in Glass! Chinese Snuff Bottles
A personal view by John Neville
The first Chinese snuff bottles we
decided to buy, that were not carved out of stone, were made of
glass. A huge range of glass bottles is to be found in all
shapes and colours as well as a variety of manufacturing
Much more research is needed in order to date
these bottles, but it is generally now agreed that glass and
metal bottles were the earliest materials to be used. The
problem is that glass has been used throughout the whole snuff
bottle period right up to the present day.
had little use for glass prior to the 17th century mainly
because of their highly refined porcelain skills. They had
no glass windows, favouring translucent paper. We are not sure
if glass had been used centuries earlier in China but it was
certainly introduced to them by Europeans in good time for snuff
They considered it as a
valuable material and excelled in producing very fine works of
art. Sometimes they treated it just like a stone and
carved bottles out of a solid piece, otherwise they blew glass
into moulds. Creating many unusual snuff bottles ranging
from transparent to white as backgrounds for colour overlay
work. They were also able to control bubbles and by the
addition of white flecks in the glass, colours such as these apt
names suggest were created: - 'Sodden Snow', 'Camphor', and
These snuff bottles would then be dipped
into bright coloured molten glass which later would be carved
away to leave a cameo style of design. Some were dipped
more than once to provide more than one coloured layer.
Another technique was to apply to different areas of the bottle
coloured molten blobs of glass. When these were carved the
snuff bottle could have up to as many as eight different colours
cameo carved without increasing the number of layers.
To a connoisseur, the number of colours or
layers is not so very important, as it was not such a difficult
process and a far softer material to carve than stone.
What really should be valued is the quality of the carving and
the overall design. Quite often a wonderfully carved and
well-designed single colour overlay will be worth far more than
a multicolour but poorly finished bottle.
these bottles the colour is a consideration but great attention
is paid just as with stone cameo carving, to the quality of the
carving and especially to how well the background is finished
close to the edge of the overlay. I have selected a ruby
red single overlay snuff bottle as a good example to photograph (note
this bottle still contains some snuff). It shows a
coiled 'Chih Lung' or dragon on both sides; also having
mythological animal mask and mock ring handles on each shoulder
1750 - 1860. The dragon is a birth sign used rather like
our zodiac signs.
There is a group of rather special,
very finely worked overlay snuff bottles known as the 'Seal
School' because they always include a seal with the design. They
were made later and date back from the second half of the 19th
Although these were made in the same way, the
overlay is far more delicately carved and often even the
thickness of the overlay is controlled to create shading. They
normally used opaque white bottles as the background but some
were also worked on other opaque colours. So far, I have
never seen any on the clear or snowflake backgrounds. The
photograph shows a fine seal school bottle depicting a pair of
cats at play with hovering insects amongst the flowers. On
each side there is a bowl of fruit on a table and on the reverse
is another scene of a drunken poet asleep in a garden.
Layers of Glass
these overlay types there are many interesting mottled, swirling
and colourful designs as well as the plain colour bottles, both
uncarved and carved.
Many of these were quite complex in
the way they were made: some were blown into moulds then
finished by hand; others involved blowing a clear glass into a
mould but then another layer was blown inside the first bottle.
This layer was a thin colourful one, sandwiched by yet a third
clear layer that was also blown in. When looking down at
the neck of one of these bottles you can clearly see these three
A variety of colours were successfully used,
together with gold in the creation of snuff bottles. There
is no doubt that their advanced knowledge acquired in firing
porcelain, and how metallic oxides react, was put to good use in
It has also been suggested that apart from mixing
in metals, even small particles of precious gemstones such as
Sapphires, Emeralds and Rubies were added to the molten glass.
Particular attention was given to the feel of the finished
material, which was achieved by the type of polishing and even
the weight was controlled by the addition of lead. With
transparent bottles the inside could be controlled and made to
appear crazed as these names suggest - Cracked Ice, Fish Net or
Most of the really fine Chinese snuff bottles
were made in the Imperial Workshop and other small glass works
expertise the Chinese were able to make astounding imitations of
other materials. There are many bottles that look and feel
just like Jade, Aquamarine, Agate and other stones. There
has been a view in the past that the Chinese made these as fakes
with the intention to deceive. I am sure that this was not
the case, as it was far too easy to find them out by careful
inspection. Under magnification little holes on the
surface that could not be polished out and tiny bubbles would be
seen proving it must be glass. Lastly, glass unlike the
stones can be scratched quite easily by steel.
Chinese enjoyed making convincing imitations of highly valued
minerals as a demonstration of their skill. One other
mineral cleverly copied was Realgar with its bright red and
yellow swirling colours, impossible to use because of a high
arsenic content, so these copies would have caused a lot of
I have already
mentioned that a wide range of colours was used for glass
bottles. Such colours as sapphire blue and ruby red seem
to have been the most popular of the earliest ones.
However the Emperor Chien-Lung had a favourite colour that he
decreed could only be used by the Imperial family and this was
an opaque shade of yellow that is now referred to as 'Imperial
Not all bottles of this colour really are
Imperial as after his death this colour was available to all.
A true 'Imperial Yellow' bottle must be one from his period and
that can only be confirmed by the quality of the bottle and the
carving. The 'Imperial Yellow' bottle pictured is well
carved with an archaic design on both sides and is of the period
1736 - 1795.
Painted on the Inside
There remains one other area of glass bottles that really amazes
everyone, these being the 'Inside painted' bottles. I have
only a couple of examples in the collection, as I do not
generally favour them as in my view they were never made for
use. Once snuff was put into them the picture would not
show up well, and the spoon would soon ruin the painting.
I should also explain that they did not restrict inside
painting to glass but have applied the same techniques to
crystal and chalcedony. The vast majority however are in
specially designed glass bottles of a uniform shape.
is remarkable is that through such a tiny hole in the neck they
could paint on the inside landscapes, animals, calligraphy and
even portraits. In order for the image to show through the
glass the painting had to be done in reverse, all such fine
details as the eyelashes for example, had to be painted first!
All of these bottles are signed by the artist and many, some
very attractive ones too, are still being made today.
our own collection I felt that we should have one or two
examples and I was lucky enough to buy the earliest known, dated
and signed inside painted bottle by Kan Huan-Wen. He is
one of the first well-known artist and highly respected.
He has painted inside a rock crystal Chinese snuff bottle, a
scene of Buddhist Lions with a poem on the reverse. This
bottle is signed and dated 1822.
Later we acquired another rock
crystal example, and these two are the only inside painted
bottles that we have. I think that this one is quite
remarkable, as the interior space is so limited, it is hard to
imagine how such a beautiful painting was achieved on one
surface without completely ruining the other.
originally would have been a rather poorly made double bottle.
I do not know if the damaged half that has been removed was done
so before it was painted, but I believe that it would have been.
This was a very badly hollowed out bottle, of little value,
before it was painted.
To my mind it is the fact that it
was so poorly hollowed that makes the painting even more
amazing! Have a look at the photograph. A continuous
scene of fish amongst aquatic plants was painted in red, gold,
pink; white, green and grisaille dated 1896 and signed Chu
Chan-Yuan. This crystal has a natural flaw in the stone
that adds to the under water appeal of this picture.
Most of the glass snuff bottles purposely made for inside
painting are much larger than this crystal one. Some of
the paintings achieved however are hard to believe possible.
There are even portraits that are so well done that they just
look as good as black and white photographs!
John Neville Cohen: An International award winning photographer
who also became a well known Asian antiques collector and an
enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars. Other interests are
skiing and Salsa dancing. The
author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping
to create ‘The Cohen Collection’. Please have a look
at: - https://www.jncohen.com
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