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A carved rhinoceros horn libation cup, 17th century. Photo Sotheby's

of slender tapering form resting on a slightly spreading foot, the exterior carved in various levels of relief with multi-storied pavilions and distant figures nestled amongst trees and leafy bushes in a landscape with cragged rocks and billowing clouds, the handle carved and pierced in the form of two gnarled trees with umbrella-like clusters of pine needles extending up the side and curling over the rim, the horn of dark chocolate brown tone with a lighter toffee-coloured tone at the rim; 14.7cm., 5 3/4 in. Estimate 120,000-180,000 GBP

Although rhinoceros horn cups decorated with figures in landscape are readily found, the present vessel is unusual for the amount of detail included in the design. The carver has treated his material as a canvas, and has taken inspiration from contemporary scroll paintings of architectural nature. The many pavilions and buildings found behind the city wall are expertly positioned around the rim and upper body of the vessel where there is sufficient space for the design. In the continuous landscape below, scholars can be seen pursuing leisurely activities in an idyllic setting; for example, strolling amongst the beautiful scenery of rocks and trees. The overall effect is one of gentle calmness which also manifests itself in the simple yet elegant carving style employed by the artist.

See a cup carved with figures in a landscape setting, but the carving in high relief, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carving, Shanghai, 2001, pl. 201, attributed to the mid-Qing period; four early examples decorated with figural landscapes, ibi., pls 145-148; and a cup from the collection of Franklin Chow sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2011, lot 2714, where the handle is fashioned in the form of a dragon depicted climbing up the side of the vessel and peering over the lip. Compare also a vessel by master carver Zhou Wenshu, carved with a landscape based on a painting, in the collection of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, included in Jan Chapman, 'The Chester Beatty Collection of Chinese Carved Rhinoceros Horn Cups', Arts of Asia, May-June 1982, p. 78, fig. 16.

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A carved rhinoceros horn libation cup. Qing dynasty, 18th century.Photo Sotheby's

of flower form, carved to the exterior with a phoenix standing amongst leafy peony, lotus, aster and camellia blossoms rising from a reticulated rock base, the horn of rich toffee tone darkening at the base; 11cm., 4 3/8 in. Estimate 120,000-180,000 GBP

NOTE: Rhinoceros horn vessels carved with the pleasing design of phoenix are unusual, although one bearing the motif of two phoenix against a rocky background, in the collection of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, is illustrated in Jan Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pl. 254. See also a cup finely carved with pairs of various birds including phoenix and cranes perched on rocks or depicted in flight, sold at Christie's New York, 19th September 2007, lot 3.

Vessels decorated with the bird motif are more frequently found with cranes; for example see one carved with a pair, also in the Chester Beatty collection included ibid., p. 186, pl. 253, where Chapman notes that the long-legged crane is generally seen in the decoration of cups showing the land of immortals. While phoenix sybolizes the empress, cranes are generally associated with the God of Immortality, Shou Lao, thereby representing the auspicious wish for immortality.

The present finely carved and well preserved cup is also attractive for its deep honey colouration and for the floral decoration that pays homage to four of the most popular flower types in the carvers' repertoire - the peony, lotus, aster and camellia blossoms. The fashion in which the lotus stems have been tied together with a thick rope is tactfully executed bringing a quint addition to the overall design. See a lotus-form cup, where several stems have been bunched together by a piece of straw, included in Dr. Ip Yee, 'Chinese Rhinoceros Horn Carvings', Antiques Fair Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1982, p. 35, fig. 28; another piece carved with a lotus stalk and cereal grass tied together with a ribbon, from the collection of Thomas Fok, published in Thomas Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 97; and a vessel where the carver has created an openwork design by binding several lotus stalks together with a millet grass, from the collections of Edward T. Chow and Franklin Chow, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2011, lot 2715.

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A massive carved full-tip 'Immortals' rhinoceros horn. Qing dynasty, 19th century. Photo Sotheby's

the deep U-shaped cup left plain, the exterior intricately carved and pierced with immortal figures, reclining rams, mythical beast and a dragon amongst a cornucopia of various plants including pine, magnolia, prunus and lingzhi rising from rockwork at the triangular tip, all below a border of rolling clouds at the rim, the horn of honey-brown tone, accompanied by a carved and pierced wood stand. Quantity: 2 - 56cm., 22in. Estimate 80,000-120,000 GBP

NOTE: Rhinoceros horn cups of this full-tip shape are impressive for their massive size, however, the present example is especially striking for its densely carved decoration that is bursting with auspicious design elements. It is an example of a vessel fashioned with the maximum amount of bold carving, perhaps made on commission for someone celebrating an important occasion.

For comparable examples see a cup of slightly bigger dimensions, in the Durham University Oriental Museum, included in Jan Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pl. 38, where on p. 73 the author notes that the majority of these extravagant full-tip cups were produced during the nineteenth century and almost certainly in Canton.

An early example, that may have served as inspiration for later pieces, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carving, Shanghai, 2001, pl. 131, attributed to the late Ming period. See another vessel of this type made of Indian rhinoceros horn and carved and pierced with continuous landscapes and figures inspired by the famous work titled Notes on the Pavilion of a Drunken Old Man by the Ouyang Xiu, from the collection of Thomas Fok, published in Thomas Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 156. 

A slightly shorter but closely related cup, from the collection of Kenyon V. Painter, Cleveland, Ohio, was sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2007, lot 384; and a pair similarly carved with figures in landscape and surrounded by auspicious symbols, was sold at Christie's New York, 19th March 2008, lot 300. See a fourth example sold in these rooms, 7th November 2007, lot 204; and another sold in our New York rooms, 16th September 2009, lot 150.

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A massive carved full-tip rhinoceros horn. Qing dynasty, 19th century. Photo Sotheby's

the deep U-shaped cup intricately carved and pierced to the exterior with various figures and animals including water buffalo and horses, outside brick buildings nestled behind palm, pine and wutong trees, above monkeys clambering on peach branches and further figures, the decoration descending towards numerous bats in flight amongst scrolling clouds, the horn of a light honey tone darkening at the tip, pierced wood stand. Quantity: 2 - 67cm., 26 3/8 in. Estimate 80,000-120,000 GBP

PROVENANCE: Collection of James Broun Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie and Governor General of India in 1848 -1856. The present horn was recorded in James Broun Ramsay's inventory, probably of the late 1850's. In which it was described as 'a magnificent carved rhinoceros horn (which) was given (to) me by Colonel Butterworth in 1853'. Colonel B. probably referred to Col. William John Butterworth C.B., who joined the Madras Army in 1818 and served in India. He was appointed Governor of the Straits Settlements in June 1843 and resigned that position in 1855.

 

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A carved rhinoceros horn, libation cup, 17th-18th century. Photo Sotheby's

of square section with canted corners, the exterior carved in shallow relief with a wide band of stylised taotie masks on a leiwen ground, all below small chilong in high relief clambering up the rim bordered by an angular scroll band, the handle formed from intertwined large and smaller chilong peering over the inner lip hemmed by a keyfret border, the horn of dark chocolate tone; 13.4cm., 5 1/4 in. Estimate 40,000-60,000 GBP

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A large carved full-tip rhinoceros horn. Qing dynasty, 19th century. Photo Sotheby's

the curved tusk carved and pierced with a woodcutter and a monkey standing on rocky ledges nestled amongst prunus blossom, all above an immortal, a sage and an attendant amongst gnarled pine, double gourds and pomegranates, the horn of honey-brown tone, with carved and pierced wood stand. Quantity: 2 - 52cm., 20 1/2 in. Estimate 40,000-60,000 GBP

NOTE: Compare two full-tip rhinoceros horn cups densely carved with figures among rich vegetation, from the collection of Kenyon V. Painter, Cleveland, Ohio and Arusha, Tanzania circa 1910-40, both sold in our New York rooms, 18th September 2007, lot 11, and 19th March 2007, lot 384. Another related pair of libation cups, of slightly larger dimensions, was sold at Christie's New York, 19th March 2008, lot 320; and a further piece was sold at Christie's New York, 27th November 1991, lot 11.

Jan Chapman in The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp 72-73, mentions that the earliest dated example of all known rhinoceros horn carvings is a perfectly plain full-tip cup. It was brought to Japan from China and has a gift deed dated to 756. The cup was presented to the Todaiji Temple in Nara and is now in the Shoso-in Imperial Repository. However, the majority of full-tip rhinoceros horn cups extant today are decorated, as seen on the present example, with most of them made during the 19th century by artisans working in Canton where skilled carvers worked, catering to the fashion and demand for such elaborate and richly decorated pieces.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, London, 09 Nov 2011 www.sothebys.com