This beautiful white jade snuff bottle exemplifies several characteristics of the Qianlong reign (1736-95) - Imperial interest in jade carving, Imperial fascination with snuff bottles as works of art, and Imperial love of antiques leading to increased use of archaistic styles in the arts of the Qing court.
The shape of this bottle appears to have been evolved from late Shang dynasty (11th century BC) bronze fanglei ritual vessels, like the magnificent example sold in our New York Rooms on 20 March 2001 (lot 156). While the ancient bronze vessels do not have rings at each upper corner, like the current jade bottle, their extravagant flanges often have an extension at the upper corners, as in the case of the Ya Fu fanglei in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (illustrated by Chen Peifeng in 'The Chinese Bronze Gallery', Arts of Asia Vol. 27, No. 3, May-June, 1997, p. 61, pl. 7). On the small jade vessel, the profile has been simplified, the protruding mask handles have been omitted, and the mouth aperture has been rounded.
The archaic bronze vessel stands on a high square foot, which is decorated in similar style to the rest of the vessel. The 18th century jade bottle, while retaining the square plan of the foot, adopts a typically Qianlong device of carving the high foot in the form of an integral stand. A surprisingly large proportion of Chinese decorative arts were intended to be shown on stands, as can be seen in informal Qing court portraits. These stands could be made in a number of different materials, but hardwoods were the most popular. In the Qianlong reign craftsmen working at the Imperial workshops made some decorative arts with integral stands. One example is a porcelain vase for hanging in an Imperial sedan chair, now in the Percival David Foundation (illustrated by R. Scott in For the Imperial Court -Qing Porcelain from the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, American Federation of Arts, New York and Sun Tree Publishing, Singapore/London, 1997, pp. 52-3, no. 3) which was made for the Qianlong Emperor by the famous Tang Ying. This hanging vase, which bears a poetic Qianlong inscription dated to AD 1742, has an integral porcelain stand painted to look like gilt decorated wood. Like the stand incorporated into the jade bottle, the porcelain stand has a low foot at each corner, but the jade bottle stand has additional pendant panels. In fact on close inspection it can be seen that the lapidary was so loath to waste any of the beautiful white jade that he merely recessed the area around the feet and pendants rather than cutting it away. This approach to conserving the precious stone can be seen on a white jade snuff bottle in the J & J Collection, which appears to stand in a tightly-fitting bird-shaped holder, which is integral to the bottle (illustrated in The Art of the Chinese Snuff Bottle - The J & J Collection, Weatherhill, New York/Tokyo, 1993, pp. 50-51, no. 12).
An interesting comparison can also be made with a Qianlong cloisonné enamel vase sold in these Rooms on 9th December 1985 (lot 234). This shares the square section of the jade bottle, but has ring handles centrally placed on four shoulders, and simplified form closer to the bronze fanghu vessels of the Han dynasty. Both the jade and the cloisonné vessel are decorated with designs derived from ancient bronzes. A similar approach to decoration as that seen on the current jade bottle, employing a single band of simplified archaistic designs can be seen on a white jade bottle in the Bloch collection, which also has small ring handles on the shoulder (see: A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles - The Mary and George Bloch Collection, Vol. 1, Herald International, Hong Kong, 1995, pp. 204-5, no. 83). While the latter bottle has only two rings, another jade bottle in the Bloch collection (ibid. pp. 208-9, no. 85) has four, like the current white jade bottle. The four-ring Bloch bottle, like two others in the same collection bearing archaistic decoration (ibid., pp. 228-9 and 256-7, nos. 94 and 105 respectively) is attributed to the Imperial workshops and dated to the Qianlong period.
The sedan chair vase is decorated with a ground of minutely painted feather scrolls, which have also been applied to a double gourd-shaped snuff bottle also in the David Foundation collection (ibid., p. 58, no. 7). This porcelain bottle is identical to another in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. These enamelled porcelain Imperial bottles share with the current jade bottle tiny ring handles on its shoulders. In keeping with its form, the porcelain bottle has only two handles, while the jade bottle has four to complement its shape.
The current jade bottle is in keeping with two important jade themes of the 18th century, particularly the Qianlong reign. Archaic bronze forms were often a source of inspiration for the Qing lapidaries as can be seen in many examples preserved from the court collection in The Palace Museum, Beijing (see The Complete Collection of the Palace Museum - Jadeware III, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1995). The Qing court also seems to have had a special appreciation of white jade snuff bottles (ibid., pp. 232-5, nos. 188-91).