Snuff was introduced into China early in the Ch’ing Dynasty (1600 to 1910). To keep the snuff dry and to prevent it spilling, it was contained in small bottles with a cork-ringed stopper into which a tiny spoon was fitted. The snuff was taken by spooning it onto the left thumbnail, on which it was brought to the nose.
An enormous variety of different types of snuff were made – from carved jade and other stones, to painted glass, metal and porcelain. The Chinese soon became avid collectors of the various types of snuff bottles. Since the Second World War, the hobby has spread to the West and sought-after examples have become very valuable.
Exquisite workmanship can be seen in many of these bottles. Imagine the skill of a painter able to paint a delicate pattern on the inside of a tiny glass bottle; or of a carver able to carve a hard stone, like jade or rock crystal, right up into the shoulders on the inside of the tiny bottle.
Inside-Painted Snuff Bottles
The art of painting the inside of crystal and glass snuff bottles flourished towards the end of the 19th century.
The painting is done with a slender bamboo stick, about as thick as a match but much longer. The tip is shaped line a finely pointed hook. The hooked tip is dipped in coloured ink which is used to paint the interior surface of the bottle.
Snuff bottles are no more than about 7 cm high and 5 cm wide, yet the whole range of Chinese portraits, landscapes, flower and bird paintings and calligraphy have been recreated on their inside walls.
Perhaps the most amazing example of the art is a snuff bottle in which Liu Shouben created a painting of all of the 108 heroes and heroines of the novel Water Margin each with individual characteristic expressions.