Jet; with concave lip and recessed foot surrounded by a protruding flattened footrim; carved in relief on one main side with a long-tailed bird perched on a branch of blossoming camellia, and on the other with a poetic inscription in relief seal script referring to the subject, followed by two seals in relief seal script, Yi and zhai Yizhai, 17401880 Height: 5.44 cm Mouth/lip: 0.54/2.06 cm Stopper: coral; silver collar
Condition: overall softening of the relief through use; long, but very shallow scratch across the lip; a few other minor, shallow scratches
Provenance: Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1987)
Published: Tsang and Moss 1986, no. 47 Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 252 Treasury 7, no. 1604
Exhibited: Fung Ping Shan Museum, OctoberDecember 1986 Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994January 1995
When published in Tsang and Moss 1986, the present bottle was associated with Kang Tao (zi: Yizhai, hao: Shizhou, Tiandu laoren), the eighteenth-century scholar, painter, and calligrapher from whom works of art (although no snuff bottles) are extant dated as early as 1726 and as late as 1755. Research since that publication suggests that such scholarly involvement in snuff bottles is more likely to date from the mid- to late- Qing period, and the association between this bottle and Kang Tao is made less likely by the identification of other bottles from the same hand, one of which can be dated more firmly to the mid-Qing period. In any case, the link with Kang Tao was proposed only because he adopted the alternative name Yizhai. This is the sort of evidence that should, ideally, be corroborated before being taken too seriously, since many of the artistic names adopted by the literati were used by more than one person over the centuries, and with the more common range of names it is possible that several scholars adopted the same name.
For example, an official named Shuai Yuanyi (1817 1857) used the name Yizhai. We have skimmed through his 206 surviving poems without finding this couplet. That in itself does not mean he is not the author of this couplet, but he did die somewhat before the height of the literati snuff bottle trend.
Another literatus from the Qing dynasty who adopted the name Yizhai lived when such scholarly bottles are more likely to have been made. He is Li Wen'an (zi: Yizhai), a Qing literatus from Dantu (modern-day Zhenjiang), in Jiangsu province. At the end of the Tongzhi reign, in the 1870s, he was noted for donating large sums of money to rebuild dykes after flooding occurred in the lower Yangzi region. He is recorded as a painter, skilled at flower painting, who worked in the style of the early-Qing master Yun Shouping (16331690). Interestingly, he seems to have been the father of Li Peisong (Yunting), whom we have mentioned often as a patron of Yangzhou glass-overlay snuff bottles (see, for example, Sale 3, lot 92). The Yangzhou huayuan lu [Record from the Garden of Paintings in Yangzhou; preface dated the twelfth month of Guangxu 9, i.e., the last three days of 1883 or January 1884], in its sketch of Li Wen'an in juan 4, says 'his son Yunting took out and showed over ten fans that he had painted'.
But before we seize on Li Wen'an as our artist, we must remind ourselves that a scene accompanied by inscriptions and names might have been transferred onto the bottle from an exemplar in another medium, and the names could belong to that original, not to the carver of the bottle at hand. If we knew that our jet artist had copied a painting by Kang Tao, for example, we would not be surprised to find the name Yizhai on the bottle. When each bottle in a group bears a one-off signature, we are particularly open to the suggestion that those signatures are coming from different originals taken as models. Once we discover a group of similar bottles linked by the use of a single name or series of connected names, on the other hand, we are on safer ground in assuming that the names are those of the carver, and not of some earlier example he followed.
As more and more of these rare literati bottles are recorded and studied, we may expect further evidence that will allow us to identify beyond a doubt many more of the artists involved, but in the meantime we must accept that while great strides have been made in accurately identifying the makers of these literati snuff bottles, we still have a long way to go.
As with all of these bottles, the carving here is exceptional, the design well composed and executed, and the seal-script calligraphy entirely literate and convincing. Jet is a soft material, but the extent of wear here is even and reasonably extensive, manifesting in the softening of all relief surfaces (visible under high magnification as a series of random scratches built up over the centuries into a soft, satiny patination). It is commensurate with either an eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century date of production.
We have revised our translation of the inscription:
Red strings all dewy, the lovely light is charming; Brocade and mascara in the breeze, the nature of the bird is quiet.
'Red strings' in poetry often refers to a stringed instrument, generally in the context of a lovely woman. But it is also a type of rare stone from Shandong used to make small inkstonesand it can even mean the karmic bond that binds husband and wife, though this meaning is surely inappropriate here. 'Brocade and mascara', jindai, is a phrase we have not found elsewhere. (The artist here has used a particularly rare form of the character dai, but we are certain of our identification.) We would guess that the phrase describes a beautifully dressed woman, but in the context of the bird on the other side of the bottle and the one in the rest of the line, one wonders whether it describes a colourfully marked bird. The last character, which we have read tian, ('quiet', 'at ease'), has its left and right elements reversed, which is not an uncommon 'twist' for a creative calligrapher, but we have not found another example of this particular character being treated this way. Still, in terms of meaning and of the meter of the couplet, our identification of the character is quite secure.