Treasury 7, no. 1534: An inscribed and carved olive-green 'horse' snuff bottle, Lu Dong, Yangzhou, 1800-1850. Photo Bonhams
Dark, olive-green lacquer on light-weight wood or textile; with a flat lip and protruding flat foot; engraved on one main side with a scene of a horse seen from the rear as it turns its head to one side to present a profile, set on a grassy bank with a rocky outcrop in the foreground and foliated shrubs and further adumbrated foliage beyond, with one seal of the artist in seal script, Kuisheng; the other main side engraved in regular script with a couplet followed by the name Xinluo shanren and one seal, in seal script, Yan, the interior roughly lacquered. Height: 7.28. cm. Mouth/lip: 0.69/1.95 cm. Stopper: glass; vinyl collar. Sold for HK$118,750
Condition: miniscule nibbles to inner lip; two repairs to damage on the outer lip; possible repairs to outer footrim, all sensitively done; natural wear from use; relative overall condition, excellent
Provenance: Trojan Collection (1993)
Robert Hall (1993)
The Mary and George Bloch Collection
Published: Hall 1992, no. 69
Kleiner 1995, no. 326
Treasury 7, no. 1534
Exhibited: British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997
Lu Dong (zi: Kuisheng, d. 1850) is one of the few lacquer makers in Chinese history to be identified not only through his signed works but by other documentation as well. We know that he worked in Yangzhou during the Daoguang period and that he was one of those craftsmen who were able to transcend the social barriers and be taken seriously by the literati who were his main clients, not only as a lacquer maker, but also as a painter. He was one of the rare craftsmen who found a place in the literature of the scholar class (see Tsang and Moss 1986, nos. 63, 64, 85 [a snuff bottle], 149, 216, and 217). The most informative source on him is an article by Wang Shixiang and his wife Yuan Quanyou (1920–2003) in Wenwu (1957, no. 7), where some surviving paperwork included with one of his works contains not only a warning against copies but also his precise address in Yangzhou (the south side of Dashi Alley, Genzi Street, Changuan Gate).
Lu Dong is known for his many literati wares such as inkstones, together with their boxes and covers, stationery boxes, wrist rests, and snuff bottles. He became associated with the sand-lacquer inkstones invented by his grandfather and was also a skilled embellisher, using lacquer and a variety of other materials as inlays (see, for instance, an inkstone box and cover, Tsang and Moss 1986, no. 149). He occasionally produced lacquerware in other, more traditional styles. Many of his monochrome wares, including most of his snuff bottles, are very light in weight and may have been built up on a base of light-weight wood or possibly even textile. He also occasionally lacquered on pewter, making teapots and at least one snuff bottle (see Sale 2, lot 27). There is even one rare example where he has lacquered and engraved the exterior of an Yixing seal-ink box and cover (Tsang and Moss 1986, no. 217).
Conventional wisdom has it that wares bearing the Kuisheng name, in any of its various forms, were made by him personally, while those with the name Lu Dong were workshop products involving others. In most cases, however, there is no discernible difference in either quality or style between the two groups of wares, and the distinction may be no more than an opinion someone once noted in the past that has been adopted by subsequent writers as fact. In a field where so little information exists about the makers of works of art, there is a tendency to cling somewhat overenthusiastically to the few snippets that are passed down to us, regardless of their origin or weight. This conventional wisdom seems contradicted by the inkstone box and cover in Tsang and Moss 1986, (no. 149) where the edge of the inkstone is signed 'Supervised by Kuisheng'.
The picture on one main side simulates a painting by Hua Yan (hao: Xinluo shanren, 1682–1756) right down to the artist's signature, Xinluo shanren, and seal, Yan. Lu Dong was inspired by this famous Yangzhou artist on more than one occasion.
For a remarkably similar bottle from the Ko Collection, but decorated with swallows and branches, see Christie's, London, 14 June 1971, lot 171. Others are in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 307, and for another, from the Ko Collection, see Christie's, London, 8 November 1976, lot 185 (with blossoming prunus branches and a poem on a dark-brown lacquer).
The couplet reads:
With stalwart heart, it takes a thousand li in stride;
It was once within the Twelve Heavenly Stables.
Heavenly Stables are the stables of the emperor. The ambitious horse has often been used as a metaphor for a learned scholar who wished to contribute his knowledge towards the wellbeing of his country.
Bonhams. FINE CHINESE ART, 28 Nov 2011. Hong Kong www.bonhams.com