Glass, painted on the inside with ink and watercolours - A Scene From The Dream Of The Red Chamber (c. 1895-1901), 7.1 cm
Taken at Chinese Snuff Bottles Exhibition, Asian Civilisation Museum
The Chinese had used small bottles to store their medicine for centuries. Tobacco was thought to be a great way to treat colds, headaches, stomach aches and many other illnesses. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the taking of snuff (a mixture of powdered tobacco and aromatic substances) became popular throughout China. It was initially a habit of the elite.
The Chinese stored the snuff in tiny, portable glass bottles because of the humid conditions. A small spoon in each bottle was used to retrieve it, which would then be placed on a snuff dish, or on the hand, to be ingested through the nose.
The art of interior painting is unique to China and was developed during the Qing Dynasty. Tiny masterpieces are painted by reaching down through the neck of the bottle with a tiny, curved brush or a piece of bamboo. The bottle neck is only half a centimetre wide!
The artist has to paint the subject in reverse order since the first drop of paint to touch the glass will be in front of subsequent brush strokes. The details must be painted before the subject. Eyes first...., then face...., then background. It is the reverse of how typical artists work.
It demands very delicate skill and patience.
Beautifully crafted snuff bottles were collected as prized possessions, and status symbols by the wealthy. There is a stunning array of exquisite snuff bottles made of almost every available kind of material - from porcelain, glass, jade and lacquer, to amber, coral, hornbill and bamboo. They have become collectors' items today.