Japan, 1854-1920 Sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 6.48cm high.
Treasury 7, no. 1711
A lac-burgauté 'phoenix' snuff bottle
Brass, gold and silver foil, abalone shell, and black lacquer (of the variety known as lac-burgauté); with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; decorated with an inlaid design of abalone shell and gold and silver foil on a black lacquer ground, on each main side with an almost identical design of a fenghuang in flight, its profusion of long tail-feathers spread out around it like a halo, framed with a band of abalone-shell alternating triangles; the narrow sides, neck, and outer footrim decorated with a formalized floral diaper design, the foot, footrim, and lip all brass Japan, 18541920 Height: 6.48 cm Mouth/lip: 0.5/1.72 cm Stopper: wood, abalone shell, silver foil, and black lacquer, with a formalized pattern, made from half a bead; gilt bronze collar Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart
Condition: wear to lip and footrim; chip out of black enamel on edge of circular frame low on one side at 8 o'clock with some abalone shell missing (8.o cm long, with a crack extending up the edge from either end along the edge, the longer one about 2 cm going upwards); the chip obtrusive, the cracks not; small circular abrasion low on one main side, at 7 0'clock on the same side as the chip. Stopper: flattened and rough at the top, suggesting a missing finial. General relative condition: very good
Provenance: Spink & Son Ltd, London, 1966 Sotheby's, London, 6 June 1988, lot 268
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles, No. 4, p. 7, lower-left Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 285 Treasury 7, no. 1711
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994January 1995
This magnificent design, with its seriously over-the-top fenghuang showing off its tail with great pride, was one of a pair of identical bottles made prior to 1931. The other is in the Drummond Collection in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, where it is in the company of a dozen other fine Japanese lac-burgauté bottles. The Drummond bottle has what appears to be its original, lac-burgauté stopper, which allowed us to match one for the present example, which had lost its original; it is made from half a Chinese lac-burgauté bead and set on a Chinese gilt-bronze collar.
This is one of a group of exceptional lac-burgauté bottles from Japan that are among the best ever produced in terms of artistry, design, and technical control. Some are on a wood ground, others on a thin metal ground, as here, but the control of the medium is always spectacular, with very detailed designs finished to perfection. The method of constructing these designs can be guessed at by a microscopic examination of the surface. The wood or metal surface of the bottle was first covered with a beige lacquer ground (apparent from a tiny chip at the edge here and from similar damage to other examples we have examined); once that was dry, the various segments were stuck to its surface. These segments were very thin, barely measurable without a micrometre, as is obvious from the indentations left when they are missing. Once the pieces were all stuck in place, the entire surface was covered with black lacquer, and when that was dry, the whole thing was polished down to reveal the inlays on the same flat plane as the lacquer. The assumption that the sections of foil and shell were laid down first, before the black lacquer ground was added, is supported by the astonishing smoothness of the finished surface, but it is also proven by some minor details, particularly on curves or where one plane meets another at the edge of the bottle. Although extraordinary care was taken to remove any black lacquer from the inlays, occasionally in these unimportant and difficult areas it is obvious that the section is still buried at its edges beneath the black lacquer.
The inlays are all fragments of abalone shell, gold, and silver foil. Abalone shell iridesces with a far greater and more spectacular range of colour than mother-of-pearl and was favoured by Japanese lac-burgauté makers. It is easy to see why, even from this lone example, where most of the body of the bird is made up only of segments of abalone shell. They are cut from different parts of the shell to give the maximum variation in colour (blue, bright green, and purple, with each changing its colour and shimmering in reflected light as it is handled, adding purplish-pink iridescence to the range). Some of these fragments are fairly large sections, specifically cut for a particular part of the design (here, for instance, the body and feathers of the bird, excluding the fancy tail-feathers, consisting of about twenty separate sections). Others are simple, geometric repetitions, often quite tiny. While some of the exuberant tail-feathers are specifically cut to shape, other parts of them are made from a series of repeated strips of shell or foil laid side by side. The formalized floral design of the narrow sides is made from a series of only two basic shapes: an elongated, pointed oval made of abalone shell, and a tiny rhomboid of gold foil. The repetitive sections were likely prepared and cut by assistants, since their preparation required a keen eye and a steady hand but a minimum of artistic skill.
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