A pair of Baroque pearl and mixed-media snuff bottles
Probably Imperial, attributed to Guangzhou, 17501820 5.89cm high and 6.1cm high.
Treasury 7, no. 1660 and 1661
A pair of baroque pearl and mixed-media snuff bottles
('Imperial Pearl Twins')
Pearl-encrusted nacre, baroque pearl segments, bronze, gold, transparent green and brownish-red glass, and kingfishers' feathers; a pair; with flat lips and no functional foot; the bodies made of segments of baroque pearls glued together, with gilt-bronze shoulder mantle and neck, probably intended to suggest a fruit or vegetable (perhaps the bitter gourd), the shoulders inlaid with an outer band of alternating red and green glass beneath a band of inlaid kingfishers' feathers, the neck with alternating bats and shou (longevity) characters also inlaid in feathers Probably imperial, attributed to Guangzhou 17501820 Heights: 5.89 and 6.1 cm Mouths/lips: 0.47/1.48 and 0.48/1.5 cm Stoppers: gilt bronze, each with a formalized floral pattern in twisted wire inset with kingfishers' feathers and four pearls; amber finials; silver spoons; original
Condition: one inlaid 'gem' missing from the shoulder band of one bottle; otherwise, in workshop condition
Provenance: Unidentified dealer, Shanghai (1931) Ko Collection (1987)
Published: JICSBS, Winter-Spring 1983,front cover Kleiner 1987, no. 2071987 exhibition poster JICSBS, Spring 1989, front cover compilation Illustrated London News, Summer1990, p. 3 Kleiner 1994a, p. 57 Kleiner 1995, no. 353 Treasury 7, nos. 1660 & 1661
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Associated paraphernalia: Fitted box; cardboard and silk brocade with a ruby-pink silk lining, the title panel on the cover inscribed' Mother-of-pearl snuff bottles, one pair'
Commentary In saying this extraordinary pair of bottles from the Ko Collection is 'probably imperial', we are being somewhat loose with our terminology, as we think it was presented to the emperor rather than made at his command. One reason for believing that the present pair was probably made for the court is the fact that they are of pearl, which is directly associated with the emperor (see under Sale 1, lot 138). Even the matching stoppers are inset with pearls. These bottles are typical of the sort of costly and impressive gifts sent as tribute by local officials on several occasions during the year, including the emperor's birthday, to curry favour and impress. These two bottles would certainly have done both.
A Guangzhou origin for these two bottles is likely because of the combination of inlaid kingfishers' feathers and the inlaid glass beads imitating precious stones, both of which are standard Guangzhou arts found on a wide range of wares produced forth court during the height of the Qing dynasty. (See, for instance, Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, nos. 61,87, and 88, for the former, and nos. 82, 83, and 84 for the latter). Feather inlaid work was also done elsewhere, as we know from contemporary accounts (see below and, for an example apparently made at Shanghai in the late Qing dynasty, Treasury 7, no. 1666), but a bottle that combines feather work with the typically Guangzhou inlaid glass 'gems' is reasonably attributable to Guangzhou. We even know which street in Guangzhou specialized in decorations with kingfishers' feathers. John Glasgow Kerr's detailed and useful The Canton Guide, of which several editions were published in the late nineteenth century, notes that in Great New Street (Daxin jie) there are shops in which 'silver and copper ornaments are enamelled with the blue king-fisher's feathers.' The keen observer Constance Gordon Cumming also noted kingfisher-feather embellishment in Guangzhou while she was there in 1879 (Wanderings in China, p. 34):
'We lingered long, watching jewellers making exquisite ornaments of kingfishers' feathers, green and blue, inlaid like enamel on a gold ground.'
Not all feather inlay was done at Guangzhou, however. Gordon Cumming also visited Fuzhou in the same year and reported (pp. 132133):
But of all fascinating manufactures none is more attractive than the dainty and dazzling jewellery made of the exquisite metallic feathers of the blue and green kingfisher and blue jay, so worked into a setting of silver or gold as to resemble most beautiful enamel, yet with a silk-like gloss most puzzling on first inspection. Thesis the favourite style of jewellery here, and while great ladies wear it in the form of artificial butterflies, flowers, and leaves of the most refined work, very effective ornaments are made for their humbler sisters on a groundwork of base metal.