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  • Anthony Wu

The Thomson Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles at the Art Gallery of Ontario


For those who have been following my blogs over the past three years, you probably noticed that I write a lot about my visits to Asian Art collections in museums and auction house previews from all over the world. These include stops to New York, Chicago, London, Paris and Hong Kong.

I do feel guilty since my hometown of Toronto definitely features fantastic Asian Art collections. These are spread out through a couple of institutions, with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) being the most important featuring this category. In their Chinese Art collection alone, they have over 2000 items on display and another 35,000 objects in storage! This is by far the largest collection in Canada, and internationally, it is second only to the British Museum in London.

Directly across the street from the ROM is the Gardiner Museum. Focused mainly on ceramics, they have one of the best collections of Chinese blue and white porcelain and Japanese 17th Century export wares.

However, one of the least talked about Asian Art collections in Toronto is at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The AGO holds a world-famous collection of Canadian, European and Inuit Art. And in each of their galleries are treasured objects formerly from the collection of Kenneth Roy Thomson (1923-2006).

Known in England as the Baron Thomson of Fleet, Ken Thomson was a successful Toronto-based businessman, philantropist and art collector. His art collection spans many continents and devotes itself to top objects from their respective categories. Throughout his lifetime, he donated many artworks to the AGO, the crux of which form the Thomson Collection.

The main attraction from the Thomson Collection is 'Massacre of the Innocents' by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). This masterpiece of Flemish art was acquired at Sotheby's in London on July 10, 2002 for £49.5 million (approximately CAD 117 million). Some of the top Canadian artists included in his collection are Lawren Harris, Cornelius Krieghoff, David Milne and Alexander Colville.

The Thomson Collection also contains a massive holding of European decorative arts. Aptly titled the Thomson Collection of European Art, these galleries on the ground floor contain an impressive collection of mostly Medieval art including sculptures, reliquaries and ivory carvings. Deep within these galleries are the seldom visited display of Chinese snuff bottles, which is my topic of discussion for this blog.

The snuff bottles are displayed in two cases:

Figure 1. Thomson Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles, left display case.

Figure 2. Thomson Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles, right display case.

China's association with snuff bottles spans over 300 years. It first began with with the introduction of tobacco to China through Portuguese traders during the 16th Century Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Highly addictive, tobacco was initially smoked in long pipes.

Tobacco smoking was eventually banned by the Ming Dynasty's Chongzhen Emperor (1628-1644) and this restriction continued through the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). However, the ban led to a rise in snuff usage/snorting. Snuff was essentially a mixture of ground tobacco, spices and herbs. Since it was purported to have medicinal qualities, its usage was allowed and even promoted.

Initially used by the wealthy elite and officials with ties to the imperial court, snuff eventually spread to all denominations of society. Since snuff was snorted throughout the day, they were stored in a myriad of portable solutions - from small cloth pouches to plain containers made of wood and ceramic.

Wealthier users showcased their status by storing the powder in more exquisite containers. By the 18th Century, workshops were producing snuff bottles specifically for the affluent, by using more precious materials and spohisticated designs. Their construction contained three essential components, a container, a spoon, and a stopper.

The material and designs used for snuff bottles was usually a microcosm for the top decorative works of art during that time. This includes pieces carved from objects made from the imperial kilns and workshops (ie porcelain, glass and enamel ware), hard stones (ie jade, jadeite and agate), and organic materials (ie ivory, coral and amber).

Design-wise, snuff bottles had a wide range including Western-styles, traditional Chinese motifs, and simple forms that highlighted the purity of the material.

The Thomson Collection features many exceptional Chinese snuff bottle examples, and here are some of my highlights:

Figure 3. An imperial Beijing workshop 'European subject' snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 4. An imperial Beijing workshop 'European subject' snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 5. A famille rose 'erotic subject' snuff bottle, late 18th to early 19th Century.

6. A famille rose 'doctor's patient' snuff bottle, 19th Century.

7. A famille rose snuff bottle of the Daoist immortal Li Tieguai, 19th Century.

8. A five-colour overlay white Peking glass snuff bottle of the Daoist immortal Liu Hai, 18th Century.

Figure 9. An imperial Beijing workshop 'guyue xian' enamelled glass snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 10. A group of interior painted glass snuff bottles, Republican Period, circa 1915-1920.

Figure 11. A white jade carved 'figural' snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 12. An 'emerald' jadeite carved snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 13. A white jade and lavender jade carved 'basket weave pattern' snuff bottle, 18th/19th Century.

Figure 14. A turquoise 'pebble' snuff bottle, 19th Century.

Figure 15. A Suzhou School 'silhouette' agate snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 16. A coral carved snuff bottle depicting a monkey riding a horse, 18th Century.

Figure 17. An amber carved 'monkeys' snuff bottle, 18th/19th Century.

Figure 18. An ivory carved snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Figure 19. A cinnabar lacquer carved snuff bottle, 19th Century.

Figure 20. A moulded gourd snuff bottle, 18th Century.

Hope you enjoyed the blog and photos about the Thomson Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles! Please feel free to send me any feedback about this blog through my email.

In the meantime, I will be on the road again starting in early March. This season starts with my annual visit to New York Asia Week followed by business and appraisal trips to Hong Kong, Vancouver and London. My Asian Art adventures can be viewed through my Instagram feed @anthonywuart.

Finally, my next Chinese Art auction report for Orientations Magazine will be published in their March/April edition. You can order it directly from their website or find a copy at most international museums with Asian Art collections. I'll write about it in the coming months.

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