Sensations in Glass!  Chinese Snuff Bottles

A personal view by John Neville Cohen

  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 techniques.

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.

The Chinese 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 bottles.

Cameo Glass

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 'Snowflake'. 

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.

Quality Counts
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. 

To assess 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.

A fine Cameo carved glass Chinese Snuff Bottle, John Neville Cohen

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 century. 

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.

A fine Cameo carved Glass Seal School Chinese Snuff Bottle, John Neville Cohen

Layers of Glass
Apart from 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 layers.

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 glass. 

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 Sea Spray. 

Most of the really fine Chinese snuff bottles were made in the Imperial Workshop and other small glass works around Peking.

Stone Imitations
With such 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. 

The 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 intrigue.

Imperial Yellow
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 Yellow'. 

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.

An Imperial Yellow Chinese Glass Snuff Bottle,  John Neville Cohen

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.

What 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.

For 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.

  Very Early Inside Painted Chinese Snuff Bottle,  John Neville Cohen

Signed early Chinese Snuff Bottles, John Neville Cohen

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. 

It 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.

  Inside painted Chinese Snuff Bottle of goldfish by Chu Chan Yuan. John Neville Cohen

Inside painted Chinese Snuff Bottle signed by Chu Chan Yuan. John Neville Cohen

Side view Inside painted Chinese Snuff Bottle, showing how poorly hollowed. John Neville Cohen

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: -   

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Keywords: Sensations in Glass! Chinese snuff bottles, John Neville Cohen, Antique, Chinese snuff bottles, Glass snuff bottles, Imperial Workshop, Peking, sapphire blue, ruby red, Imperial Yellow, archaic design, Inside painted, cameo carved, Chih Lung, dragon, Seal School, Kan Huan-Wen, Buddhist Lions, Sodden Snow, Camphor, and Snowflakes, Cracked Ice, Fish Net, Sea Spray, Realgar.