A ruby-red enamelled porcelain 'dragon and carp' snuff bottle
Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen, Daoguang iron-red seal mark and of the period, 18211850 5.48cm high.
Treasury 6, no. 1312
Ruby-pink and iron-red enamels on colourless glaze on porcelain; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; painted with a continuous design of an imperial five-clawed dragon amidst formalized clouds and flickering flames above formalized waves, from which two carp leap, their upper bodies out of the water and their tails curled upwards to break free of the waves; the foot inscribed in iron-red seal script Daoguang nian zhi ('Made during the Daoguang period'); the lip, inner neck, and interior glazed Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen, 18211850 Height: 5.48 cm Mouth/lip: 0.66/1.87 cm Stopper: tourmaline; gilt-silver collar
Condition: some abrasions to lip; minor wear to the protruding areas on both main sides, not obtrusive. General relative condition: excellent
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary: Apart from the shape, which is typical of the Daoguang imperial kilns, the work here would be credible as coming from the Qianlong period. The design and painting are both exceptional, and the control of the pink enamel is impressive. It also has a singular combination of two shades of pink, one used as a line and the other as a wash, in a rare departure from standard, ruby-enamel usage on snuff-bottles.
The design is a visual representation of the phrase Li yue Longmen, 'Carp surpassing at Dragonsgate Gorge', an expression that refers to passing the civil service examinations, a promotion, or successful struggle against the currents of life. At the 'Dragonsgate' (Longmen) on the Yellow River, carp swimming upstream to spawn have a particularly arduous task leaping the falls in order to triumph after their long journey. Those who succeed are said to transform into dragons. In art this significant transformation is often symbolised by a creature that is half fish, half dragon. Here the two are shown separately, and the dragon has five claws. In theory, such a dragon should represent the emperor, but during the mid-nineteenth-century protocols governing its exclusive use began to break down.
Whatever the meaning, the painting is magnificent. It is one of the joys of the snuff bottle that it spanned the artistic spectrum from mindlessly mass-produced containers to high art from carp to five-clawed dragon, as it were and across that span this little gem has made significant progress. No finer ruby-pink enamelled bottle is known from the Daoguang period.