Bronze; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; chased with a continuous scene, divided onto the two main sides, of two five-clawed imperial dragons with a flaming pearl surrounded by wisps of formalized clouds, each encircling a recessed framed, circular panel with a further-recessed character in regular script, fu (happiness) on one side, and shou (longevity) on the other; the neck with a band of continuous leiwen (thunder pattern), a simplified version of which appears around the outer footrim Imperial, 16801840 Height: 7.91 cm Mouth/lip: 0.7/1.4 cm Stopper: bronze, with integral finial and collar; original
Condition: the surface patinated and smoothed through use; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Clare Lawrence, London (1994) Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1994)
Published: Treasury 7, no. 1614
Exhibited: Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary: Thin vertical lines on the narrow sides suggest that the main body has been made in two halves that were then soldered together, the solder being of a typical dull-silver colour. The cylindrical neck was then made as a single unit and soldered to the body, with a fourth section, a flat disc with a hole in it, soldered on as the lip. The footrim forms the fifth originally separate piece. The puzzling aspect of the construction is that the interior reveals the sort of irregular surface arising from casting, suggesting that the two sides, at least, were cast, not beaten into shape. This would be a fairly standard method of producing a bronze bottle, but the anomaly arises out of the fact that the detailing of the design all seems to be chased on the cold surface with chisels. As long as the sides were to be made by casting, surely it would have been easier to carve the design into the mould. What may have happened is a combination of casting and chasing, where the main relief design of clouds, dragon, and pearl were cast without detail, and the details were chased into the surface once the metal had cooled.
The bottle is unique, so there is nothing quite like it to help with the dating. Bronze makers had been refining their craft in China for more than three thousand years by the time the snuff bottle was invented, and a bronze bottle could have been made at any time during the Qing dynasty. To narrow the time frame down, the obviously original stopper is as good a place as any to start. It is intensely practical and has a traditional finial and collar, but instead of the usual cabochon between them there is just an elongated handle, somewhat resembling that of a sword. The only other stoppers like it are found (when they exist) divorced from their original bottles in groups of stoppers traditionally accumulated by collectors and dealers alike. They are always in bronze, suggesting that originally they probably accompanied a group of bronze bottles now mostly lost or perhaps with their original stoppers replaced over the years with the more usual range of styles. A stopper such as this may indicate an early date and an initial, practical approach to the stoppering of a bottle before the hemispherical standard became so well established that no one thought to radically rethink it. It seems unlikely that someone would suddenly come up with a stopper of this sort after the standard type had become well established.
The state of wear of the bronze is both natural looking and quite extensive, smoothing all of the relief areas, as one would expect, while leaving almost untouched the surface adjacent to the raised portions. The style of the dragons is informative. These elongated, sinuous beasts are typical of those found on porcelain decorated for the court from the Kangxi period, although they make occasional encore appearances in the mid-Qing period. The formalized clouds are also far from the standard style established by the mid-Qing period. They are strange wisps of cloud, resembling clumps of lingzhi, adding a little further symbolic resonance to the pun associating the word for cloud (yun) with that for good fortune (yun). As dragon and cloud designs were repeated throughout the Qing dynasty, they became more static and more inclined to be formalized in well-established patterns that evolved (or, more often, devolved) through repetition.
These features might not excite comment on a provincial or private product coming from outside the mainstream of artistic development, but the dragons are unequivocally imperial beasts, five clawed and typically magnificent. Perhaps the bottle was made to be presented to the emperor by an official, emissary, or prince far from the capital and its metropolitan, imperial style, but it may also be just what it appears to be: an imperial product, and early. Stylistically, a Kangxi date would be feasible; of all known bronze bottles, this is the most imposing and the most likely to date from early in the history of the snuff bottle. Nevertheless, lacking a mark, comparable bottles, or some other more precise means of dating it, we shall leave open the possibility that it was made later in the Qing dynasty.