Possibly Master of the Rocks school, possibly Suzhou, 17401850 6.45cm high.
Treasury 1, no. 132
A nephrite pebble-material 'dragons' snuff bottle
('The Masterly Suzhou Pebble')
Nephrite of pebble material; very well hollowed; carved with a continuous design of four dragons, one of which emits a cloud of vapour from its mouth in which two raised bosses are carved, perhaps intended to be pearls, and another of which has a somewhat chi-like head, amidst formalized clouds Possibly Master of the Rocks school, possibly Suzhou 17401850 Height: 6.45 cm Mouth: 0.54 cm Stopper: tourmaline; jade collar
Condition: Original material: some flaws incorporated into the design. Bottle: miniscule insignificant chip to mouth; otherwise, in workshop condition
Provenance: P. Y. Tu (Hong Kong, 1975) Gerd Lester (1986)
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune, 1993 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1997
Commentary There are several reasons to believe that this example may be of the school we have designated 'Master of the Rocks school' (see Sale 2, lot 148). The pebble material is typical, although it was undoubtedly also used by many other workshops. The masterly carving and use of the different colours in the stone is also typical, although again certainly not exclusive to this school. Another link is found in variegated grey material and the simple cross-hatching of the scales on the bodies of the dragons, the existence of which on all four beasts suggests that the one with a chi-like head is intended to be a proper dragon, on the grounds that chi dragons are rarely depicted with scales. The grey material is known from two other bottles of this school (see Hall 1989, no. 128, and Hall 1991, no. 37). The former also employs the unusual diagonal cross-hatching for the foliage of one of the trees.
A second possible source would be Suzhou. The material would fit such an attribution equally well, and there is one known Suzhou chalcedony snuff bottle that also uses this type of cross-hatching for the foliage of a tree (see Sale 1, lot 14). It also has superbly carved formalized clouds that are very similar to those found here. Eventually, no doubt, other bottles will be discovered that will resolve this question of original provenance, but at present we propose the possibility of it being a work of either school and, indeed, there is a possibility that the Master of the Rocks school also came from Suzhou and that this is a link between the two local styles.
A third possibility is an as-yet-unidentified source such as Yangzhou or Hangzhou. Reputedly, both had an important jade-carving industry, and yet no jades have been identified as coming from either centre. Whichever school it came from, the carving and use of the material are superb. The dragons, carved with an essentialized naïveté, as noted by Kleiner, are offset against crisply carved, beautifully finished, and dynamically flowing clouds, with every nuance of colour superbly used to distinguish the various elements of the design, a feature more readily associated with Suzhou but not out of the question for the Master of the Rocks school (see, for instance, no. 133).
P. Y Tu, who once owned this bottle, was an eccentric dealer who operated from his home in Kowloon in the 1970s and early 1980s before moving to the United States. He was endowed with excellent taste in snuff bottles and bought most of his bottles directly from China at a time when this was still a regular and reasonable source of supply. He is perhaps best known for the fact that, refusing to install air-conditioning in his amazingly crowded apartment, he waited on his clients for most of the year dressed only in his underpants and vest. His standard garb was unvaried even for the most fashionably-dressed female collectors from Europe and America, and his taste in floppy boxer-shorts seems to have done nothing to harm his business, which flourished until his source of supply in China began to dry up in the early 1980s.