Probably Imperial, attributable to the palace workshops, Beijing, 1730-1780 5.71cm high.
Treasury 1, no. 94
A nephrite 'archaistic motif' snuff bottle
Nephrite with artificial colour; very well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed foot; carved with a continuous band of archaistic meandering lines, broken by mask-and-ring handles, the surface with overall staining Probably imperial, attributable to the palace workshops, Beijing, 17301780 Height: 5.71 cm Mouth/lip: 0.64/2.02 cm Stopper: coral; turquoise collar
Condition: Some small scratches to the surface from wear; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Reif Collection Christie's, New York, 18 October 1993, lot 70
Exhibited: British Museum, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1997
The style of carving, choice of motifs, form, and quality of this bottle reflect Qianlong imperial taste, although to what extent these features may have been derived from earlier imperial taste is uncertain. Kangxi- and Yongzheng-marked hardstone carvings are extremely rare. There is a danger, therefore, of lumping everything that is known to represent Qing imperial taste into the Qianlong reign. By doing this we will, doubtless, be correct most of the time, but there will be exceptions when what appears to be a Qianlong imperial hardstone carving without a mark may date from the Yongzheng period, or possibly even the Kangxi period. Archaism may have been beloved of the Qianlong emperor, but it was also standard to the repertoire of other Qing rulers, particularly the Kangxi emperor, who set the standard with his scholarship and intensely Confucian approach to ruling. Ancient forms, decorative motifs and styles were adopted as standards for Qing production from the Kangxi period onwards, and with a particular passion by the Qianlong emperor (see Yang Boda 1992).
Several features distinguish this example as of imperial taste, probably coming from the palace workshops at Beijing during the Qianlong period. Apart from the archaistic motifs, so popular on imperial production of the period, the device of a single archaistic band set horizontally around the bottle just above the centre line, often broken by small, finely carved mask handles with small, circular rings, is found on a number of bottles associated with the Qianlong imperial facilities and probably mostly made at the palace workshops. They may be found, for instance, in Geng and Zhao 1992, no. 267 (in the yellow nephrite beloved of the Qianlong emperor) and no. 274; and Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 34 (for a Qianlong-marked grey-and-white nephrite bottle) and no. 36 (for one in yellow nephrite), both with the horizontal band of archaic decoration but no mask-and-ring handles; and in the Claar Collection (Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 2 December 1969, lot 139, a white nephrite example rather similar to this one in form and decoration).
The mask-and-ring handles themselves are of the style preferred by the court during the early phase of snuff bottle production, being small, very well carved with distinctive individuality, and having small, circular rings. This bottle also has a lip at the upper neck, which is a feature of a number of hardstone bottles attributable to imperial workshops (see discussion under Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 34). It is understated here, and not as broad as usual, but nonetheless apparent. The crisp, confidently carved footrim also appears on bottles from the palace workshops from the early phase of snuff bottle manufacture. Together, these features provide convincing evidence of an imperial product.
Here, the surface of an otherwise dull and slightly flawed piece of nephrite has been stained with a pleasing pattern of brown flecking, which makes it look like ancient pebble material and greatly enhances its surface appeal. The staining of nephrite was popular as a means of enhancing pebble material long before the Qing dynasty and, after mining became a popular alternative source for nephrite from the late-Ming dynasty onwards, even for making flawless mined material appear to have come from a pebble or boulder source.
Nowhere on a snuff bottle from the Qing imperial workshops is an archaic motif better executed than here. Not only is the design superbly laid out with constant variation of its elements and a perfect formal balance between them, but the execution itself is faultless, with the doubled lines standing with great fluency in low relief against an extraordinarily well-finished ground plane.