Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995
Commentary This is of a similar range of material to Sale 2, lot 127, of the colour known today as 'yellow' jade and by Zhao Zhiqian in the 1860s as 'yellow steamed-chestnut'. We also know, from the inscription on the imperial snuff bottle, Treasury 1, no. 112, that the Qianlong emperor himself referred to an even more greenish-tinged jade as yellow.
The extensive hollowing of this bottle seems to give the surface a delightful translucency, revealing the minutely flecked, fibrous appearance of the material. It fits comfortably into the range of super-hollowed bottles, many of which have a wide mouth. It is certainly as elegant and perfect an oval bottle as is known.
The popularity of yellow nephrite in imperial circles, which is evident during the Qing period but may have existed earlier, presumably reflects a desire to find in this most valued of Chinese materials a close and entirely natural equivalent to the imperial colour. The symbolic meaning of nature producing its most valued stone within the Chinese aesthetic to match the colour reserved for the use of the emperor would have been irresistible.
The grouping and dating of plain stone bottles is extremely difficult. A bottle like this could have been made at any time during the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and even, as an exception, at a later date, although this is unlikely. It probably dates from the Qianlong period, and perhaps from after the introduction of massive amounts of raw material from Turkestan from 1759 onwards, but the Qianlong impetus in jade carving apparently continued well into the early nineteenth century. As yet we know too little about this fascinating period in snuff-bottle history to exercise much confidence in accurately dating any but a few exceptional bottles to within a decade or two, let alone plain ones such as this.
We have frequently spoken about formal integrity. The term refers to the degree of perfection achieved in the basic form of a bottle. If the chosen shape is perfectly symmetrical, evenly balanced, and with flowing lines where nothing interrupts the visual delight of pure form, then it is of perfect formal integrity. If it has one shoulder higher than the other, a neck slightly to one side, one side-profile different from the other, or an unbalanced foot, then the formal integrity is flawed, and the form visually less impressive, unless, of course, it is asymmetrical by choice, for artistic purposes. Poor formal integrity in a bottle that sets out to be a symmetrical formal statement as sculpture in the first place is a reflection of a lack of skill and commitment on the part of the carver, and on a plain bottle in particular it considerably diminishes the work of art. This perfection of formal integrity was obviously very important to the lapidary where form was the principal sculptural language, as it is with all plain bottles. The importance of this quality to the lapidary is demonstrated here. There is, low on one narrow side, a horizontal incision that survives from the initial process of roughly forming the shape of the bottle. The lapidary cut just a trifle too deeply in one area. It is far too precise to be an accidental incision, and too deep and confident to be a later scratch. By polishing down that area by less than half a millimetre it could have been removed entirely, but that would have fractionally spoiled the perfect formal integrity of the bottle, and that was obviously not an option in a bottle where formal integrity was paramount.