By John N. Cohen
Everyone will I am sure appreciate well hollowed stone antique Chinese snuff bottles, once handled, as the lovely shapes and purity of the stones used just cannot fail to impress. One would imagine that the approach would have been to avoid any inclusions or flaws, and to form the bottle from only the best parts of the stone. This often was the case. But what I find even more fascinating, is the amazing way they deliberately and brilliantly, took advantage of natural flaws and inclusions often found present in these stones.
Most quartz and jade stones have an outer layer of a different colour, particularly the pebbles from the riverbeds. They also have faults and flaws plus other coloured material, often deep in the stone. Sometimes these can be very thin skin-like inclusions, whilst in others large chunks are found.
When one considers that no one knows just what is inside any of these rocks until, as the cuts are made and the secrets of the stone are revealed, they discover how pure, or otherwise, the stone really is. It is with the stones that have inclusions or flaws that ‘Picture Agate’ snuff bottles are made. The best of these incredible bottles, once completed, manage to make the inclusion, that forms the image, look as if it has appeared in just the right place as if to order!
There are different types of work within this group of snuff bottles and the first ones are what we call ‘Cameo’ carvings. These take advantage of any outer skin or blob type of inclusion (of a different colour); they can be quite thick and are carved in relief. Another type is called ‘Shadow Agates’ and these take advantage of markings in the stone where, with the help of only a little carving, an image is created. Lastly, the most fascinating ones are called ‘Silhouette Agates’ but in this group no apparent carving is required. The image is achieved mainly by the angle and choice of shape, as well as the size and position of the bottle to be formed out of the rock so that the inclusion becomes an image. These bottles have to be seen to be believed.
What is really mind blowing to me is the fact that there are even some of these bottles with pictures on both sides!
Sadly, few of them were signed. We only know that there was a certain school of carvers known as the ‘Suzhou School’. Their works are easily recognised by the style and quality of the carving, plus the fact that they make use of every mark in the stone to form the picture. They are amazing bottles when good, but there are many later works that tend to look too stiff and the carving lacks the more fluid artistic touch of the master carvers. Unfortunately, hardly any of these bottles are really well hollowed.
Our First Chinese Snuff bottle
So to describe my first purchase, this was a ‘Shadow Agate picture bottle’ involving a little carving, and very well hollowed. It is a most appropriate subject and colour for a snuff bottle because the russet inclusions have been used to show ‘Putai Ho-Shang’. He is always depicted as a very corpulent man with a bare chest and abdomen and he is the patron saint of tobacconists. In this bottle he appears surprised by a bat whilst sitting below some tobacco leaves. The bat to the Chinese is a good luck symbol. You can see how easily he appears, nicely placed within the bottle yet only his head and a suggestion of his hand have been carved. (See the photograph by using the link at the bottom of this article).
We now own a number of ‘Picture Agates’ and to illustrate the different types described, the photograph of the Duck with Lingzhi fungus in its beak is a good ‘Silhouette’ example. Incidentally, the fungus is a symbol for wishing long life. This bottle is very unusual as there is a recess carved originally to create the image that serves as a built in dish. (See the photograph by using the link at the bottom of this article).
Lastly, a superb bottle of fishes with pictures on both sides: the pair of fishes on one side are ‘Cameo’ carved and to the Chinese represent fidelity and happy conjugal rights in marriage. On the other side a fish and aquatic plants make use of every mark in the stone, all this on a well shaped bottle that is very well hollowed. All these bottles illustrated were made between 1750 and 1860. (See the photograph by using the link at the top of this article).
To effectively judge hard stone snuff bottles, the first consideration should be concerned with the overall artistic impression. You need to be satisfied that the work looks well composed and well positioned and that the images formed are flowing rather than stiff and awkward. The next stage is to have a closer look at the technical skills. When I look at a cameo type of carving I study the shape and finish of the background, close to the edge of the carving. On poorer bottles this can be indented, uneven and not so well polished as the rest. Really fine examples look as if the raised cameo part has somehow been glued onto a beautifully formed bottle. Engraved work at its best is very precise and provides the detail. When closely looking (under magnification) at a poor bottle these engraved parts can look very crude.