Xingyouheng tang mark, for Prince Ding, 18001854 5.75cm high.
Treasury 1, no. 152
An octagonal spinach jade snuff bottle
('Prince Ding's Octagonal Jade')
Nephrite; extremely well hollowed, with a concave inner lip and a flat foot, incised in clerical script Xingyouheng Tang ('Hall of Constancy') 18001854 Height: 5.75 cm Mouth/lip: 0.85/1.78 cm Stopper: coral; pearl and garnet finial; gilt-silver collar
Commentary Other Xingyouheng tang-marked bottles are to be found in Treasury 1, nos. 150 154, Sale 2, lot 131, and Sale 1, lot 124, the latter a rock-crystal bottle from the fifth Prince Ding's collection that was used for an inside-painted bottle by Wang Xisan in 1967.
Formally, this bottle is unique and extremely effective as sculpture. The octagonal section of the body is subtly varied with panels of three different widths, those on the front and back being the widest, the narrow side panels the next widest, and the four facets that join them together the narrowest. The result is a variation on the octagon that has far greater sculptural appeal as it is turned in the hand than an even division of the space could have achieved. With plain bottles of this sort, an apparently minor formal variation carries disproportionate weight artistically. With an undecorated bottle, the two main languages are material and form, with the material then divided into subsidiary languages of colour and texture. The form in such a case plays a more dominant role than it would in a heavily decorated bottle, where attention tends to be concentrated on whatever is carved as the subject matter and the manner in which it is carved. The faceted cross-section of this particular form is also cleverly balanced by a sharply incurving base into the flat, very sturdy foot and a gentler curve at the shoulders. where the rounded octagonal form gradually gives way to a cylindrical neck. The result is a bottle of considerable confidence and presence that is at the same time functional, comfortable in the hand because of the gentle rounding of every contour except that of the lip, and sculpturally impressive.
An additional touch that speaks eloquently for the sensitivity of the artist is the very slight tapering of the narrow side profile, which is a mere 0.6 mm narrower at the top of the panels than at their base. This is sufficient, however, to give the impression that the entire form tapers slightly towards the shoulders, adding immensely to the elegance of the bottle and, by leading the eye upwards from the sturdy, flat base, concentrates attention on the stopper, which becomes an important aspect of the overall sculpture. Changing the stopper on this bottle has an unusually marked effect on its visual appeal, as it does with all plain bottles, but because of the slight taper, the stopper becomes an even more important feature of the art of this bottle. It is perhaps for this reason that this stopper, with its pearl finial, itself inset with a tiny garnet finial, was chosen some time in the past. The added detail at the apex of the visual effect of the work of art carries disproportionate weight, considering its tiny size, and the crown-like serrations of the bright, gilt-silver collar also add considerably to the presence of this already impressive bottle.
The authenticity of the mark here is beyond question, as it is on the other jade examples bearing the mark in this collection. The added marks of the 1970s and 1980s, when knowledge of correct formalization of both the Qianlong reign-mark and Xingyouheng Tang marks created some confusion, tend to be incised rather thinly and, under magnification, appear rather new and mechanical. The style of the characters here, with their neatly-incised clerical script, was also favoured, although far from exclusively, by Prince Ding. Presumably, he would have had access to imperial workshops and their mark carvers, but he seems to have used a variety of other carvers as well, since the stylistic range of his known bottles is quite wide, with a number of different scripts and styles of writing. His access to the imperial workshops is suggested by a glass overlay water pot bearing his mark that is decorated with chi dragons and relates to court style and subject matter of the mid-Qing period (see Paul Moss 1983, no. 109). We have not attributed any of the Xingyouheng tang-marked bottles to the palace workshops, however, because we have no firm evidence to show that Prince Ding did in fact have the right to use the workshop carvers for his own projects, and it is almost certain that he could have had comparable work done elsewhere by the second quarter of the nineteenth century.