the original since bottles of this sort were not really intended to have an original stopper in the sense of one inevitable stopper. Pearls set in gilt-bronze are unusual, and in this case the two colours perfectly match the colours in the striations. It is interesting to note, however, that because of the vase-form, a ceramic form not intended for stoppering, this is one of the few snuff bottles that is formally satisfying without any stopper. Very few bottles seem anything but glaringly incomplete without their stoppers and, as a rule, those that survive formally without are derived from other arts, or, of course, animal-or vegetable- forms. The average snuff bottle, with a normal neck, looks like fish out of water without a stopper.