An Imperial 'realgar' glass mallet vase Palace Workshops Mark and period of Qianlong
Spink & Son, London, June 1979.
It is extremely rare to find mallet-form vases made of glass simulating the striking orange-red coloured arsenic sulphide mineral 'realgar'. However, a similar vase of somewhat smaller dimensions, with its realgar-coloured surface decorated with irregular red and yellow veins, as seen on the present vase, bearing a four-character Qianlong reign mark on the base, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, is illustrated in Luster of Autumn Water. Glass of the Qing Imperial Workshop, Beijing, 2005, pl. 25, and also in Zhongguo jin yin boli falang qi quanji, vol. 4, Shijiazhuang, 2004, pl. 216 (fig. 1).
The naturalistic pattern achieved on realgar glass makes vessels of this type attractive and unique. Hugh Moss and Gerard Tsang in Arts from the Scholar's Studio, op.cit., p. 126, note that the 'swirling patterns visible at the surface of this vessel are full of possibilities for the imaginative mind. It may read as a landscape, drifting incense smoke or a variety of strange living creatures, but it also represents the endlessly changing patterns of energy from which all phenomena emanate in the Chinese view, particularly expressed by Daoism. To the Daoist scholar it would be a work of art of subtle complexity and endless fascination, to be enjoyed like incense smoke as a meditative aid.'
Realgar (xiong huang), found in the southern provinces of China, was believed to contain the essence of gold and, possibly for this reason, became a source of fascination despite its poisonous qualities. It is believed that it was mixed in drugs used by Daoists in their quest for the elixir of immortality. It is the Daoist alchemy that made realgar popular to the extent that despite the material's highly toxic nature and its soft crumbly texture, which does not lend itself to the artisans' tools without great difficulties, realgar was used for the carving of Daoist figures. For example, a realgar sculpture of the Immortal He Xian Gu, in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in R. Soame Jenyns, Chinese Art. The Minor Arts, II, London, 1965, pl. 200.
The attractiveness of realgar inspired copies to be made in glass such as the present vase. Richard John Lynn in 'Technical aspects and Connoisseurship of Snuff Bottles: Late Traditional Chinese Sources', JICSBS, Summer, 1995, p. 8, mentions Zhou Jixu, a late Qing connoisseur, who believed that realgar glass was among the earliest types of glass made at the Qing Imperial Glassworks, and described it unambiguously as consisting of 'blotches of yellow arbitrarily pulled together'. For a discussion of the possible imperial origins of the 'realgar glass' and its dating, see Hugh Moss, Victor Graham and Ka Bo Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection, vol. 5, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 138-146, nos. 703-706, where it is suggested that it was the product of the Court from the early 18th century onwards, and possibly a Courtly prerogative or secret for some decades.
For examples of realgar glass vessels see a hexafoil vase, from the Sloane Collection in Jenyns, op.cit., pl. 81, together with a snuff bottle, pl. 201f. The Sloane collection also contains two realgar glass cups and a bowl. Further examples of glass snuffbottles are published in Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Collection of the Rt. Hon. The Marquess of Exeter K.C.M.G., London, 1974, pl. G11; and a bottle attributed to the Palace Workshop, the body suffused with patches of bright red and yellow, is illustrated in Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Burghley House Collection, Stamford, England, Hong Kong, 1989, pl. 5. Also see the realgar glass dish with the same type of mark in this sale, lot 1819.
The form of the present vase is known from different coloured glass of the Qianlong period. For example, see an opaque blue glass vase of this form and size included in Luster of Autumn Water. Glass of the Qing Imperial Workshop, op.cit., pl. 29, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, together with a smaller vase made in yellow glass, pl. 27, and a red glass vase, pl. 26. Two further examples of related vessels, one in opaque turquoise and the other in transparent blue glass, from the collection of Andrew K.F. Lee, were included in the exhibition Elegance and Radiance, the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2000, pls. 41 and 42.
Qianlong mallet form glass vases were inspired by Yongzheng period prototypes; see a blue glass vase published in Zhongguo jin yin boli falang qi quanji, vol. 4, Shijiazhuang, 2004, pl. 154. For the origins of the mallet form see a Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) celadon vase illustrated in Sekai toji zenshu, vol. 12, Tokyo, 1977, pl. 207; and another published in Longquan Celadon of China, Hong Kong, 1998, pl. 90.