Possibly Imperial, perhaps palace workshops, Beijing, 17401820 sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 6.49cm high.
Treasury 2, no. 241
The Palace Flaming Gourd
Carnelian-agate; of double-gourd form, well hollowed into both bulbs, with a flat lip and naturalistic, concave foot doubling as the calyx of the fruit Possibly imperial, perhaps palace workshops, Beijing, 17401820 Height: 6.49 cm Mouth/lip: 0.58/1.05 cm Stopper: glass; gilt-bronze collar Condition: Material: some minor flaws in the material, not obtrusive, and mostly contained with the foot area. Bottle: one small and one miniscule chip to inner lip and possibly two hair-line cracks across the lip and into the upper neck, but both associated with natural flaws and plausibly original. General relative condition: good
Exhibited: Robert Hall, London, October 1987 British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary The botanical world offered a wide range of possible forms for the snuff-bottle maker and with the Chinese love of nature this potential was explored to the full. One of the most popular was the gourd, and in particular this distinctive form of the fruit known as the double gourd. Gourds have been widely cultivated in China since earliest times because they form ideal natural containers and, if cut or otherwise manipulated, drinking vessels, sound-boxes for musical instruments, and a variety of other useful forms. For details of the botany and history of the gourd in China, see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 274.
Under the Qing emperors the use of gourds in art was brought to a new height. Within the palace at Beijing the art of moulding gourds by strapping wooden moulds around the growing fruit reached its zenith during the eighteenth century, resulting in the finest and most complex manipulated gourds ever produced as art in any culture. Not only were these vessels produced at court, a significant proportion of the wares excited the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors sufficiently to have them inscribed with a range of the most highly imperial marks designating personal use by the emperor. As part of the same impetus, gourds were also impressed with hand-held tools (which gave the appearance of carving, but in fact did not cut the surface at all, but pressed it downwards to give the impression of a carved surface when the rind of the fruit dried to a wood-like hardness). This passion for gourds within the palace undoubtedly made the gourd-form snuff bottle popular at court and it became a standard imperial form, offering us one of the many clues to imperial attribution that we currently have.
Because of the proliferation of fruit on a single vine, the gourd was also a common symbol for the multiple progeny that was so important in Chinese culture. This made it doubly useful at court, where many gifts were required, and the snuff bottle was a handy form of gift. With generalized symbolism of this sort, a bottle could be made and later presented to anyone, at which point the symbolism became specific to the recipient.
The double-gourd form is elongated sufficiently that even leaving it fully in the round, as here, it was manageable because the twin bulbs with a narrow waist formed a natural container that was nothing like as bulky as a bottle formed from a single sphere with equal capacity. Because of this the double-gourd form was often left fully in the round (although for a flattened version and discussion, see Treasury 2,, no. 242). There is a series of unquestionably palace-workshop enamel-on-glass double gourds discussed in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993 under nos. 189191 and others known in enamel on metal (e.g. Fuller 1970, colour centre-plate, top right, with a Jiaqing mark). There are also many in other materials, several attributable to the court, including nephrite, and several were published in Treasury 1, including no. 73 where the evidence for an imperial attribution is offered. There seems little doubt that to whatever extent this was a popular form generally, it was particularly popular at court. The imperial attribution here is based upon this belief and upon the wide mouth, which was also a court feature, and to some extent upon the extraordinary realism and quality of the carving. Further evidence is supplied by the existence of a faceted octagonal form made from the same raw material (Hugh Moss Records). The markings in this particular piece of stone are distinctive and extremely unusual and it is obvious that both are from a common, larger piece of material.
The workmanship of this gourd is exceptional. Apart from the elegance of form, the hollowing into the two bulbs is little short of miraculous. The hole at the waist leading to the lower bulb is little wider than the mouth, and yet the bottom bulb is as finely hollowed, and follows the outer contour as accurately, as the upper bulb. This sort of feat is every bit as impressive as the paper-thin hollowing of the mid-Qing period, since the inaccessibility of the lower bulb means that the artist was, so to speak, flying blind and had to work mostly by feel alone, especially with a non-transparent material of this kind. One other formal feature is intriguing. The gourd leans quite noticeably to one side in the upper bulb, as so many natural double gourds do because as they hang on the vine, their stems often coming off at an angle, gravity pulls the growing gourd downwards, causing a list in the eventual form when it is cut and placed on a flat surface. In a bottle so superbly made this can only have been an attempt to make the stone bottle as close to the original as possible. This is another indication of the palace workshops, perhaps, where the best artists were often employed to design snuff bottles and where high standards of art consequently ruled.
The material here is also unique in the snuff-bottle world. It is distinctly red, allowing the designation 'carnelian-agate' but on close examination it is also dendritic in the markings that make up the appearance of macaroni (for a discussion on macaroni-agate, see Treasury 2, no. 201). The only other piece of this material known in the snuff-bottle world is the above-mentioned, faceted octagonal bottle. Both are as striking as they are rare. In this example, as in the other, there are some minor flaws in the material which could not be removed because of the formal perfection required of this shape and they have been filled with composition of some kind, an unusual departure for a quartz bottle but common on early coral bottles where large pieces of unflawed material were obviously rare. Most early imperial coral bottles have filling either of separate pieces of coral, or often in coloured wax. This extraordinary material was obviously considered in the same light, as being so outstanding in its own right that a little filling was acceptable.
The fascinating surface texture here allows for several interpretive possibilities, but one of the most dynamic is to see the entire surface aflame, with flickering fire interspersed with hot smoke billowing upwards towards the neck.