S.J. sends me a Chinese snuff bottle at 3” long. This form has a bad reputation, often labeled opium bottles. These were a fashionable accessory for carrying powdered tobacco ground with herbs and spices for a small spoonful of snuff, conveyed to the noses of upper-class men. Just as a gent might make a show of checking the time in male company if he could flash his Patek Phillipe, men offered a dose of snuff in a flashy bottle.
Beginning with Chinese imperial court, the use of tobacco was banned after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Because tobacco had another side, medicinal, it was believed to cure head and stomach aches. Medicines in China were carried in little glass bottles, thus if a man carried tobacco in a glass bottle he used it as a medicine, scrumptiously, of course. Europe at this time also had a penchant for sticking this stuff up noses, but their snuff was contained in boxes, of silver, for example, and not in little bottles, as in China.
Fashionable bottles, some costly and hugely symbolic, were collected by the elite from the 17th to the 19th C., much as a trendy gent today might collect expensive shoes. The finest of Chinese artisans, not necessarily China’s fine artists, made further inventive designs for snuff bottles in all kinds of materials: glass, jade, agate, tourmaline, ruby matrix, amethyst, porcelain, all manner of precious stones.
S.J.’s bottle is glass, but glass with an artistic difference. The center bottle is blown clear glass, which later was painted in its interior, executed with the tiniest of brushes. The outside darker portion is also glass, blown OVER the clear glass, called “cased, overlay or cameo” glass. This is both painstaking and fraught with the potentiality of breakage, due to the non-existence of thermometers in the glass furnace.
The interior painting depicts a bird, and since Chinese figurative imagery is symbolic, a picture is a close relative to the Chinese alphabet. Both tell a story. Birds were decidedly a male symbol, as the Chinese word for bird “niao” also means penis, used not in a pornographic or pejorative way, but in the meaning of an indicator of the approach of love. Often these snuff bottles were passed between men to ask for, or to answer to, a favor or a bribe. Snuff was offered to friends, the bottle as an object of status and admiration.
Furthermore, an image painted inside a bottle might have a double meaning, as in a pun, causing a smile of deference to a superior wit. For example, a picture of a bat, when identified in language with a certain intonation, means “blessings.” Likewise, ‘two magpies’ is pronounced the same way as to say ‘two happinesses,’ meaning, two lovers. Birds carried attributes: an oriole is a musical joyful bird, a symbol of women who are also “fun.” A duck mates for life, a swallow symbolizes brotherly love, and a quail is a symbol of courage (as quail fights were a favorite male sport). The bird pictured on S.J.’s snuff bottle is a robin, not a good omen, perhaps meaning mourning.
Other snuff bottles depict Chinese pictographs: these bottles were presented to young scholars about to sit their civil exams. Luck was necessary: only a few passed; scholarship ate away 12-years of a young man’s life, and out of all the scholars in China, only 1000 passed each year. These bottles say, “Wishes for Your Success!”
These bottles exhibit a microcosm of Chinese art, in vogue between 1600-1900, a short time for a Chinese art form. But formative years for China, which witnessed the coming of the European Jesuits, who learned the art of these bottles. They specialized in painted enamels on metals, picturing European people and European themes: rare and valuable, a recent find sold for $800,000 (remember how small they are).
S.J.’s was painted inside with a tiny brush that bends at a right angle, executed in watercolor, as the bottles were not meant to hold liquid. The vogue for these reverse painted bottles, as a tour-de-force of artistry, surpassed the other forms of snuff bottles, in style until 1930. They are made today for souvenirs but still hand-painted painstakingly, taking a week to complete.
S.J., yours is late 19th C. and falls into the souvenir category because of the simplicity of the figuration, and its value with its rock crystal stopper is $500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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