An ivory and lacquer 'elephant and dragon' snuff bottle
School of the Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 Sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 6.4 cm high.
Treasury 7, no. 1685
An ivory and lacquer 'elephant and dragon' snuff bottle
Ivory, red pigment, and cinnabar -red, two tones of green, and yellow-ochre lacquer; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; the ivory bottle inset on four sides with a four-colour lacquer panel, those on the two main sides with yellow-ochre on two tones of green on red and those on the narrow sides with red on two tones of green on yellow-ochre, the lower neck and upper foot also with layered four-colour lacquer, one main-side panel carved in varying relief with a deity with an elaborate headdress, holding a scroll in one hand and a ruyi sceptre in the other while riding on a dragon flying in front of a bank of formalized clouds over a background of formalized waves, with a foreshore of flat ground, decorated with a formalized floral diaper and trimmed with rocks and foliage, on which two acolytes stand, one holding a leaf-shaped fan and a banner on a pole, the other offering a dish with three spherical objects on it, possibly pearls, the other main side with a similar-looking deity on an elephant, holding a staff or rod in one hand and another spherical object in the other while two acolytes stand on the ground, one holding a banner on a pole and reaching up towards the deity with one hand, the other offering a dish with three spherical objects, possibly intended here as fruit, on a ground of formalized waves, with a foreshore similar to the other side, but with the addition of a perforated rock formation and a plantain; each narrow-side panel carved with a fenghuang, one shown standing among flowering peonies and other foliage against a formalized wave ground, the other perched on a rocky foreground in front of a willow tree and other foliage, also against a formalized wave ground; each of the panels with its own thin lacquer frame, the surrounding ivory carved at the shoulders with two five-clawed imperial dragons, placed so that their heads can also be read as mask handles, against a formalized wave ground that extends down to the base, where it becomes more turbulent; the lacquer neck-band carved as two tones of green formalized waves between an upper dotted red band and a lower dotted yellow-ochre band; the upper footrim with a similar design but with the two-toned green wave band enclosed between an upper yellow-ochre band of formalized petals and a lower plain red band; the foot inscribed in seal script, Qianlong yuzhi (Made by imperial command of the Qianlong emperor), filled with red pigment School of the Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 Height: 6.4 cm Mouth/lip: 0.69/1.6 cm Stopper: red, two tones of green, and yellow-ochre lacquer, and ivory, carved with a formalized floral design; amber finial; brass collar Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart
Condition: age cracks in the ivory, one running centrally down from the neck , one running toward the foot on the same side; both have been filled and restored; some minor nibbles to the base of the ivory rectangular frame, again on the same side; minor nibbling of lacquer round the neck; the lacquer panels themselves in remarkably good condition
Provenance: Sotheby's, New York, 15 March 1984, lot 293 Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1988)
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994January 1995
The identification of the deities here presents the usual problems, and we find the usual anomaly of having a five-clawed imperial dragon associated not with the emperor but with a specific deity. The elaborate coiffeurs with bird-shaped headdresses might suggest female deities. They may be intended as Guanyin, among whose thirty-three possible manifestations in Japanese mythology is one where she is known as Ryuzu and associated with a dragon. Avalokitesvara can be seen over the centuries in China to gradually evolve from a male deity into the Goddess of Mercy. As a rule, however, she is not shown with the typical fenghuang headdress associated with nobility, but with a figure of the spiritual father, Amitabha, in her tiara.
There is no confusion about the extraordinary quality of the workmanship. Among all of the lacquer and ivory group, this stands out as the epitome. It has a dark green layer added to the usual pine-needle green. The extraordinary detail of the layered lacquer bands at neck and foot also speaks of an unusual level of commitment in a group where artistic commitment is a standard and the spectacular is expected as a matter of course. An intriguing feature of this bottle is that, although the extra layer of green is used on the narrow-side panels and on the neck and foot details to good advantage, it is almost ignored on the main panels. On the narrow-side panels, the two different colours of green effectively define two types of foliage, whereas on the main-side panels, the dark green is simply an under layer to the paler green and is only visible as a layered change in colour where the green is cut all the way down to the red ground. This seems to confirm a fairly obvious conclusion: that the lacquer panels were made separately, perhaps ordered from a local specialist lacquer workshop. Once delivered to the Imperial Master or his workshop, they would have been carved, then inserted into the bottle, and it would perhaps be only when the carver was working out his precise design that he would decide that there was no advantage to be had from the extra layer of green for the main-side panel designs, as there was for the narrow sides.
In this case, the ivory remains uncoloured; its whiteness is as pure as any ancient ivory in the snuff-bottle world. It is only slightly yellowed around the lip and inner neck and on the foot. To cap his extraordinary effort, the carver has added, instead of the usual reign mark, a Yuzhi mark, implying a specific imperial order. Being as apocryphal as the standard reign mark, of course, this means no more than that the carver pulled out all the stops in order to make a bottle that was intended to represent a particularly imperial bottle. Indeed, one might say it is the 'crowning' touch to a spectacular carving.
As with the stoppers of certain related lacquer bottles that include ivory as a component material, the stopper here has the brass disc typical of those made only from lacquer, instead of the ivory collar so often found on combination bottles. Sale 3, lot 86, is another example of this. The stopper matches the virtuoso performance of the bottle, with its four colours of lacquer well used to depict a flower in bloom and the yellow amber finial at its centre exquisitely mounted in a tiny, barely necessary, ivory setting framed with a series of raised dots. When the Imperial Master (or his school) spared no expense of material or time in producing his masterpieces, the results are outstanding. The stopper alone here is an astonishing combination of design and craftsmanship.
For a related bottle, also with four panels inlaid, see Lawrence 1996, no. 16, and for a tapering rectangular version, Hall 1990, no. 89.