Colourless glaze on cobalt on porcelain; with a convex lip and recessed flat foot with a convex footrim; painted under the glaze with a continuous design of a five-clawed Imperial dragon emerging from formalized clouds and emitting vapour from its mouth over a group of five smaller five-clawed Imperial dragons emerging from formalized waves, the scales, the eyes of the larger beast, and the edges of some clouds picked out in a thicker pigment that has oxidised to a blackish brown colour at the surface; the foot inscribed in underglaze-blue regular script, Jiaozi shengtian ('Teach sons to ascend to Heaven') Probably Imperial, Jingdezhen, 18401900 Height: 8.7 cm Mouth/lip: 0.70/1.42 cm Stopper: glass, carved with a coiled chi dragon
The rather harsh quality of the blue and the manner in which it has fired suggest that this is a late-Qing product. Although the strict cylindricality of the form might support an earlier date, the nature of the paste (biscuit porcelain), the thick footrim, and the slight clumsiness of the potting of the neck all suggest it is unlikely to be any earlier than the second half of the century. If it was made for the court, as is suggested by the subject, it might be from the last quarter of the century; until the Taiping Rebellion ended in 1864, orders for wares and the wares themselves probably did not travel easily between Beijing and Jingdezhen.
In compensation for whatever minor formal shortcomings it may have, this is one of the rarest dragon designs on blue-and-white snuff bottles known. The intended message is driven home unequivocally by the four-character inscription on the foot: 'Teach sons to ascend to Heaven' refers to the emperor bringing up his sons to be potential emperors. These parties are represented by the fully grown dragon and the five smaller dragons emerging from the waves beneath him. Such a bottle dating from the second half of the century is a trifle ironic, since after the death of the Xianfeng emperor in 1861 the powerful Empress Dowager limited her son, the Tongzhi emperor, and his successor, the Guangxu emperor (her adoptive son), to purely cosmetic and ceremonial roles as rulers. Such a subject from late in the Qing dynasty is either seditious or wistful or wistfully seditious. The dynasty was drawing inevitably to its close, but the court refused to do anything substantial to avert disaster. In the face of pressure from the great powers of Europe greedy to exploit Chinese wealth and markets, the court simply carried on as if the dynasty would last forever, suspecting and suppressing reform movements.
The drawing, if somewhat harshly fired (as was typical of the time), is spirited and unlike any others we have seen: particularly unusual formalized clouds fill almost the entire surface around the large dragon with vibrant wavy bands of white and blue, with only a few areas filled with washes of blue between them. In an unusual and effective counterpoint to this, the scales of the dragons have been dabbed with particularly thick cobalt that breached the surface of the glaze during firing and oxidized to brown. The resulting texture is rarely seen on blue-and-white bottles, although the effect had been both known and understood since early in the Qing dynasty, when fifteenth-century blue-and-white wares on which it was common were copied at Jingdezhen for the court.
Another hint of this snuff bottle's late date lies in the carelessness with which the design splashes over the rather shaky border line around the base of the neck. The undecorated neck atop the fully decorated body provides another clue, for the plain neck had become standard by the last decades of the century. Had he not been influenced by that prevailing style, the designer might have continued the clouds up the neck to greater effect. But surely we should be grateful that he produced so intriguing a painting in the first place, and set aside our cavilling about the details of its neck design.