A very rare rhinoceros horn 'scholars in landscape' libation cup, 17th-18th century. Photo Bonhams.

The horn of a rich honey tone darkening to reddish-brown on the interior, intricately carved with a continuous scene of two scholars conversing on beside a swiftly flowing river, another figure seated on a sampan beneath a rocky promontory from which a bearded gentleman gazes at an overhanging crag, all amongst sparsely scattered pine and wutong trees, the handle formed from vertical rocks and twisted branches of pine reaching into the smooth interior. 15.8cm (6¼in) long. Sold for £116,500 (€139,287)

Provenance: an important European private collection
Previously on loan to two British museums from the mid 1970s until recently.

The imagery of scholars leisurely walking in a mountainous landscape amidst pine and wutong forests parted by flowing streams in view of a solitary pagoda was inspired by literati paintings. These, though seemingly depicting tranquil naturalistic scenery, were in fact at times a metaphor and a result of a reaction to a social and political present.

Images of the private retreat proliferated among the scholar-officials from the early Song Dynasty. When visions of the natural hierarchy became metaphors for the well-regulated state. The scholars extolled the virtues of self-cultivation often in response to political setbacks and asserted their identity as literati through poetry, calligraphy, and painting. The images of old trees, bamboo, rocks, and retirement retreats created by these scholar-artists became emblems of their character and spirit.

Under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, when many educated Chinese were barred from government service, the model of the Song literati retreat evolved into an alternative culture as this disenfranchised elite transformed their estates into sites for literary gatherings and other cultural pursuits. These gatherings were frequently commemorated in paintings that, rather than presenting a realistic depiction of an actual place, conveyed the shared cultural ideals of a reclusive world through a symbolic shorthand in which an abode might be represented by a humble thatched hut.

Similarly, during the transition between the Ming and Qing Dynasties and afterwards under the rule of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, visions reflecting on the idealised native Song Dynasty on the one hand and images of reclusion on the other hand, regained their political potency and symbolism, when many Ming loyalists lived in self-enforced retirement.

Rhinoceros horn libation cups carved with scholars amidst landscape are extant in the Imperial collections; see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Beijing, 2001, pls.145, 147-148, and 201; and the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Uncanny Ingenuity and Celestial Feats - The Carvings of Ming and Qing Dynasties - Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn, Taipei, 2009, pls.29, 31 and 32.

It is also interesting to note the unusual form depicting the flow of water, different from the more typical 'scale' like diaper ground. For similar depiction of streams see T.Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, pls.160 and 168.

Bonhams. FINE CHINESE ART. London, New Bond Street. 7 Nov 2013 - www.bonhams.com