An inscribed emerald-green and pink glass snuff bottle
Probably Yangzhou, 1881 5.82cm high.
Treasury 5, no. 1030
Transparent emerald-green and translucent pink glass; with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved as a single overlay with carving in the ground colour, on one main side with two swallows and two butterflies above a flowering orchid, with a seal in relief positive seal script Jixiang ('auspicious'), the other main side with four large and five small fish amidst floating blossoms in a pond with a perforated rocky outcrop, inscribed in seal script '[Made in] mid-spring of the year xinsi,' the narrow sides with mask-and-ring handles Probably Yangzhou, 1881 Height: 5.82 cm Mouth/lip: 0.59/1.52 cm Stopper: nephrite; gilt-silver collar
Condition: Mouth rim slightly irregular, possibly polished; otherwise, in workshop condition
Provenance: Christie's, London, 7 June 1993, lot 197 (two bottles)
Exhibited: British Museum, London, June-October 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July-November 1997
Commentary: Of the same rare colour combination as Treasury 5, no. 1022 (which bears the name Li Yunting), but with a lighter pink ground, this is another of those masterpieces we have associated with Li that has carving in the ground colour. It demonstrates masterly composition, achieving perfect balance between the contrasting relief elements. On the side bearing the orchids, only the leaves of the orchids are in monochrome relief, while everything else is contrasted. A very subtle balance is also accomplished by placing one of the swallows and the raised seal close to the long leaves of the plant. These two elements play an important formal role in relation to the two green flower heads, low in the foreground, for in the absence of the bird and seal, they would look out of place. Alerted by this, we recognize how carefully considered are all the green elements on this side. Each of approximately the same size, or assuming similar visual 'weight,' they are delightfully placed as if in an imaginary circle, the two flowers like hands juggling the birds, butterflies and seal in an arc between them. The balance is maintained in a similar manner on the other main side, although this is much busier in its detail. The splendid, if subtle, pink perforated rock in the centre reads as empty space by comparison to the contrasting relief detail, which is distributed round it in a circle, albeit one less neatly defined than on the other side. The dynamics of this composition are impressive, with some fish pointing diagonally downward from upper right to lower left (from the viewer's point of view) while three of the larger fish provide a visual counterpoint by turning towards the base of the bottle. This is balanced by the static blossoms, all of which are concentrated in the lower quarter of the picture area. The inscription aligns neck and monochrome rock, lending a strong vertical element to the entire design.
This is among that group of less common masterpieces in this tradition with mask-and-ring handles, and they exhibit an interesting feature. The large heads are typical of the school standard, with a single curl winding up from the top of the eyes and doubling as eyebrows (or horns) and only two other tiny curls, at the very top of the head. The face, however, seems more detailed than usual, principally because the nose is upturned to display well-defined nostrils above a broad, upper jaw-line. For all this, however, these remain typical masks of the school, stylistically far removed from their courtly counterparts. Another indication of the superb quality of this bottle is found in the footrim, which is as well defined and as crisply carved as anything from the Qianlong court.
The seal stands for no particular artist, but is among the most common for the school, appearing on a few of the finer works and many of the more commercial, lesser carvings. It communicates both the auspicious nature of the subject matter and the aspiration that the good wishes be transferred to the owner of the bottle. It seems to have been added almost reflexively, particularly on the lesser works upon which a seal was required, but no individual was associated with the carving by name. It may have originated on a bottle such as this, of masterly quality and obviously by a master, soon becoming no more than a school standard, like a modern-day trade mark. Other non-personal seals used by the school we associate with Li Yunting are: ziwan ('for personal enjoyment'); zhenwan ('for treasured enjoyment'); xianpin ('object of the immortals'); xinwan ('heart's delight'); daya ('great elegance'); zhengke ('appropriate' or 'just right'); tianran ('natural'), and yannian (short for yannian yishou, ['conducive to prolonging life']).