Transparent brown amber, all surfaces covered with extensive, minute crizzling; well hollowed with a slightly concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved with a continuous archaistic design, the narrow sides with taotie faces metamorphosing on the two main sides into confronting kui dragons with a formalized floral element above their unusually elongated noses, set between a base band of formalized lotus petals beneath a raised, scalloped, horizontal band and a similar shoulder band, also scalloped, giving way to a series of formalized lingzhi-heads pointing upwards towards the plain neck Imperial, palace workshops, Beijing, 17301799 Height: 5.8 cm Mouth/lip: 0.63/1.96 cm Stopper: ivory, carved with pendant formalized petals; translucent orange-brown amber finial; Japan, 18541920
Condition: nibbles around the inner lip and three chips on the outer lip (the largest 0.3 cm across); several nibbles all around outer footrim, and several on the inner footrim as well, including one larger flake chip; tiny minor bruising in the lower band of lotus petals on both main sides; small chip to upper formalized scrolling element on one main side; otherwise, in relatively good condition for an early amber bottle
Provenance: Paula J. Hallett Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1986)
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary: Few surviving amber snuff bottles can lay so confident a claim to imperial production in the palace workshops as this unique and magnificent example. It is an amber equivalent of a range of unquestionably imperial bottles in other materials, notably glass and jade, carved with archaistic subjects; many of those date from the Qianlong reign, and several are dated by reign mark. For a group of similar subjects on glass bottles, see Treasury 5, nos. 827831.
Its age is also endorsed by the extensive minute crizzling both inside and out that is so extensive that it has begun to hide the original and quite exceptional transparency of the material. This was originally an almost flawless piece of amber with a glorious, even, and lovely colour. This is clearly a palace product of the highest order, where the finest piece of material was used to produce a masterpiece for the emperor. It is formally impeccable, artistically telling, and technically masterful; a sign of the commitment of the artist to producing the best may be found in the carefully scalloped concavity running along the raised bands and borders, a feature also found on the finest of palace agate bottles of similar form from the second half of the Qianlong period (see Treasury 2, nos. 354356).
It is unusual to have the taotie faces on the narrow sides, but upon reflection we see this as a further confirmation of the bottle's courtly origin. Mask-and- ring handles were inspired by an imperial preference for this archaistic detail arising out of the early-Qing emperors' whole-hearted adoption of ancient culture in order to establish credibility as legitimate rulers of China rather than as conquering barbarians. They were inspired by functional ring handles set in animal masks that appear as standard on so many archaic bronze forms. The Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors amassed an enormous collection of such wares. Through imperial influence, mask handles became ubiquitous as a feature of northern snuff-bottle production in the early and mid-Qing periods; they were adopted elsewhere for non-imperial production only sporadically. By placing the taotie heads on the narrow sides, the artist makes a powerful reference to these mask-and-ring handles, but in a subtle, novel manner. Certain elements of the main design of the kui dragons then metamorphose into the nose, mouth, and eyes of the taotie. The positioning is significant, since the kui dragons are the more important element of the design; dragons represent the emperor himself, whereas the taotie simply represent his taste in design elements. The main design, therefore, becomes confronting kui dragons, so frequently found on palace snuff bottles, particularly in nephrite and glass. Although this particular version is unusual, the subject itself is common and typically imperial. Another feature that is every bit as unusual is the reversal of the formalized lingzhi around the shoulders (resembling the standard, formalized head of a ruyi sceptre). Here they point upwards rather than downwards, but this is certainly because, instead of being an extension of a neck border down onto the shoulders, they are an independent shoulder border. Had the solid band been at the top of the shoulder and the lingzhi elements pointed downwards, the neck, as the only area of the main bottle left plain, would have looked awkward. The artist's decision leaves the neck and shoulder pleasingly unified as a nicely curved, undecorated surface while using the upward-reaching lingzhi to anchor that smooth surface to the decorated surfaces below.
The stopper could hardly be better suited to the bottle (although it is slightly too small), with its imperial style, contrasting but still organic substance, and almost matching amber finial. It is not, of course, the original. Originally made for a Japanese bottle in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was added by Moss in 1986. One reason it suits it so well is that it was probably made to look like an original Chinese palace stopper as viewed by a Japanese craftsman.