Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a landscape scene with a figure sailing a boat on a broad expanse of water beyond a small country residence set among trees beside rapids on a small stream, with distant mountains beyond, the other main side inscribed in regular script with two poems, preceded by 'For the correction of Xiting, the honourable second elder brother', accompanied by one indecipherable seal of the artist in negative seal script, followed by 'Written by Meng Zishou in the eleventh month of the year jiachen', with a second seal of the artist, Xigu, also in negative seal script Meng Zishou, Beijing, eleventh month of 1904 Height: 6.6 cm Mouth/lip: 0.61/1.73 cm Stopper: glass; plastic collar
Condition: Bottle: one chip partially polished out on the left hand base of the side panel; miniscule chip at the bottom side of one raised central panel; tiny nibble on the outer lip. Painting: minor spoon scratches on the interior, not obtrusive; otherwise, studio condition
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 Christie's, London, 1999
Meng Zishou, who also went by the name Meng Zhaoxun (see Sale 2, lot 59), is another of the artists of the Beijing School of Zhou Leyuan who seems to have suffered from the commercialization of the art at the time. He was an artist capable of producing the superb work, but he seems to have spent much of his career producing purely decorative paintings that, if divorced from their snuff bottle setting and judged as art, would fail miserably. We can only assume that he was primarily a commercial painter who saw no need to do much more than produce decorative works that were colourful and saleable. We also suspect that he had help from other family members, as Ma Shaoxuan probably did. No. 637 in this collection is inscribed as being a collaboration between Meng and his fourth younger brother, which may also go a long way to explaining the variation in quality in his output.
This is one of three bottles known from Meng's earliest year of painting, and demonstrates that he was already an accomplished painter who must have been practising for some time prior to late 1904, when this was executed. This is one of his most convincing landscapes and yet it comes from his first year of recorded works. There is another feature of this particular landscape that sets it apart from others of the Beijing school: it is influenced by the Lingnan style. The same is true of the only other work from the year of which we have photographs (Hui and Sin 1994, no. 219). Although a quite different landscape, it is also in Lingnan style.
As a rule, Beijing school artists were influenced by Zhou Leyuan in their early years and then, later, might borrow from any of the other popular artists who were painting. Meng is no exception and he soon settled down to the influences of the Zhou Leyuan School, but another hint of the Lingnan style is seen in Sale 2, lot 147, from later in his career. During his career, the influence of Ma Shaoxuan and Ye Zhongsan become obvious from 1905 onwards, but in his first year he seems to have been the only artist to hark back to the literati beginnings of the art for his inspiration.
The calligraphy on the other main side is also very impressive. Meng was never a master calligrapher with the natural cursive grace of a Zhou Leyuan or a Ding Erzhong, or the precise and practised mastery of Ma Shaoxuan, but neither was he inhibited by his lack of mastery, often writing lengthy inscriptions when the mood took him, or when it was required by the subject. He knew he was a competent enough calligrapher to write whatever he felt like, and did. Here from his first year is a lengthy passage in regular script that is very impressive for a newcomer to the art. Ma Shaoxuan in his early years did not exhibit this sort of control of the brush when writing, and Meng's inscriptions at their best are one of the factors that grant him his place in the hierarchy of better artists from the Beijing school.
Each poem occupies two columns of characters, with nothing in the layout to indicate that they are not a single poem, and they were translated as such in Treasury 4. However, the two poems have different rhymes and the first is metrically unregulated, whereas the second is regulated. Considered as two poems, they can be fully appreciated as two different responses to the scene on the opposite side of the bottle, which could be of West Lake in Hangzhou.
The zither's strings, frozen, speak not. The butterflies' pollen, yellow, is still a rarity. Lingering snow is thereblossomed branches. Lake mists arisespring morning.
On the large causeway, her carriage with oil-treated sides Has gone through chaos and still has graceful charm. That must be, beyond Xiling, Where the home of Xiaoxiao of Qiantang used to be.
Su Xiaoxiao was a popular courtesan who lived in Qiantang (present-day Hangzhou) during the Southern Qi dynasty (479501). It is said that she always travelled in a vehicle specially treated with a coat of tong oil, hence the reference to oil-painted walls or sides. There was a bridge in Hangzhou called Xiling (the bridge's name is written with different characters, but most if not all poems about this girl down through the ages use the characters Meng uses, and there is no difference in pronunciation); it was next to that bridge that Su Xiaoxiao met the man to whom she pledged her love.