HONG KONG – In today’s health-obsessed society, nothing could be less fashionable than cigarettes. But for centuries, tobacco was considered to be medically beneficial, and when the European diplomats and Jesuit missionaries presented it to the imperial court of China, those who could lay their hands on it quickly developed the habit of using tobacco. Between 1639 and 1642, the smoking of tobacco was banned, but snuff was “said to be able to improve one’s sight, especially to exorcise epidemic diseases,” as the high-ranking official Wang Shizhen (1634−1711) observed in 1702. When the Kangxi Emperor took to the substance, its popularity soared further, fuelling a craze that also saw the rise of a new art form.

In diametric opposition to cigarette packaging of today, which is gradually being legislated into a plain, standardised format without any logo or decoration, tobacco snuff was contained in bottles featuring exquisite designs. The foreign tribute bearers had also presented European snuff boxes of remarkable craftsmanship, but the humidity of China rendered them unsuitable for use. The imperial workshops therefore designed a new shape of bottle, with a small aperture on a swollen rounded body. This was portable and airtight, perfectly suited to the humid conditions.

Snuff_boxA German gold and mother-of-pearl snuff box, possibly Dresden, circa 1745. To be offered in Sotheby's sale of Snuff Bottles in Hong Kong on 24 November.

Wang documented the emergence of this new type of bottle:

The snuff is put into glass bottles, which are of varying shapes, in colours of red, purple, yellow, white, black, green and brown. The white is as clear as crystal, the red like fire. What lovely things they are! The spoon is made of ivory, used to extract the snuff out of the bottle to be inhaled, and then put back into the bottle.

Soon the craze for creating snuff bottles became as addictive as snuff tobacco itself. By the late seventeenth century, the art became an imperial obsession, with resources lavished on the production of snuff bottles on a grand scale. Jesuit priests with experience in the foreign art of enamelling on metal and glass were summoned, and all manner of materials and designs were utilised to create the greatest variety of bottles. 

The finest examples of them often embody the great artistic achievements of the Qing Dynasty. As a new art form, the snuff bottle was not governed by the unspoken rules formed over centuries through established art forms, such as ritual bronzes or porcelain vessels, and so it was able to flourish as a form of miniature art, simultaneous with the rapid development of other minor arts in China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as glass, amber and agate.

An enamelled copper ‘blossoming prunus’ snuff bottle
Palace workshops, Beijing, blue-enamelled yuzhi mark and period of Kangxi
A jadeite double-gourd snuff bottle
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
A Baroque pearl, gold and glass snuff bottle
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
An enamelled copper ‘basket of fruits’ snuff bottle
Palace workshops, Beijing, blue-enamelled mark and period of Qianlong
A black-ground famille-rose enamelled glass ‘peony’ snuff bottle
Palace workshops, Beijing, blue-enamel mark and period‎ of Qianlong

This new art form, popularised and patronised by the emperor himself, began to take on a new aesthetic role in addition to its basic function of holding snuff. At court, officials, bannermen and scholars engaged in competitive display of their new treasures. On ceremonial occasions, including the New Year festival, the emperor would distribute snuff bottles to favoured subjects, for whom such gifts were a mark of high honour and glory. Subjects would compete to commission snuff bottles from Guangzhou and other centres of private production at levels of quality worthy of tribute to the emperor. The act of giving, in both directions, thereby cemented the traditional bond between ruler and vassal. Senior officials would pass gifts down to those below them in the social hierarchy. The snuff bottle effectively became a form of currency, a subtle form of bribery used to create or express relationships of favour and obligation, to gain access to those in power and to flaunt the wealth of the donor. 

The exhibition of Snuff Bottles from the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection, to be held at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery from 20th to 24th October 2014, is arguably the greatest ever private display of imperial snuff bottles, certainly the grandest in scale of any exhibition outside of the National Palace Museum, Taipei and the Palace Museum, Beijing, the principal repositories of snuff bottles from the Qing Court collection. It includes a truly outstanding array of imperial enamels on glass, metal and porcelain, including rare Kangxi examples produced with the help of the Jesuits at the earliest stages of the development of the palace workshops, and encapsulates the full kaleidoscopic diversity of media used to produce these extraordinary legacies of imperial addiction.

The ninth instalment of Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch collection, including an outstanding blue-ground famille rose porcelain snuff bottle, mark and period of Qianlong , estimated at HK$4,000,000-5,000,000, will be offered for sale on 24 November 2014 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery.