An inscribed limonite 'Guanyin' snuff bottle. Jiang Pu, dated 1760, probably a gift to the Qianlong emperor, 6.53cm high. Sold for HK$540,000. photo Bonhams
Treasury 3, no. 390. Jiang Pu's Gift to the Emperor
Limonite; reasonably well hollowed; with an irregular flat foot; cut with seven facets to form one main side, the foot and a small panel on the other main side, and incised with a portrait of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, seated on a lotus flower floating on water, the design continuing onto the three facets of the lower main side, the panel low on the other main side inscribed in regular script with a poetic inscription, followed by 'Written by your servitor, Jiang Pu [after] washing his hands' the foot inscribed in regular script Qianlong gengchen nian ('[Made in] the year gengchen of the Qianlong period (1760)')
Jiang Pu, 1760, probably a gift to the Qianlong emperor
Mouth: 0.6 cm
Stopper: tourmaline, carved with a finial in the form of an eggplant growing from a leafy branch
Condition: nibbles to inner lip and a flake-chip off the lip itself, not obtrusive, given the rough and gnarled nature of the material; normal surface wear from use. General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: Spink & Son Ltd (London, 1965)
The D. A. Ionides Will Trust
Christie's, London, 13 June 1990, lot 527
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles No.2, p. 5
'Chinese Snuff Bottles', The Antique Collectors' Club, September 1967, vol. 2 no. 5
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 242
Kleiner 1995, no. 287
Snuff Bottles from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch (illustrated folder), Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July 1997
Treasury 3, no. 390
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997
Commentary: Limonite is an ore of iron, a brown hematite. It is always of secondary origin mineralogically, resulting from the alteration of other ores, or minerals, containing iron. It can be formed in place by the alteration of other iron minerals or be deposited from waters that have obtained their iron from a distant source. An example cited by Dana and Ford 1949, p. 505, is that waters containing iron in solution, when brought into marshy places, deposit the metal, usually in the form of limonite. This puts a damper on the delightfully romantic belief among snuff-bottle collectors that limonite is meteoric iron ore, simply because it often looks as if it has been shaped by its journey through the atmosphere. This certainly will not be the last unfounded belief we will have to abandon as we learn more about our subject, and even if we have to remove the aura of intergalactic mystery from the material, what has been done with it here has quite enough magic of its own to sustain our interest. It is not only the most spectacular limonite known, by a very long way, it is also one of the great documentary snuff bottles, where we can be certain of the precise date of manufacture and identity of both donor and recipient of the bottle. It also helps that it was almost certainly made for the Qianlong emperor, always a star turn for the snuff-bottle collector.
The signature of Jiang Pu is preceded by the character chen, an identifying device for an official. It is commonly used in this signature form, in the sense of 'I, your servant/official, Jiang Pu', only in addressing the emperor. Inscriptions on gifts to the emperor inscribed by officials almost invariably incorporate this character in front of the official's proper name, whereas it would not appear on inscriptions between officials.
The Qianlong emperor was, of course, a keen snuff taker and bottle collector, and the likes of Jiang Pu would have been constantly on the lookout for something intriguing to give to him. It would be difficult to find a more intriguing natural material than this, and at the time it may have been a considerable rarity. Only three other limonite bottles are known today, so they cannot have been made in enormous quantities. Of the other three known bottles in limonite, two share the same use of the natural stone but do not have any incising (Hui and Polak 1991, no. 134, and Hamilton 1977, p. 23, no. 0–112). There is another of the material that, although still of pebble form, is treated differently and has a silver neck (Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 28 April 1993, lot 464).
The five rhyming lines are an encomium for the Diamond Sutra:
Doubts cease and faith is born,
Phenomena are left behind and lineages transcended.
In an instant the law of men is forgotten and true Emptiness understood.
The flavour of wisdom is multi-layered,
and these four lines comprehend everything.
Good fortune and moral excellence without end.
Jiang Pu (1708–1761) was a son of the famous calligrapher and connoisseur Jiang Tingxi (1669–1732). He was a jinshi (successful examination candidate at the third and final level) of 1730 and in a distinguished official career rose in 1759 to become a Grand Secretary. After his death he was canonized by the emperor as Wenke. He was also an accomplished painter. His relationship with the Qianlong emperor can be judged by the events of 1761, when Jiang was seriously ill and the emperor summoned to the capital the famous physician Xu Dachun to attend him (see Hummel 1943, p. 323).
An inscribed limonite 'Guanyin' snuff bottle (details). Jiang Pu, dated 1760, probably a gift to the Qianlong emperor. photo Bonhams