A 'famille-rose' enamelled glass 'camellia and wintersweet' snuff bottle
Imperial, palace workshops, Qianlong blue-enamel mark and of the period, 17501790 5.59cm high.
Treasury 6, no. 1085
Famille rose enamels on semi-transparent, milky glass; with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; painted with a continuous scene of branches of flowering camellias and blossoming wintersweet; the base with a band of formalized lingzhi, the shoulders with a more elaborate floral border including lingzhi beneath a neck band of formalized floral scroll; the foot inscribed in blue regular script Qianlong nian zhi ('Made during the Qianlong period') Imperial, palace workshops, Beijing, 17501790 Height: 5.59 Mouth/lip: 0.74/1.46 cm Stopper: gold leaf on porcelain, moulded with a formalized floral design; gilt silver collar; 19602000
Condition: some scratches and abrasions from use, and the pink enamel crackled through age, some other minor enamel wear, but nothing obtrusive. General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: J. T. Wakefield Sotheby's, London, 9 May 1986, lot 287
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary: There is a famous version of this subject that appears to date from the early part of the Qianlong reign (Stevens 1976, no. 1031, and R. Holden 1994, no. 14), and several other versions exist with thicker, better controlled enamels without the standard thinness and pitting of the earlier wares and with the high-relief blue enamel marks of the mid-to late Qianlong period. All of these technically better examples have been attributed to Ye Bengqi for the past few decades, but a clearer assessment of what he actually produced allows us to rehabilitate a whole group of genuine wares that date from the mid-to late Qianlong period. Among them is a small series of this design, some of which can be traced back to before Ye family production of this type of enamel. One example has been in the Ko Collection since, at the latest, 1922. Bob Stevens also had an elongated oval, almost cylindrical version of this subject that he showed together with his early Qianlong example of the same subject to demonstrate the difference between the genuine one and the 'Ye copy' (Stevens 1976, no. 947). Both bottles are genuine, however; one was just earlier than the other. The present example has also been previously published as being by Ye Bengqi, but it is a genuine work from the Qianlong palace workshops.
What appears to have happened is that the emperor liked the earlier version and at some time later in his reign ordered more of it; by that time, the techniques of enamelling had improved, allowing for thicker, more gem-like enamels. The subject is the same on all of them and must have been taken from a single original. Details of flowers, leaves, and branches remain similar enough to imply a common design source repeated a number of times. This is unusual for palace enamelling of the early Qianlong period, but quite common in the second half of the reign. Ironically, where such repetition is unusual is with the now-smaller group of works confidently attributed to the Ye family, where compositions tend not to be repeated. One reason we believed Ye Bengqi's claim to have done so many of this group (including, it later turned out, some he could not possibly have done, since they existed before he was enamelling) was that it seemed to accord with the family tendency to repeated compositions with their inside-painted bottles. Apart from the evidence of the Ko example predating Ye Bengqi's activities and of the examples in the imperial collection, we can point out that the style and use of enamels here are not Ye's. The enamels themselves were identical, since he used raw material from the palace workshops stores of ancient material, but his use of them was thicker and more glutinous. While his enamels were thick and brilliant, his style of painting was not as subtle as that of the enamellers of the Qianlong palace. Ye also had most of the colours under extraordinary control most of the time, giving a sense of supreme technical perfection. This allowed him to fool an earlier generation of experts who assumed that, given a choice between technically perfect and technically flawed examples, the former would be the genuine palace enamels. Had they compared the art, rather than the technique, they might have come to the opposite and correct conclusion earlier. In addition to the greater subtlety in the painting, we should note that earlier palace enamels on glass are also often somewhat degraded by time, resulting in not only the pitting common to earlier enamels, but also some flaking or crackling of certain colours. The crackling or crizzling of the enamels is rarely visually disturbing, but under a magnifying glass it is quite evident. In the present example, some of the enamels, including the white and pink of the flowers, the iron red over yellow, and blue of the neck borders, have crizzled over the centuries. They are also worn from extensive use; this was obviously not one of the bottles that was used briefly, if at all, and then stored in the palace to come out as a treasure only at some time after 1860. If the Qianlong emperor was reluctant to distribute enamelled glass bottles in general, those he did distribute might well have been the repeated designs.
Finally, the glass here and on others of the small known group is of the semi-transparent, milky type that is typical of the palace workshops, while many of the Ye-family works were on the more even white glass made by a certain 'Glass-bottle Zhou', who supplied the family with blanks when they could not find suitable early blanks.
For other examples of this rehabilitated group from the imperial collection in Beijing (which we may assume have been in the palace since they were made), see Li Jiufang 2002, no. 3 (similar in form to this one, although with the branches coming from a different part of the base), and no. 4, which is similar in form to the Stevens ovoid example. Apart from the Ko example of this design, there was one in the Vad Jelton Collection, and one other without a provenance noted (both in Hugh Moss Records). Others were in Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 5 May 1994, lot 1324; Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 28 October 1992, lot 494 (re-offered Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 28 April 1993, lot 427); and Christie's, New York, 2 December 1993, lot 464 (re-offered by Sotheby's, New York, 22 March 2001, lot 244).
The camellia represents spring, beauty, and prosperity. The blossoming wintersweet (lamei), although it has traditionally been regarded as the floral symbol of the twelfth lunar month, has also been used as a substitute for the prunus during the Chinese New Year celebration, because of its long-flowering habit, to impart similar good wishes: purity, fortitude, and vitality.