A turquoise-glazed porcelain moulded 'dragon' snuff bottle
Wang Bingrong, Jingdezhen, 18201860 6.22cm high.
Treasury 6, no. 1358
Turquoise-blue and black glazes on porcelain; the reticulated double body with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; carved on the outer body with a continuous design of an imperial five-clawed dragon chasing a flaming pearl against a background of formalized clouds and flames, the foot engraved in seal script Wang Bingrong zuo ('Made by Wang Bingrong'); all exterior surfaces, except the footrim, glazed, the pupils of the eyes painted black; the interior unglazed Imperial, Wang Bingrong, Jingdezhen, 18201860 Height: 6.22 cm Mouth/lip: 0.6/1.5 cm Stopper: glass; gilt-bronze collar
Condition: chip to one end of footrim restored (extent of paint about 1.4 cm and reaching up onto one main side 1.1 cm); small stress crack in the clouds at the back, insignificant; and a minor abrasion
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994February 1995
Commentary: For a list of other examples of this imperial dragon design, including two of this colour, see Sale 1, lot 112, or Treasury 6, no. 1357. This is another of the imposing bottles Wang made for the court and decorated with his distinctive dragons.
The use of the maker's signature in place of the standard reign mark on an imperial product (assuming we are correct in our judgement that this bottle was made for the court) reveals an intriguing aspect of later-Qing production, one that finds a parallel in late-Ming production of works of art. In the sixteenth century, a group of craftsmen transcended the traditional anonymity of their trade and aspired to individual success and fame. Artisans specializing in jade, bamboo, inlaid precious materials, rhinoceros horn, and metal became justly famous for their wares, and patrons wanted their names upon them, even imperial patrons. The jades of Lu Zigang and the rhinoceros horn carvings of Bao Tiancheng, to name but two, came to the attention of the court; imperial patronage then enhanced the values of their works significantly and assured them a place in the literature of the day. The court was careful to see that the pieces they acquired bore the signature of the artist. There is one famous rhinoceros-horn drinking cup carved in the form of a deer that has on one side of the lip the reign mark of the Wanli emperor and on the other, equally prominent, the seal of Bao Tiancheng (Chapman 1999, p. 83, fig. 56; the mark illustrated on p. 122, fig. 120).
In the second half of the Qing dynasty, particularly with the group of porcelain carvers are dealing with here, the same phenomenon occurred. We find works of art bearing the signature of the maker alongside the reign mark, sometimes even to the point of combining the two in a single seal, as on the Baur brushpot (Ayers 1974, vol. 4, Plate A658) where the inscription records 'Made by Chen Guozhi in the Daoguang reign of the Qing dynasty'. A bottle signed by Xinquan and dated to 1819 (Treasury 6, no. 1352) also combines the two, but with a little more separation between ruler and artist: The reign mark takes its normal position on the foot, while the artist's inscription graces the back of the bottle.
This phenomenon seems to accompany a decline in imperial status. During the earlier Ming and the first half of the Qing dynasty, when imperial power and status were high, it was extremely rare for a craftsman to be considered worthy of having his name appear on a piece along with his emperor's reign title. Works of art produced for the court bore the glorious name of the reign, not the unheralded name of the artist. There were exceptions, and under the Qianlong emperor an occasional artist's name would appear on imperial works of art produced at the palace workshops, but this was the exception, not the rule. But by the Daoguang period individual potters were apparently producing works of art for the court not only with their own names proudly set beside that of the reign period, but sometimes without the imperial reign mark at all. This is what we find with many of Wang Bingrong's works. If we assume his five-clawed dragons were imperial orders without overt identification as such, what of his other works? The court commissioned a mass of subjects that would not, other than by the reign mark, be recognized as imperial. It is quite possible that many of Wang's other works, and those of other master porcelain carvers of the day, were also made for the court.