Miscellaneana: Chinese snuff bottles
LONDON – The history of Chinese arts and crafts is a long one. During the Neolithic period for example – it stretched from the 10th to the second millennium B.C. – China’s artist potters were making pottery incised or painted with stylish geometric and linear designs that, for the time, show an amazing level of invention. In contrast, our cavemen were chasing their next meal.
By the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) the potters were producing remarkable earthenware, notably the impressive models of camels and horses placed in the tombs of the departed and with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) came the age of classic Chinese ceramics.
The secret of producing translucent, resonant and thin-bodied true porcelain had already been cracked and literally thousands of kiln sites across China were in full production.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) extravagant and sophisticated porcelain, notably the cobalt blue and white ware so popular during the era, was being exported around the world.
Oddly, the knowledge and skills of how to manufacture glass vessels came late to China, although the excellence of the country’s porcelain and glass-like glazes made up for it, at least in part.
Glass ingots were being imported to China from the Near East by the middle of the first millennium B.C. to be made into beads and other jewelry, as substitutes for rare precious and semiprecious stones, notably jade.
The techniques of decorative glassmaking were not widely known until the fifth century and even then, production tended to be for ornamental objects rather than domestic use.
During the Ming Dynasty, glass bottles vases and bowls were made from layers of colored glass, which was carved to produce cameo-like decoration.
However, it was not until the late 17th century that the first imperial glass workshops were established in Beijing. It served the court of Kangxi (1654-1722) the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
By then, the humble snuff bottle had become one of the most popular products. Portuguese traders had already introduced tobacco to the country, but smoking was declared illegal during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 ) although taking powdered tobacco in the form of snuff was permitted because it was thought to cure common illnesses.
The upper classes quickly adopted the habit and when techniques were mastered for cutting and modelling jade and hardstones such as agate, quartz, cornelian and amethyst, decorative snuff bottles, sized to sit in the palm of the hand and sumptuous enough to impress in social circles, became de rigeur.
Early porcelains, examples were decorated in green, iron red, rose pink and yellow glazes, or to given them their correct titles, respectively famille verte, famille noire, famille rose and famille jaune.
Decoration was as varied as the boundless imagination of the craftsmen who fashioned them. Motifs included mythological scenes and symbolic creatures, immortals, women, landscapes, birds, fish and flowers.
Agate snuff bottles examples are among the most delightful – and valuable. Their beauty lies partly in the color of the stone, which varies from light blue to black.
However, another factor becomes apparent only with an appreciation of the way in which the extremely hard material was carved and fashioned. Using a hand-worked bow drill, the carvers must have spent hours cutting away the stone using abrasive powder and water.
One way to date an agate bottle is to examine the hole drilled into it to hold the snuff. If it is narrow and leads to a well-hollowed internal chamber, usually extending to the shoulders of the bottle, it’s early. If, on the other hand, it’s wide, straight and crudely carved, it’s late.
The acid test is to see whether or not the bottle will float in water. If it does, it indicates the bottle was made by a craftsman capable of making it hollow enough without shattering. That quality of work takes the kind of care and patience that soon became uneconomical.
Another fascination of hardstone bottles is the way in which natural blemishes in the stone were adapted and incorporated in designs on the exterior.
By contrast, porcelain snuff bottles were relatively simple to make, although they are nonetheless attractive and valuable additions to a collection.
Among the best are those bearing enamels applied by Cantonese craftsmen.
Rather than being blown like other early glass, snuff bottles were fashioned from solid blocks of glass, shaped and hollowed by hours of painstaking cutting and grinding.
Often these blocks comprised several different layers of colored glass, which were blended together in molten state to simulate the more valuable and sought- after hardstone snuff bottles. Tell the difference by touching the bottle with your tongue: glass feels that little bit colder.
Others were carved to remove one layer of colored glass to reveal another color beneath, producing a cameo effect. They were made by extremely skilled craftsmen and are highly desirable to today’s collectors.
Another speciality, particularly of the Beijing workshops, features the art of inside or back-painting in which the interior of the transparent bottle is painted with enamels from the outside. They are a tour de force.
They feature incredibly detailed miniature landscapes, flowers, animals and genre scenes, made all the more remarkable because they are painted on a tiny surface, the artist working through the even tinier neck of the bottle.
They are still being made today in Beijing and we were lucky enough to watch them being painted when I visited the country.
The skills have been handed down through generations of artists but it takes many years of “apprenticeship” before children are considered adept enough to take over a family workshop.
Using real hair brushes, sometimes with only two or three strands, the decoration is slowly worked up over the inside surfaces, the artist working, in effect, from back to front and inside out.
Naturally enough, impressed tourists like us are snapping up these miniature works of art and they continue to flood into the West. Today’s collectors looking for antique internal decorated glass snuff bottles need to be wary. The uncertain should buy only from sources where the product is guaranteed.
Try to put new and old bottles side by side. The differences should be obvious. However clever and skilled the new painters might be, few can match the excellence of their forefathers.
As for prices, it is obviously possible to pay well into four figures for particularly good or rare examples. However, simpler ones can be found around the £100 – £150 mark.
Above all, watch out for modern fakes, there’s a lot about. Glass snuff bottles are among the most common, but beware of possible attempts to imitate agate in all its different colors.
By CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE