An inscribed rock-crystal 'prunus tree' snuff bottle
Suzhou, 17201780 6.16cm high.
Treasury 2, no. 365
The Suzhou Chlorite Crystal
Crystal with inclusions of chlorite; well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; carved in low relief with a continuous design of a flowering prunus tree under a crescent moon and growing from a rocky outcrop rising vertically out of a rocky promontory, inscribed in low-relief cursive script 'I hoe [in the garden] under a bright moon and plant the plum seedlings', followed by the seal qingwan ('[for] pure delight') Suzhou, 17201780 Height: 6.16 cm Mouth/lip: 0.68 cm/2.2 and 2.12 cm (oval) Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar
Condition: possible slight trim of entire outer neck to remove tiny chips, but possibly made as is; two miniscule chips to inner lip, slight bruise on main side in upper beneath the curve of the branch just to the right of 12 o'clock, with two circular small cracks around it and two small chips.
Provenance: Hugh M. Moss Ltd. Emily Byrne Curtis (1986) Robert Kleiner (1986)
Exhibited: Newark Museum, OctoberNovember 1982 Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary: Suzhou was a major artistic centre long before the snuff-bottle era. Well known for lacquer and silk production, it had become by the early Qing dynasty one of China's main jade-carving centres, out of which came, in the sixteenth century, the most famous of all Suzhou jade carvers, Lu Zigang. Although any lapidary workshop capable of carving jade could produce other hardstone carvings, Suzhou workshops originally earned their reputation for their jade output and there is no evidence of any extensive production of other stones until perhaps the first half of the eighteenth century.
Although there are many jade carvings, including snuff bottles, in what we have called 'first phase' style (see Treasury 1, no. 124), they are extremely rare in any other material, while second-phase carvings are at least as common in quartz as in jade. The inevitable conclusion is that carvings in the various stones of the quartz group, and particularly chalcedony, did not become popular at Suzhou until some time in the eighteenth century, and perhaps not until as late as the early Qianlong period. Since the sudden and extensive output from the second phase is almost wholly made up of snuff bottles and small pendants, it is likely that one or both of these two objects was responsible for the shift in taste. With the rapid spread of the snuff bottle as both a container and collectible work of art transcending its function during the eighteenth century, we may assume that the primary credit goes to snuff bottles. In addition to quartz, a wide variety of other materials came into prominence with the same development.
According to Yang Boda 1992, Suzhou was the largest jade-carving centre in China, with a permanent jade market in Zhuanzhu Lane. To what extent the workshops were also in this lane is not known, but hardstone carving is not an intensely industrial craft, and it could have been carried out in any small workshop, the only limitations being that it requires a fair amount of water and a great deal of grinding with various abrasives. No one knows how many individual artists and workshop-groups of artists might have been in production at any one time, but quite a large number seems likely. The style we have come to associate with Suzhou was surely no more than a small proportion of the town's stylistic output and devoted almost entirely to snuff bottles and pendants; we have named this school after one of the earliest artists whose name is associated with the fully-blown snuff-bottle style, Zhiting.
The inscription on this bottle is in the same flat-planed relief style found on Zhiting's signed works, although it is not as fluent here and does not appear to be by his hand. It was a fairly standard first-phase Suzhou style, the design being conceived as a flat, two-dimensional calligraphic image raised to a higher plane than that of the ground, as opposed to a rounded, more sculptural relief inscription. A white nephrite bottle signed by Zhiting in the Bamboo Grove Collection confirms that this is probably by a different artist. It is carved with a low-relief prunus design and a similar flat-planed inscription in relief, but the style of both prunus and inscription are different. There are other names associated with first-phase Suzhou carvings, including one individual named Wang Xiaoxi (see Treasury 1, no. 90, where the name was misprinted as Wang Xiaoqi), and we know the names of about five other Ming carvers, which indicates that the trend towards individual artists signing their names had already begun before the Qing.
Regardless of the number of workshops involved in first-phase style, there were clearly several artists involved during the first century of the Qing dynasty in producing small artistic objects for aesthetes. Zhiting, however, is one we can identify through a series of carvings as having worked in the first-phase style who then went on to produce classic, second-phase wares and may have been a key artist in evolving the one into the other for the snuff-bottle arts and for the main workshop involved in their production.
This is one of the very rare quartz bottles that is in early-phase Suzhou style. Another, obviously by the same hand, with similar subject and style, inscribed, and apparently from the same piece of raw material, is now in the J & J Collection (Sotheby's, New York, 12 October 1993, lot 119). Otherwise, practically all known examples are in second-phase style. It is also rare being in crystal, which is very much the exception to the rule for Suzhou snuff bottles of any period, chalcedony and nephrite being the favoured materials. It is also rare in the type of crystal, which is suffused with a series of fine, moss-like chlorite inclusions concentrated in planes lying roughly parallel to the main sides of the bottle and clearly visible as strong, vertical banding from the narrow sides. Chlorite inclusions of this kind are rare enough in crystal snuff bottles, but to find them in striated, agate-like planes of this sort is still rarer.
Although in low relief and the restrained first-phase style, we find a hint of the more exotic style to come in the use of some small areas of green and white colouring to form flowers or buds in the upper left-hand quadrant of the main view. This almost obsessive use of every nuance of colour in the material became a key feature of second-phase production from this workshop. The hollowing here is also typical of the Suzhou snuff-bottle style, with fine quality workmanship creating a confident and uncompromised, oval inner profile, but leaving fairly thick walls. In nephrite, this carving would generally be dated to the seventeenth or early eighteenth century, but we believe that even though the more obvious second-phase carvings in higher relief may have been a development of the first half of the eighteenth century to become the standard by the second half, there is no doubt that the earlier style remained current, perhaps even into the nineteenth century, and that for much of the mid-eighteenth century either style might have been produced, although there would undoubtedly have been a tendency for the first-phase style to be gradually replaced by the second as it gained in popularity and acceptance as the standard Zhiting School Suzhou snuff-bottle style. There are hints in this example of a transition, even though the initial impression is of pure first-phase style. Although in restrained, low relief, the lower rocky ground is carved with closely grouped lines serrated with a series of indentations which became a key characteristic of the second-phase style and the School of Zhiting. It is probably, therefore, a product of the first half of the eighteenth century.