Dwarf coconut, stained ivory, and green lacquer; made in the form of an eggplant, the fruit of coconut, the calyx of green-stained ivory covered in green lacquer; inscribed in angular, regular script 'Wood for drinking; fragrance for eating. Inscribed by Erpi at the request of Fenfu.' Bottle: Probably imperial, attributed to the palace workshops, Beijing, 17231800 Engraving: Deng Erpi, 19001954 Height: 7 cm (including original stopper) Mouth: 0.89 cm Stopper: stained ivory and green lacquer, carved as a stalk; lacquer collar Associated paraphernalia: fitted case containing this bottle and Treasury 7, no. 1516 (lot 8 in this sale) as a pair
Condition: some of the upper layer of green lacquer on the calyx and twigstopper abraded or chipped off. General relative condition: very good
Provenance: Christie's, Hong Kong, 22 March 1993, lot 520 Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1993)
Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary: Deng Erpi (18831954), a native of Dongguan in Guangdong province, was well known as a calligrapher, seal engraver, epigrapher, painter, poet, and collector. Because he came from Guangdong, the southern coastal province in which Guangzhou (Canton) is situated, and because this bottle is made from a dwarf coconut that would have been more likely to have been produced in the south, Kleiner concluded that the bottle dated from the time of Deng Erpi, noting this as evidence that both snuffing and the literati tradition survived the fall of the Qing dynasty. Both didof that there is no doubtbut the evidence of the bottle indicates that it is far older than the inscription. The coconut itself, though well patinated and smoothed, offers no pressing evidence of considerable age, but the matching stopper and the shoulder mantle of the calyx do. Both are of olive green-stained ivory covered with a layer of green lacquer. The lacquer is convincingly worn through in a number of places on both calyx and stopper, and beneath the wear the ivory is weathered and stained; it has been well used for a considerable period of time. Despite the wear on the lacquer, we may assume it was added to this bottle after the original ivory was already well worn, and probably after the stopper was broken and in need of retrofitting with the addition of the extra collar. There would seem to have been little point in staining the ivory and then covering it with lacquer of a similar colour at the time of original manufacture; and it is clear that the stain in the ivory did not result from the addition of the lacquer, for it is of a distinctly different green and runs evenly through the material. The fact that the only other example known, discussed below, lacks the lacquer is further evidence that lacquer was not part of the original concept.
The inscription is obviously younger than both the ivory and its lacquer overlay. Microscopic examination of the inscriptions on bottles from the late Qing that were actually used reveals deposits of dirt, snuff, and dust worked into the engraving by the natural oils from the hand. This distinctive incrustation is absent from the engraving on this example, which seems barely used since it was added. It seems that the bottle came into the hands of someone named Fenfu in the first half of the twentieth century, and Fenfu asked Deng Erpi to engrave something on it for him. It is perhaps less likely that Deng inscribed it after 1949; he lived his last few years in difficult times.
What do we make of the fact that this bottle came in an ancient fitted case paired with no. 1516? The two are alike insofar as they share a natural material transformed into another natural fruit by the addition of a stalk and calyx, in this case separate, in the other case joined as the original stopper. Both these bottles may be from the palace. This belief is strengthened by the fact that the only other known bottle that is like the present example was in the imperial collection (and remains there, in Beijing: Li Jiufang 2002, no. 387). It too is a dwarf coconut, although misleadingly catalogued as wood, with what appears to be a stained ivory calyx and original stalk-shaped stopper. (The absence of lacquer bolsters our conviction that the lacquer on the present bottle is a later addition.) On this and no. 1516, we are willing to stick our necks out and suggest a tentative attribution to the palace workshops of the Qianlong period, perhaps even of the Yongzheng reign.