An inscribed coral 'horse and willow' snuff bottle
Zifu, 17001820 5.25cm high.
Treasury 3, no. 432
The Zifu Coral
Coral; reasonably well hollowed, with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding, flat footrim; carved on one side with a horse beneath a willow tree in landscape framed in an oval panel and on the other with a couplet in relief seal script 'The tower stands high on a green mountain. A horse saunters past the drooping willows', followed by two relief seals also in seal script, Zi and fu Zifu, 17001820 Height: 5.25 cm Mouth/lip: 0.46/1.45 cm Stopper: mother-of-pearl; coral collar
Condition: shallow chip to the outer footrim (0.20 x 0.18 cm); two miniscule chips to the outer lip, one of which may have been trimmed back a bit at some time in the past; the surface well worn and smoothed through use; apart from the wear, excellent general relative condition for an early coral bottle
Provenance: Sotheby's, New York, 26 November 1991, lot 166 Eldred's, East Denis, MA., 27 August 1992, lot SB 257
Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary: This is a masterpiece among coral bottles. It is also one of only two known early inscribed coral bottles bearing any type of signature, albeit that this one is only an assumed art name and the other, on Treasury 3, no. 435, may be a reference to the stone itself.
We may detect an affiliation with the first-phase Suzhou style in the use of a relief inscription in seal script followed by raised seals bearing an art name divided into two separate seals, one circular, the other square. This snuff bottle is also extremely well patinated, the decoration being evenly and softly worn by a great deal of handling over the years, but miraculously with no damage resulting from its obviously extended use. With both these clues to guide us, this may be one of our earlier coral snuff bottles and even more important than the size, quality, workmanship, and rare decoration and inscription suggest. The smaller size is certainly a feature of several early landmark snuff bottles, including the Yongzheng-marked turquoise bottle cited under Treasury 3, no. 421, and with the association with first-phase Suzhou style, it may even be from the first half of the eighteenth century.
The name Zifu is associated with a number of individuals from the early eighteenth century through the early twentieth century, although when Treasury 3 was in preparation we searched in vain for an artist by that name. Sun Hengjian, probably of the Qianlong period, wrote a poem about Yangzhou, but unfortunately we know virtually nothing else about him; that leaves the Cantonese journalist Wong Shing (18271902) and several other figures who lived into the twentieth century, none of whom seems to be a likely candidate.
Apart from its likely early date and the rarity of its inscription, this also stands as one of the finest of coral bottles in terms of material, art, and workmanship. The colour of the coral is unusually pale for a snuff bottle, although not as pale as the so-called 'angel-skin' coral of jewelry terminology, and beautifully marked with intriguing striations running throughout. It is also entirely without flaws or fissures. It is as well formed and finished as any known coral, with perfect formal integrity, as neat and well-controlled a foot as one could hope for, and crisp and confident carving, particularly noticeable in the relief inscription.
The final touch is the well-matched stopper, but for this the original artist can take no credit, since the Blochs added it. If not coral or emerald-green jadeite, then pearl or mother-of-pearl, if well matched with a contrasting collar, suits coral very well and, being a related material, seems somehow appropriate in any case.