Agate; very well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; the foot inscribed in cameo relief script guwan ('antique curio') Official School, 17301850 Height: 5.58 cm Mouth/lip: 0.7/2.01 and 1.95 cm (oval) Stopper: coral; gold collar; turquoise finial
Condition: two tiny chips to wan character on foot; otherwise, workshop condition
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong, 1999
This snuff bottle lies between the silhouette and cameo groups, demonstrating yet again the need for flexibility in considering our categories. On all the usual surfaces for snuff-bottle decoration it is an entirely plain, beautifully formed, very well hollowed, faintly banded agate, with the technical features that suggest a first-phase product of the Official School. With a rich imagination and a cask of Amontillado one might be able to conjure up a viable landscape image, particularly if one lived in an area of permanent mists, but one would need to try it out on a particularly poetic audience. Turned on end, however, the bottle is unquestionably a cameo design, albeit a cameo consisting of only two characters and the footrim. The artist has chosen to use the different colour in the material, not as the main face of the bottle but as its foot; otherwise, the method used is identical to any subject carved in cameo relief. Restrained, imaginative, and subtle, it is also as well realized as the finest of the more usual range of cameo relief chalcedony bottles.
Guwan means 'ancient curio', a rather odd inscription for the bottom of a snuff bottle. It may well be that these characters are meant to be read left to right, giving the more conventional wan gu, 'amusing oneself with antiquity'. It was an elegant pastime to 'amuse oneself' with old objects, old books, and the lofty values they represented, and the phrase could be used by the rich salt merchant posing as a scholar as well as by the scholar seeking to disguise the earnestness with which he sought to commune with the ancients. Although there is no direct reference to ancient art in this bottle, the implication was that because it was simple and elegant, representing the best of the past, it had archaic resonance. A Qing aesthete might receive this bottle as a gift from someone who knew of his interest in antiquity.
Although unusually placed on the foot here, the use of the cameo technique just for inscriptions is not otherwise unknown. Another example from the Cussons Collection, with a cameo inscription on one main side of the bottle, was offered by Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 3 May 1995, lot 477.
The stopper here is an example of a so-called 'Mongolian stopper', with its exaggeratedly tall piece of coral, of very deep, rich colour, which was the most valued kind. Actually, among such stoppers it still ranks as one of the more restrained versions. A rare feature here is the solid gold collar, as opposed to a gilt bronze one, possibly prompted by the unusually deep colour of the stone it supported and its consequently higher value.