Probably Imperial, 17601840 Sold with accompanying watercolor by Peter Suart. 6.42cm high.
Treasury 3, no. 413
The Vaporous Chi Imperial Beryl
Beryl; well but not extensively hollowed, with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; carved with two chi dragons, one blowing forth a stream of vapour, depicted as formalized clouds, above a small convoluted rock from which a clump of grass and a lingzhi grow Probably imperial, 17601840 Height: 6.42 cm Mouth/lip: 0.4/1.88 cm Stopper: tourmaline; gilt-silver collar
Condition: Mouth rim slightly irregular, with insignificant tiny chip, possibly polished; otherwise, in workshop condition
Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary: When beryl is not of the distinctive colours that command their own varietal names (emerald, aquamarine and heliodor, the last for yellow beryl), it is known just as beryl. This typical material for the snuff bottle, which is neither blue enough to be aquamarine nor yellow enough for heliodor, is usually referred to as green beryl. It was mined in the area that in 1884 became Xinjiang province and would have been part of the flood of material available to the court after the initial subjection of the area in 1759. Apart from its difference in colour, it was treated no differently from aquamarine, and this example forms part of a group that was certainly imperial, even if not everything in the group was made for the court. The shape is similar to lot 16 in this auction and to a wide range of mid-Qing rounded rectangular bottles in other materials that occur both with and without decoration. The type was certainly imperial, even if not exclusively so.
For a bottle in similar material, see Perry 1960, no. 95, and for a plain version of this same form and material, Hall 1991, no. 18. Another aquamarine example, also with chi dragons, was in the Harriet Hamilton Collection (Hamilton 1977, p. 49, no. S1), while a plain one is illustrated in Kwok 1993, p. 96, no. 37. For another plain beryl bottle, but of a different shape, see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 71, and for a carved example similar to this one, Sotheby's, New York, 25 October 1997, lot 160.
There is no question that plain and decorated bottles would have been made by the same workshops and for the same patrons, including those at court, so we may see the entire group as united in general terms.
The chi dragons as main decoration indicate an imperial provenance for the bottle, and they lead us to a more obvious link to the court through a series of glass bottles, as Kleiner has pointed out in his catalogue for the 1995 British Museum exhibition. There is a group of these beryl bottles, some in this green colour, some in aquamarine, that have chi dragons as their main decoration, usually confined to the narrow sides so that the lovely material becomes the only decoration of the two main sides, but sometimes carved across the face, as here. It is likely that the standard was for them to appear as narrow-side decoration, but where flaws in the stone needed hiding beneath detail to make best use of the material, they would be extended onto the main sides. Here the dragon emitting a stream of vapour, in itself an unusual departure for the group, is doing so in order that the vapour can hide what would otherwise have been an awkward yellow flaw running horizontally through the stone. By bringing the dragon onto the main side, what was negative becomes positive, the yellow being the initial, concentrated burst of vapour before it thins out and adopts the background colour. It gives the dragon a rather potent appearance as it breathes forth its sulphurous fumes.
There can be no question that this group is related to another, in glass, which is also sensibly attributed to the court and possibly the palace workshops, although by no means with certainty. The court ordered from a number of imperial workshops all over the empire and from private workshops as well, so it is easier to know that something is imperial than to be certain where it was made. The glass bottles are all carved from solid blocks of glass as opposed to being worked in a molten state and blown. The glass is carved the same way as a hardstone and would have presented only a difference in hardness to the lapidary. Most are of transparent green colour, almost certainly imitating green beryl but of an idealized, flawless material. That they are intended to imitate this group is demonstrated by the very occasional example in aquamarine-blue glass (four are noted in Hugh Moss records). Again, where we have glass and hardstones from the same group, and particularly where form and decoration are imperial, we are alerted to an imperial workshop. It is possible that the lumps of green raw material for the glass examples of this group were imported. A good deal of glass was imported during the Qing dynasty, particularly earlier on when there were still some types that could not be made as well, or at all, locally.
Although the beryl bottles of the group have fared less harshly than their tourmaline equivalents, a general air of suspicion has hung over them for some time and they have often been catalogued merely as nineteenth century, allowing that they might be part of the late-Qing production for tourists. We are still in the process of rehabilitating this particular group as mid-Qing, many dating from the Qianlong period, but also as imperial, rare, and very important. Without the prejudices accumulated by confusion with late Qing and modern precious stone bottles, the best of this group would be valued along with the other rare and impressive imperial bottles of the late Qianlong period. They are all extremely well carved, with excellent detailing of neck, foot, and hollowing.