An inscribed olive-brown glass overlay 'spring and autumn scenes' snuff bottle
Translucent olive-brown and translucent white glass; with a flat lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved as a single overlay on one main side with two magpies on the branches of a blossoming prunus tree, inscribed in relief seal script, 'A branch [exuding] spring fragrance, [by] Songtai', and on the other with two butterflies, two insects, two insect pots, one with its inner, perforated insect- guard set beside it, and a pair of brushes for inciting the insects to fight, inscribed in relief seal script '[An] autumn scene', followed, in relief draft script by the signature Songtai, and two seals, both in negative seal script, tu and ji (together meaning 'painting record') the narrow sides with mask-and-ring handles Possibly Yangzhou, 1870-1919 Height: 5.64 cm Mouth/lip: 0.68/1.59 cm Stopper: tourmaline
Condition: small chips on inner lip; outer lip probably fractionally reduced; three small chips to the side of the footrim; minute, insignificant chip to the bottom right character of the seal on the butterfly side
Provenance: Eugene Sung (1971) Thomas C. Van Nuys (1994) Robert Kleiner (1994)
Published: Stevens 1976, no. 238 JICSBS, Autumn 1994, p. 35 Kleiner 1994, p. 6, no. 10, front cover and p. 3 (detail) Kleiner 1995, no. 174 Treasury 5, no. 1047 Moss and Sargent 2011, fig. 36, middle row
Exhibited: British Museum, London, June-October 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July-November 1997
As proposed in Moss and Sargent 2011, p. 25, and, more tentatively, in Treasury 5, Songtai may be the Lingnan art collector and painter Wu Yanliu (1848 1919). Because of the similarities between the two Bloch bottles bearing the name Songtai (plus a third from the Meriem Collection, with only the character song, plausibly made for the same individual) and the snuff bottles made for Li Peisong and Li Peizhen, probably in Yangzhou, we would like to be able to say that all of these glass-overlay bottles came from the same workshop. But, aside from the question of whether Wu Yanliu would have had bottles made for him at such a distant workshop (a question that may dissolve with further research), there are stylistic differences that could have any one of a number of plausible explanations.
The pictorial approach on this example is remarkably realistic, and far more so than anything produced for the Li brothers. The two birds are perfectly balanced on the branch and very carefully depicted, leaving absolutely no doubt that they are magpies. The prunus tree is similarly well-observed, its main trunk entirely realistic, as are the customary smaller, younger shoots of blossoming branches issuing from it. The blossoms receive equally careful treatment, with flowers shown in various stages from bud to full bloom, and from various angles, displaying a degree of realism absent from the known works associated with the Li brothers. A feature on the other side may compared with the fruit in Sale 2, lot 76, which was made at the direction of Li Peisong (Yunting) for 'his own enjoyment'. A series of circular holes, cutting through the overlay colour, is employed to compose the perforated insect-guard and also the wings of the butterflies. On Li's bottle we find a series of irregular cuts showing the ground colour, whereas here they are neatly drilled, evenly-sized circles. The style of the mask handles also differs from that of Li's glassmaker, there being more evenly curled hair on the heads and more realistic detail, giving them a closer resemblance to their courtly counterparts than to the work done for Li.
This is as painterly a depiction as we are likely to find in Chinese cameo-glass carving, conceived as a flat image simply projected into space by the fraction of a millimetre of the relief plane. The rest is achieved by the equivalent of ink tones, which are used here with great finesse. Shading of the overlay was all the artist needed to accentuate his details, which has been achieved with astonishing skill, indicating the work either of a fine painter, or one with a profound understanding of how to transfer painting skills onto glass. The central bird is rendered much darker against the pale trunk on which it perches and also the paler bird on the extremity of the main trunk. Balance is achieved by subtle variation in the heavily-flowering branch that stands up beside the darker bird. The shading of the overlay colour here is little short of miraculous for a glass carving, and would indeed be impressive in a painting. The artist has gone to the lengths of making some of the smallest buds much darker than some of the flowers, to emphasize them and visually echo the smallest details of a tree (the upper branches of which, for instance, appear darker when silhouetted against a light-coloured sky).
This masterpiece may have suffered some damage, as a result of which a coloured footrim may have been removed. Although the existing footrim seems too small, the profile of the bottle gives no indication of having been altered to provide sufficient material for a footrim, so it may be a slightly reduced footrim that was originally in the ground colour. The surface is rather dulled from long use, although, given its intensely painterly status, it may have started life with a matt finish. Nothing, however, can detract from its breath-taking quality as a glass carving, and with art at this level and of this rarity, a little damage, particularly if it is sensitively restored, is of little consequence.
While it may seem anticlimactic to now explain the symbolism, we shall not shirk our duty. Two (shuang) magpies (xique) stand for double happiness (shuangxi), while a magpie perched on (shang) the tip (shao) of a prunus (mei) branch expresses the wish for 'happiness up to the tip of the eyebrow (xishang meishao)', while the inscription referring to a branch exuding spring fragrance indicates the prunus, the first tree to flower in the spring. Pairs - whether of insects or other creatures - symbolize married couples, so here the boxes, the sticks for agitating insects to get them to fight, the insects together and the butterflies all stand for marital harmony. The idea of harmony or perfection is also carried by round shapes, such as the boxes, and the perforated cover to keep the insects therein while allowing them air to breath. The symbolism of marital harmony (hehe) is also carried by the two boxes (he also being the sound of the character for 'box'). Insects generally, of course, symbolize fertility by virtue of their legendary capacity for reproduction, and the odd little insect crawling near the clump of grass is but one of its parents' innumerable offspring, symbolizing the continuity of the family line arising from so much harmony.