Royal patronage in China nourished art, even if it was generated by peculiar foibles. RUPA GOPAL on the making of snuff bottles.
The Qianlong Emperor's faceted enamel, on copper with a European lady design, height 4 cm.
IT is a strange truth that good does come out of bad, inevitably. So too in the case of snuff brought by the Spanish and Portugese to Asia, and the Chinese court in the 17th Century, during the reign of the Kangxi emperor. Strangely enough, the Jesuits brought such a gift, and the generous act resulted in some of the loveliest artistic creations in the making of snuff bottles of varied design, at the behest of the emperor. The palace workshops worked overtime, to produce miniature marvels, to carry the growing fad of striking a pose with snuff. The artisans used enamel, jade, ivory, glass, bronze and ceramic. The creative height in this art form reached its peak in China, in the 18th Century. All special occasions were marked with presents of beautiful snuff bottles, and were also used to gain favours from senior officials.
The elite literati too adopted the fashion, and greatly influenced the designs. An ever-growing range of designs, shapes and mediums used kept the production alive.
The most precious
Enamelled snuff bottles on copper or glass, were the most precious, made by the Imperial Palace between 1700 to 1760. The Qing Emperor received many gifts of snuffboxes and enamelled watches from Europe. Such was his fascination with these gifts that he called upon Jesuit priests Castigliani, Poirot, Attiret and Damascene to work in the palace workshops. Costly enamels were imported from Europe, and the Emperor would generously reward the craftsmen with silver, if pleased with the output.
The copper bottle with the design of a European lady on each side is a masterpiece of Chinese enamelled art. This sort of enamel work on a faceted metal body was copied from the enamelled European watches.
Enamel on glass was more rare and difficult to do, as the two mediums had different heat tolerance levels. Guangzhou became an important centre for enamelling, as by now the palace workshops were unable to cope with the huge demand for the bottles.
The Chinese knew Glass making even in 206 B.C. It was the Qing dynasty that produced marvels in glass, with Father Stumpf, a Bavarian priest, establishing glass works near the Forbidden City, in 1696. Imperial glass snuff bottles were blown and suffused with metallic oxides, leading to a fine range of colours and patterns. Faceted glass was very popular. Glass overlay patterning was also developed. Milk white backgrounds were given patterns of signatures, seals and inscriptions, and looked like Chinese paintings.
Portrait of Prince Su, on glass inside, around 1911, height 5.9 cm.
Painting on the inside of snuff bottles made of rock crystal or glass was a great Qing innovation. Typical Chinese mountain landscapes, as well as portraits were done meticulously, breathtaking in their perfection.
Porcelain became the material of the masses, and bottles were made in sets of 10 or 20, as presentation articles for visiting dignitaries. Slip decoration was developed, where the actual clay used in the main body was diluted, to be applied on like oil paint, with a spatula.
Organic snuff bottles
Organic snuff bottles were made from bamboo, cinnabar lacquer and dried gourd. Amber, hornbill, black coral and ivory were all used to make lasting objects of great beauty. Nephrite and jadeite, the former in colours of white, yellow, russet and green were used in the making of unique little bottles. Jade is actually valued higher than gold by the Chinese. The Emperor Qianlong is probably the greatest jade collector in history, and he often had the Imperial insignia inscribed on the jade bottles.
Yellow porcelain, enamelled with floral designs, probably 1862-1883, height 7.2 cm.
Precious and semiprecious stones were also experimented with, especially in the making of chalcedony bottles. Fossiliferous limestone too was made use of. Ruby and sapphire were used in rare creations, leading to extremely precious heirlooms.
Royal patronage in China certainly had an aesthetic edge, so essential to the nourishment of art, even if generated by peculiar foibles.
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