Chalcedony; very well hollowed with a concave lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim with rounded edges; carved with a cameo design of three monkeys in a rocky landscape, with the relief cameo title Sanyuan tu, ('A picture of the Three firsts') Official School, 17401840 Height: 5.9 cm Mouth/lip: 0.76/2.20 and 2.10 cm (oval) Stopper: tourmaline; glass finial
Condition: miniscule, insignificant chip on footrim, which may be very slightly reduced to remove tiny chips, but it may be just the way it was made; flaw in original material appearing as a polished indentation across footrim; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Christie's, South Kensington, London, 19 December 1986, lot 8
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary: There is a small group of chalcedony bottles that seems to be part of the broader Official School but incorporates distinctly Zhiting-school Suzhou stylistic features. This and Sale 1, lot 20 (Treasury 2, no. 318), are among the finest of them, and another is illustrated in Stevens 1976, no. 582 (also illustrated in White 1990, Pl. 19, no. 3, from the Salting Bequest of 1910). In addition to the fact that it is usually only minor Suzhou detailing that is superimposed onto standard Official School bottles and subjects, the assumption that these are Official School bottles responding to Suzhou style rather than the other way round is strengthened by the Salting example, which shares both the two horses subject and the formal and technical characteristics of several other Official School examples bearing no traces of Suzhou style. In this superb example of the stylistic-crossover type, a standard Official School form, complete with the common plain reverse, typical neck, foot, and hollowing, is decorated on the front using a different plane of colour in standard Official School style. The three monkeys, although unusually well detailed, are not of Suzhou style because they are not completed in the round, despite plenty of thickness available from which to do so. The side view reveals that they are conceived primarily as well raised but nonetheless essentially two-dimensional images. No attempt has been made to detail the sometimes quite deep side planes of the relief that cannot be seen from the front of the bottle. The Suzhou school of Zhiting would certainly have carved them much more fully in the round (see, for instance, Moss 1971, nos. 187 and 188). There is still a distinct sense of converting the brown relief into monkeys as much through linear detail as sculptural form in this example, whereas the two Suzhou examples quoted are more three-dimensional. Other than that, the Zhiting Suzhou style is suggested by the relief, cameo inscription and the appearance of the rockwork. The latter is more complex than is usual for the Official School, albeit still simpler than one would expect of a mature Suzhou bottle of the same period.
The inscription here is an auspicious title Sanyuan tu (literally 'A picture of the three yuan). Yuan here is a shortened form of jieyuan, huiyuan and zhuangyuan, distinguished titles awarded to the first-place holders of the three levels of civil examinations (see discussion under no. 302). The hidden auspicious meaning of the title, provided by a rebus on the name for gibbon, also pronounced yuan, is 'May you be at the top of all three levels of the civil service examination.' It is, again, a suitable gift for an aspiring official.
For another version of this subject in a similar material, but without the identifying title, see Moss 1971a, p. 78, no. 70, and for a jade version from the Zhiting school at Suzhou, Sotheby's, London, 21 June 1995, lot 108, now in the Franz Collection.