Opaque, variegated orange, brown, green, and yellow glass (known as 'realgar-glass') with extensive crizzling; with a flat lip and slightly recessed, convex foot surrounded by a protruding, convex footrim made up of elements of the design; carved with a continuous design of two chi dragons, one holding the tail of the other in its mouth Imperial glassworks, Beijing, 17001740 Height: 5.68 cm Mouth/lip: 0.82/1.62 cm Stopper: coral; glass finial; gilt-silver collar Condition: shallow chip to upper neck rim filled with green composition of some sort (0.45 x 0.30 cm and less than 0.10 cm deep); other tiny nibbles to the outer lip and the inner lip; some crizzling to the exterior; small scratches and abrasions through long usage
Provenance: Robert Kleiner (1997)
Published: Treasury 5, no. 972, and front and back covers of one volume
Commentary: With realgar-glass treated as a cameo-overlay the question invariably arises of when the carving was done. The majority of plain realgar-glass examples would be suitable for overlay carving, since there is usually at least one contrasting layer beneath the surface and if, as we believe, they were produced in large quantities in the early to mid-eighteenth century many would have been in circulation by the mid-Qing period. It is not unreasonable to assume it occurred to carvers to decorate them occasionally, thus giving them a more distinctive appearance. This was certainly the case with people who were producing fakes in the 1970s, and it continues to this day old plain bottles were made more saleable by being transformed into overlays. This example, however, is unquestionably an original carving and, by way of a bonus, also the earliest identifiable carved realgar-glass known, not to mention being one of the earliest cameo-overlays we can identify. If any cameo overlay bottle stands a very good chance of being from the late Kangxi period, this is that bottle.
We can be certain the carving is original by reference to the state of the crizzling. Both interior and exterior surfaces are heavily crizzled, but on the outside the effect is equally evident on both the relief and the ground planes. Had the bottle been re-cut, the shallow effects of the crizzling on the lower plane would have been obliterated. Had it been carried out a century or more ago, a visible difference between the two layers of crizzling would probably remain, even if the lower plane had again begun to show signs of crizzling. (We have discussed the distinctive green colouring which seems to occur as degradation on the surface of early realgar-glass bottles under Treasury 5, no. 705.)
This is not the only indication, however, of an unusually early bottle, for the chi dragon here is by no means one of those standardized beasts which appears during the Qianlong period, its features stylized and simplified by years of repetition. This is powerful and vital, and while it is easy to see the later ones being an evolution of this, the reverse would be impossible. These dragons are superbly composed, displaying powerful, life-like movement and enormous vitality, details like claws and tufts of hair along the forelegs depicted with great care. Later, through constant repetition, they would become ciphers - but not yet! The heads constitute a particularly telling feature, being broad and flat, with features detailed like ancient taotie faces, making them very similar to certain Han-dynasty originals on jade carvings. This is the chi-dragon head of the early fifteenth century, or the late Kangxi period, both being times of imperial renaissance in the arts as newly established dynasties began to exert their influence, seeking to imbue cultural monuments with reflections of the past, while promising a new future. These are faces reminiscent of those found on fifteenth century ivory-carvings (see a circular plaque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Clunas 1984, no. 13 and pl. 1), and they occur again in the artistic renaissance of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. A beast such as this can have come only from early in the Qing artistic renaissance, and although we cannot rule out a date perhaps as late as the first decades of the Qianlong date, we believe it is much more likely to be from the late Kangxi or Yongzheng reign.
If the bottle is as early as we believe, the imperial glassworks must be the most likely source because it is doubtful whether such a combination of materials, subject matter and sheer mastery of carving could have come from anywhere else at the time. We cannot be sure when cameo-overlay carving originated, but this might possibly be a prototype, in which an overlay intended as an undecorated bottle emerged from the blowing process with a surface which inspired someone at the palace workshops to carve it. The low relief is probably also significant, since the earliest overlays would probably not have been as emphatically overlaid as later versions, once glassblowers began to produce colour combinations intended specifically for carving. Very deep relief carvings probably did not appear until the Yongzheng or early Qianlong period, and multi-layer carvings, the next obvious stage, probably not until the mid-Qianlong period. It is probably significant that the style of overlay here matches very closely what one might expect of a traditional hardstone carving, where a thin skin defines the relief, but in places also forms part of the ground plane.
Quite apart from its importance as in the general context of overlay carving, this is one of the most spectacular of all overlays, combining the magical properties of the material with a magnificent rendering of a subject that seems, somehow, ideally suited to the medium. The surface here, which we may assume was originally partly green, whatever the degree to which surface transformation has increased the extent, must surely have reminded its early eighteenth-century patron of the surfaces of ancient bronzes, thus adding to its archaic resonance. Another realgar-glass bottle with a cameo-overlay design of chi dragons, which appears to be a little later than this one, was sold at Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco, 24 June 1992, lot 324.