A carved ivory 'Legend of the White Snake' snuff bottle
Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 6.4cm high.
Treasury 7, no. 1673
A carved ivory 'Legend of the White Snake' snuff bottle
Ivory; with a flat lip and recessed foot surrounded by a protruding flattened footrim; carved with a continuous illustration of a scene from The Legend of the White Snake, the two heroines in a boat, passing between two groups of three men each standing on dry land, while four immortals float on clouds above them, one holding a sword, one a ruyi-sceptre, Lü Dongbin with a sword on his back and holding a flywhisk, and the fourth with his hands together in an attitude of prayer beneath the folds of his robe, while a demon, waist-deep in the turbulent water, holds a large dish of what appears to be fruit above his head, with wisps of formalized clouds above; the neck and outer footrim both with a band of raised dots, the foot inscribed in regular script, Qianlong nian zhi (Made during the Qianlong period) in a rectangular cartouche defined by twinned lines Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 Height: 6.4 cm Mouth/lip: 0.72/1.95 cm Stopper: ivory, carved in the shape of a melon or gourd with integral finial; 1920 1986
Condition: numerous fine age lines; repair to a small area of the outer lip wrapping round from the top to the underside of lip; two chips on the oar, two along the side of the boat, and one at the left side front of the canopy; small chip near the base of the undulating cloud, another chip to the left of this on the tip of the rocks; the figure on the left of the three standing on clouds with some repair work to the side of his face; one small chip to the clouds above him; the facial features of some of the figures smoothed away with age. Stopper: some nibbles to the rim
Provenance: R. Gordon-Smith (prior to 1918) Glendining & Co., London, 18 and 19 October 1920, lot 276 Lydia Tovey Sotheby's, London, 28 April 1987, lot 652
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
As explained in Moss 2007, a group of ivory snuff bottles formerly thought to come from imperial workshops in Beijing has been reassigned to a Japanese carver, for whom Moss coined the name 'Imperial Master', working between the 'opening' of Japan in 1854 and perhaps the first decade of the twentieth century. The earliest example we can trace back so far is the one in the Chester Beatty Collection (Arts of Asia, MarchApril 1988, p. 61, no. 16). It was already recorded in a handwritten list of 1914 while Beatty was collecting in America; he moved to Ireland only in 1950.
The previous belief that these ivory bottles inspired a series of copies in moulded porcelain bottles from Jingdezhen in the mid-Qing period has proven wrong. In fact, quite the opposite happened. It was the imperial moulded porcelain bottles of the late- Qianlong and Jiaqing periods that provided the inspiration for the Japanese output of the post-1854 periodan inspired choice by the Japanese carvers. The moulded porcelain bottles are formally ideal and decoratively intriguing when translated into ivory, and they were excellent models of Chinese style and subject matter for the Japanese artists.
The ivory versions have an advantage over their porcelain equivalents insofar as wear and discolouring are positive on ivory, softly colouring and smoothing the monochrome relief detail and greatly enhancing the appeal of the material, whereas wear on porcelain is generally a negative factor. The reattributed bottles still have the same high artistic quality and are still among the most spectacular snuff bottles in our collections. If their appeal is diminished, it is only psychologicallyan important aspect of aesthetics in general, but not one that impacts upon the material work of art. If we had recognized them as Japanese in the 1960s, when they were first identified as a coherent group, they would have consistently been among our most sought-after snuff bottles.
Although the Imperial Master took his inspiration from moulded porcelain bottles for many of his finest works, many more are in the general style of moulded porcelain bottles without having specific models (at least among surviving exemplars). He may have started by copying his model exactly, but once he had mastered the art and grasped the style, he seemed to branch out to produce his own range of subjects. There can be no doubt that the Imperial Master was an artist of extraordinary talents, and it is typical of such artists that they cannot be confined long to making perfect reproductions of other media.
This is one of the most accurate copies of a particular moulded porcelain bottle. Fortunately, one of the originals exists, and it is in the Bloch Collection. (See Sale 3, lot 91.) This ivory version is copied faithfully from the porcelain original except for the use of a raised-dot border around neck and foot, and even this border is taken from other moulded porcelains of the Jiaqing period (or, more likely, from another moulded porcelain series of the same subject and design, but with the raised dots). The main change is the reign mark on the foot, where the original Jiaqing mark in seal script has been replaced by a Qianlong mark in regular script. The reign mark should have alerted us to the Japanese origin long ago, had we been paying attention. The calligraphy of the marks is poor; but beyond that, the positioning of the marks confirms that they were not written at the palace workshops. As a general rule, reign marks on Chinese works of art, certainly from the Qianlong period, are placed so that when turning the piece from its intended primary view in order to read the reign mark, it is the correct way up. Reign marks on genuine imperial snuff bottles of the Qianlong reign are never legible the right way up when turning the bottle over from the narrow sides; even if the only designs are on the narrow sides, the bottle is still correctly orientated for turning the bottle to view the mark only when one of the main sides faces the viewer. It is not clear whether this is simply intuitive or involves a moral imperative to avoid exposing the imperial designation lying on its side, but the Imperial Master was apparently oblivious to this small but telling point of etiquette. When following the original moulded porcelain bottles, he occasionally put the mark sideways, as he did here and on Sale 2, lot 143.