The Cameo Ink-play Master, possibly Imperial, Official School, 1770-1860 5.99cm high.
Treasury 2, no. 324
A dendritic agate 'Lü Shang' snuff bottle
Dendritic agate; very well hollowed, with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding broad, flat footrim; carved in two coloured cameo relief on one side with Lü Shang sitting fishing on a rocky ledge in a gorge and with a single layer of cameo relief on the other carved as a cockerel and cockscomb Cameo Ink-play Master, possibly imperial, Official School, 17701860 Height: 5.99 cm Mouth/lip: 0.75/2.12 cm Stopper: tourmaline; glass finial
Condition: outer footrim reduced on one side to remove tiny chip; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: David Bowden (London, 1987) Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1987)
Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
This is another of the masterpieces by the Cameo Ink-play Master discussed under Sale 1, lot 40. The subject of the cockerel and cockscomb plant is another of the many references to advancement through the ranks that are so common on the broader Official School of bottles. It appears on a number of the chalcedony cameo bottles of the broader school, but this is the only known example by this master, and nowhere is the subject better carved, more detailed or realistic than it is here. The separation of the cameo is faultless, with the finely dendritic brown markings giving considerable textural depth to the subject. The depiction of the bird and its namesake flower are as realistic and as finely carved as any of the subject. The design is also thoughtfully composed on the evenly coloured ground plane.
On the other main side is a complementary subject, again using the unusual white and brown inclusions on an otherwise fairly standard honey-brown ground. The old man shown fishing is a historical figure, Lü Shang, who lived in the transitional period between the Shang and Zhou dynasties (eleventh century B.C). It is said that although he had become destitute in his old age, he still wished to serve a sagacious ruler. Having heard about the good name of King Wen of Zhou, he posed as a fisherman on the bank of the River Wei in order to observe the monarch when he passed by on a hunting trip. Before setting out, the King was advised by a diviner that the most significant result of his trip would not be the number of wild animals that he would capture, but the meeting with someone who would assist him to consolidate his empire. When the two met up at the river bank, they took a liking to each other. King Wen invited Lü Shang to return to the palace and treated him as an honourable mentor. Later, Lü also served the King's successor, King Wu. Because of his useful counselling, the Zhou succeeded in overthrowing the last Shang ruler. For his invaluable contributions, Lü Shang was enfeoffed as the head of the state of Qi. The motif of a fisherman came to imply a desire to seek recognition in a political career. It is particularly appropriate here as a complement to the significance of the cockerel and cockscomb composition of the other main side.
The rocks from which Lü Shang fishes are some of the most delightful in the medium, every bit the equal of the finest of Suzhou rock carving and even referring to that style in the use of regular serrations, although here they are more rounded and integrated into the general rock faces. Every speck of colour is effectively used with the genius we expect of this artist, including the clever use of a jagged, diagonal line of brown running from the lip down across one shoulder. By continuing it to delineate the rock face opposite the fisherman, the artist has allowed the line on the neck to be read as the continuing, more distant part of the gorge without having to carve a single stroke in it, which would have interfered with the otherwise smooth line of the neck. On one narrow side the striations that qualify this as agate are also incorporated into the vertical lines of the rock face. The hollowing is characteristically extensive and excellent for the artist and the shape, unlike his other known works.