Ivory; with a flat lip and concave foot; carved with considerable undercutting to leave elements of the design free-standing with a continuous summer landscape scene in rocky, water-side terrain with a foreground stone bridge with elaborate balustrades, four two-storied pavilions of various designs (one in the far distance) and pines, willows, maples and other trees, with seventeen men enjoying the scenery, some dressed as scholars, some as sages or monks, some with walking staves, one with a feather fan, one with a scroll, and one with what appears to be a sack over his shoulder, some of them in the pavilions, the water with areas of formalized waves mixed with plain areas, with five birds in flight and a shoulder mantel of deeply undercut clouds, the outer neck rim carved with a band of pendant formalized leaf lappets on a stippled ground, the base with a band of formalized chrysanthemum flowers interspersed with pointed leaves, the foot inscribed in seal script with the signature, Kenkoku Kenkoku, Japan 18541900 Height: 7.4 cm Mouth/lip: 0.75/1.52 cm Stopper: ivory, carved and reticulated with a double-arched canopy set above a band of chrysanthemum flowers and formalized petals or leaves, with integral collar and cork; original
Condition:the head of one figure missing, and tiny insignificant nibbles to the incredibly fine detail. General relative condition: extraordinary for so finely detailed a work
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Commentary In terms of intricacy of detail and miniaturization, Kenkoku is in a class of his own among all the Japanese snuff-bottle carvers. He comes close to the miniature mastery of certain Chinese palace ivory carvers of the Qianlong period. Kenkoku is a rare exception to the rule of anonymous Japanese production of 'Chinese' snuff bottles. Listed in George Lazarnick, Netsuke and Inro Artists and How to Read Their Signatures, he is a late-nineteenth-century carver who produced, apart from a small group of snuff bottles, pipe cases and other ivory objects. His work is characterized by very fine quality high-relief carving, often on a miniature scale.
The scene he has depicted here ignores accuracy of scale in a typically Chinese manner, and Kenkoku may have been depicting what he considered a Chinese subject, although the same is possible in Japanese art. Many of the figures are shown far too large for the trees they stand beside, and relative size between foreground and distant figures is not logical, but otherwise it is very much a Japanese carving, as are the other known bottles by him. The style of the clouds and of the borders owes no obvious debt to Chinese art, and the original stopper with its arched arcade and chrysanthemum flower border is purely Japanese. Above all, of course, the artist signed it with his own name, so there was no need to introduce any Chinese elements to pretend that it was not Japanese.
The original stopper has an integral ivory cork that has not been drilled for a spoon and obviously was never intended to have one, suggesting that the bottle was never designed for use. This is no surprise, of course, but merely confirms our conviction that the Japanese output of the post-1854 period was aimed primarily at Western collectors. A surprising detail suggesting an unusual level of commitment by Kenkoku is that, despite the bottle's never being intended for use, he has hollowed it well, with a reasonably capacious interior that is unusually well finished, the interior being evenly and carefully smoothed rather than left rough, as are so many Japanese ivory bottles.
Three others by the artist are in the American Museum of Natural History in New York from the Drummond Collection, formed prior to 1931 (see under no. 1692). One of the three (Drummond Bequest, 70.3.1953, original number 139) is illustrated in Stevens 1976, no. 769, and is of somewhat similar form and of the same subject, although the composition and, possibly, the number of figures in the scenes differ. It is lightly stained an orange colour and, although Stevens did not mention it, it bears the same signature as the present example. Of the remaining two, also signed, one is carved with shishi (the Japanese equivalent of the Buddhist lion; Drummond Bequest, 70.3.1954A, original number 137), and the other with dragons and fenghuang (Drummond Bequest, 70.3.1956A, original number 88). A fourth bottle that is almost certainly by the same artist, although the signature is not translated, was offered by Douglas Wright in Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 2, p. 59. All are similarly detailed and undercut. Another, chosenironicallyto represent the wonders of Chinese snuff bottles at the Newark Museum is almost certainly by Kenkoku, although no signature is noted (JICSBS, March 1976, p. 25). One last example we suspect is by Kenkoku, although no signature is mentioned, is in JICSBS, Autumn 1996, p. 13, fig. 34.
The black pigment in the signature here has obviously been added recently, as it does not appear in the 1987 publication.