Height: 7.800 cm (including original stopper)
Gift of Sir A.W. Franks
Asia OA 1886.3-6.14
Room 33: Asia
Lacquer snuff bottle
Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911)
Detailed carving in miniature
Snuff is tobacco which has been ground into powder with perfumes added, and is sniffed, rather than smoked or chewed. The habit of taking snuff probably came to China with the Jesuits in the mid-seventeenth century. Its popularity stimulated the production of intricately carved and painted flasks, or snuff bottles. They were carried in pockets or small silk pouches and became an important accessory of daily life.
Snuff bottles were made of many materials: glass, porcelain, amber, coral, lacquer, ivory and others. The Chinese love carving on a miniature scale and small items, such as snuff bottles, ivory balls, rhino roots and rocks, offer great scope for this art. This lacquer snuff bottle, depicting figures in a landscape, is a good example.
Lacquer, made from the sap of a tree (rhus vernicifera), has been used in China since Neolithic times, for practical and decorative purposes. Many coats must be applied to make an object impermeable. To achieve sufficient thickness for carving, up to 150 layers may be required. Red is the most commonly used colour for carved lacquer. The colouring agent is cinnabar, which comes from mercury and was thought to have special powers.
J. Rawson (ed.), The British Museum book of Chi (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)