An iron-red and underglaze-blue porcelain 'dragon' snuff bottle
Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen, Qianlong iron-red seal mark and of the period, 17361795 5.53cm high.
Treasury 6, no. 1183
Full-Frontal Authority Iron-red and black enamel on colourless glaze on cobalt on porcelain; with a flat lip and flat foot; painted with a continuous design of two imperial five-clawed dragons, one painted on each main side in iron-red enamel above underglaze-blue formalized waves and clouds, the eyes of the dragons painted in black; the foot inscribed in iron-red seal script Qianlong nian zhi (Made during the Qianlong period); the lip painted gold; the interior glazed Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen, 17361795 Height: 5.53 cm Mouth/lip: 0.71/1.45 cm Stopper: pearl; vinyl collar Condition: some original gilding on the unglazed lip worn; the surface with the usual fine network of scratches and abrasions from use. General relative condition: unusually good
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994February 1995
Commentary The glazed interior may suggest that this bottle was made before the abandonment of that practice for a period during the second half of the Qianlong reign (see Treasury 6, p. 50 for a discussion on the significance of glazed and unglazed interiors during the Qing dynasty). If we therefore date it to the mid-reign, it is one of the earlier examples of an underglaze decorated porcelain snuff bottle. Blue and white snuff bottles seem to have originated in the Qianlong period and most surviving examples seem to date from no earlier than the second half of the reign. A group of underglazed bottles recently published from the imperial collection as being from the Kangxi reign are, without exception, from the second half of the Qing dynasty, and the same seems almost as certain for those dated to the Yongzheng period (Li Jiufang 2002, nos. 292 302; and Xia Gengqi 1995, nos. 152 155). With these red herrings removed from the picture, a few examples can be granted secure eighteenth century status, and one or two, including this example, may be from the mid-reign, but as yet none can yet be confidently dated to the early reign. It may be that the tendency of underglaze colouring agents to diffuse into the glaze caused them to be deemed inappropriate for a miniature art form requiring fine detail. The combination of underglaze decoration and more readily controlled enamels for the more significant details on this and many of the earlier bottles may have been calculated to circumvent the problem.
One group of porcelain snuff bottles combining underglaze-decoration and enamels is dealt with under Treasury 6, nos. 11611163, but this bottle represents a second decorative group that combines selected enamels with underglaze blue decoration in a more equal partnership. These are well known from the Qianlong period in a variety of wares, including snuff bottles, and the usual combination is underglaze-blue with either iron- or ruby-red enamel, both of which could be easily controlled in the firing. As a rule, the underglaze elements of the design consisted of the setting, including clouds and waves for dragon designs, or floral scrolls for other designs. With the main subject sharp and easily read, it was less significant if there was a little diffusion of the background blue, even though the underglaze motifs were an integral part of the design. Here, the sharp and confident drawing of the imperial dragons draws the eye to them (quite correctly, since they are the symbol of the emperor) and the slight blurring of the waves and clouds enhances the power of the central motif.
The imperial nature of the dragons justifies a confident imperial designation here, the reign mark confirms it, and the crispness and excellence of the calligraphy support the evidence of the glazed interior for suggesting a date from the mid-reign.
Another Qianlong bottle decorated in underglaze-blue with imperial five-clawed dragons is in the Rietberg Museum (Hall 1993, no. 11). Other versions of this design were in the Ko Collection (Christie's, London, 18 June 1973, lot 26), and Drouot (Millon-Jutheau), Paris, 3 October 1988, lot 16 (where no mark is mentioned in the catalogue, but a one is just visible in the illustration and is presumably of the Qianlong reign). One more of the series was in the Szekeres Collection (Sotheby's, New York, 5 June 1987, lot 15).
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