Chalcedony; adequately but not extensively hollowed, with a concave lip and irregular, flat foot; carved with a continuous, partially cameo scene of Liu Hai, holding a besom in his right hand, a double gourd suspended from his belt, crouching on a rocky outcrop on which he has placed a coin to tempt his three-legged toad from a pool in a rocky landscape, with a clump of lingzhi at his feet and another, single fungus growing from a ledge near his left hand, a crane flying out of a band of formalized clouds around the shoulders of the bottle, towards a mature pine tree, inscribed in relief draft script with what may read, 'Having picked a chilled and fragrant lingzhi, the immortal dances about with his toad' Suzhou, School of Zhiting, 17301850 Height: 5.38 cm Mouth/lip: 0.45/1.63 cm Stopper: coral, carved with a chi dragon; vinyl collar
Condition: Original material: paler flaw in inner neck area. Bottle: outer lip polished to partly remove small chip, still partly visible; otherwise, workshop condition.
Provenance: Zhirou Zhai Collection Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1993)
Published: Treasury 2, no. 373
Commentary This superbly carved bottle stands out as the epitome of what has made the Suzhou School of Zhiting so justly famous. With its deep, multi-planed relief, its exciting and imaginative use of every nuance of colour in the translucent material, its relief inscription, and its lovely finish, it stands apart. One of the reasons for this is the fact that it is so highly polished, giving it a relatively gem-like glitter.
The impression of spectacular quality is by no means only vested in the degree of polish; this is also a masterpiece of Suzhou carving. The figure is brilliant ink-play interpretation, using the various tones of brown and the ground colour with considerable inspiration; the multi-planed depth of carving is impressive, and the pine tree is one of the largest, most complex, and finest in the medium. There is also introduced here the third basic kind of rock for the school, the convoluted rock full of holes and resembling Gruyère cheese. Ah! What the petrophiles among us wouldn't give for any one of these splendid Zhiting convoluted rocks in our collections! This is a particularly pleasing one, making full use of a block of dappled, dark-brown colouring at the base of the bottle.
Another aspect of the school style introduced here is the larger-scale lingzhi. The smaller-scale version (see Sale 2, lot 31) has a long stem without definition and a small, globular head that could represent any number of mushrooms, apart from the fact that its stem is so long and grows at strange angles from rocky banks. This one is explicitly a lingzhi with a gnarled, mature stem, resembling the trunk of a pine, and a cloud-like head, as depicted on so many ruyi sceptres. The crane, although not a common symbolic partner to Liu Hai, represents immortality and is the messenger of Xiwangmu, the Daoist Goddess of the West. The crane has a bustle of black feathers as its tail, and these have been cleverly depicted from a darker inclusion in the stone. The inscription is remarkably fluent and may be by Zhiting himself, although it is freer in style than the classic Zhiting inscriptions, which is one reason why it has so far defied confident translation. The hollowing is characteristically thick-walled, but as always, well achieved and faultlessly even, and the mouth is one of the smallest known from the school, or indeed on any bottle, at only 0.45 cm
The subject here is Liu Hai, the patron saint of commerce, with his three-legged toad and cash to entice it from the water. Liu is shown holding a besom or twig broom under his right arm.