Low two-handled vase and cover; rock crystal; form of depressed sphere; mounted in gold; enamelled and jewelled; sides engraved with slender plants hanging from the top and springing from the base; small pear-shaped cartouche engraved on one side; two scroll-handles with chased mounts and groups of fruit in relief in enamel; bottom cut in radiating gadroons and with mount with four feet chased with scrollwork and fruit; enamelled and set with four diamonds; cover nearly flat, cut with gadroons similar to bottom; melon-shaped knob between two enamelled caps; inscribed. Openwork.
This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.
How big is it?
15.6 cm wide, 12.5 cm high, 12.5 cm deep, and it weighs 574g
Detailed Curatorial Notes
Text from Tait 1991a:-
Origin: Uncertain; previously published as “German 16th century”, together with the suggestion that it “was sent by some European prince as a present to the great Akbar (b. 1542 - d. 1605), who had his name engraved upon it”.
More probably, its two main components have different origins:
(i) Rock-crystal carving: Mughal Indian, probably 17th century.
(ii) Enamelled gold mounts: European, perhaps French (Paris), mid-19th century or, possibly, Jaipur (India),
Provenance: None is recorded.
Commentary: The Mughal origin of this carved rock-crystal potiche and cover has remained unpublished until now, but it is without doubt a most exceptional and important addition to that rare group of Mughal hardstone vessels - mostly jade - that have traditionally been attributed to the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, although firm documentary evidence is woefully lacking (see R. A. Skelton, The relationship between the Chinese and Indian jade-carving traditions, in W. Watson (ed.), ‘The Westward Influence of the Chinese Arts from the 14th to the 18th century’, Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, no. 3, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, University of London, 1973, pp. 98-110).
Fortunately, the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum has become the repository of the largest assembly of comparable material in Europe, and recent detailed study has revealed similar features in the following six pieces, none of which can be dated more exactly than 'late seventeenth or eighteenth century'.
(i) A jade potiche and cover (I.S. 02605): It has very similar proportions, an almost identical neck and the same form of carved base with the large overlapping petalled flower, creating the shallow foot-ring. Although the two small handles are carved to represent a leaf and a hanging fruit, they are also treated in a very naturalistic manner.
(ii) A white nephrite potiche and cover (I.S. 02560): It has the same form of large overlapping petalled flower carved on the base, producing a similar undulating perimeter. The cover has a small integral knop and the small leaf handles are combined with a lotus fruit in a similar naturalistic style.
(iii) A large jade potiche and cover (I.S. 02548): It is an example of the lavish style of embellishment favoured by many Indian owners of these jade vessels. Ornately inlaid with many stones (including rubies and carnelians) within gold settings, it has a silver-gilt lining and a plain gold rim on the cover. Despite the neck being slightly taller, the form is very similar to the Waddesdon Bequest example and the base is carved with the same kind of flower except that it has eight petals, each overlapping the next and each having the four 'ribs' radiating out from the centre, where, most exceptionally, a large 'rosette' has been carved in a very bold manner.
(iv) A white nephrite potiche and cover (I.S. 02541): Also inlaid with rubies, it has the same type of flower carved on the base; but of the four overlapping petals two have eight 'ribs' and two have nine 'ribs'. The two handles in the form of fruit are small and naturalistically carved.
(v) A jade bowl (I.S. 02551): Although wide and open, it too has two small handles in the form of a leaf and fruit. Even though the base is not flat, the concave or recessed area has been carved with an overlapping four-petalled flower similar to that on the Waddesdon Bequest covered potiche.
(vi) A rock-crystal bowl (I.S. 1662-1882): This steep-sided vessel is carved with two small integral handles (in the form of scrolling leaves) and an overlapping petalled flower on the base, but the four principal petals of the flower are obscured by a radiating leaf pattern that is concentrated at the centre.
Whilst these six diverse - and mainly jade - examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum help to confirm the attribution of the Waddesdon Bequest's rock-crystal potiche and cover to a Mughal Court workshop in India, they provide no precise dating evidence nor any conclusive evidence about the origin of the engraved decoration on the Akbar potiche and cover. In both Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 it was noted that “the style of the engraving of the name Akbar is different from that of the engraved ornament”, but such a discrepancy should cause no surprise if it had been added on the instructions of the owner - a not unknown occurrence among the carved jades of Safavid Iran, Timurid Persia and Mughal India (see R. H. Pinder-Wilson, An Inscribed Jade Cup from Samarqand, ‘British Museum Quarterly’, XXIII, no. 1, 1960, pp. 19-22; also R. H. Pinder-Wilson, A Persian Jade Cup, ‘British Museum Quarterly’, XXVI, nos 1-2, 1963, pp. 49-50). For example, the famous milky greenish-white jade jug with a dragon handle (H. 14.5 cm) attributed to Samarkand in the first half of the fifteenth century bears not only the inscribed name of Timur's grandson, Ulugh Beg, ruler of the Timurid kingdom of Transoxania (northeast of Persia) from 1417 to 1449, but also inscriptions with names of later Mughal Emperors (see ‘Catalogue of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum’, Lisbon, 1982, p. 53, no. 282, illus. on p. 216; inv. no. 328). The Mughals, conscious of their Timurid lineage and cultural heritage, preserved, or even collected, manuscripts and objects with Timurid associations, as is recorded in the ‘Mémoires of the Emperor Jahāngir’ (trans. A. Rodgers and ed. H. Beveridge, vol. I, London, 1909, p. 146, and vol. II, London, 1914, pp. 195-6). A small jade pot, for example, owned and inscribed by Ulugh Beg's nephew Alā al-daula, later entered the collection of the Mughal Emperor Jahāngīr (1605-27) and is now preserved in the Avery Brundage collection, San Francisco. Hardstone vessels of this rarity and artistic calibre were undoubtedly handed down with pride by these rulers, often being remounted and enriched by each subsequent owner. Consequently there is nothing inherently improbable in the view that the Waddesdon Bequest rock-crystal potiche might bear the engraved name of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), whose reign witnessed a great flowering of culture following the turmoil of the conquests of Babur, who had first seized Afghanistan in 1504 and had subsequently established the Mughal Empire in India, certainly by 1526. However, the specialists in Mughal antiquities question the form of the inscription, which merely records the name - without any titles or appropriate pious expressions - and the absence of any comparable use of the name Akbar, either from Akbar's reign or from later in the seventeenth century, makes it difficult to refute the doubts expressed (in a private communication) about the authenticity of this little cartouche enclosing the name Akbar.
Equally, the dearth of carved rock-crystal or hardstone vessels that can be reliably associated with Akbar's reign makes all stylistic judgements about the age of the potiche and cover extremely conjectural and, indeed, almost valueless. The particular form of the handles on the Waddesdon Bequest potiche has not yet been noted on any other Mughal hardstone vessel, but the acanthus leaf was one of those naturalistic motifs that is said to have been introduced during the first strong wave of European influence of the seventeenth century under Shāh Jahān (1627-56), when European lapidaries were employed at the Mughal Court (see R. Skelton, The Shāh Jahān cup, ‘Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin’, II, no. 3, 1966, p. 111). Furthermore, buildings at Agra and Delhi were erected by Shāh Jahān with marble carvings incorporating European motifs that do not occur in the Indian tradition before the employment of European craftsmen at the Mughal Court. Consequently it is perhaps unlikely that the style of the carving of the rock-crystal potiche and cover could belong to the period of the Emperor Akbar - or, indeed, to any Mughal Court style before the reign of Shāh Jahān.
The existence of so many crystalline flaws within the rock-crystal, many of which needed hiding beneath engraved feathery fronds, mitigates against the supposition that it had belonged to “the great Akbar (1542-1605), who had his name engraved upon it”. The rock-crystal's lack of purity seems inconsistent with the standards of excellence that are thought to have prevailed at Akbar's Court, but the skill with which the engraver has minimised the distracting effect of these flaws is both accomplished and highly artistic. Indeed, it compares most favourably with the similar - but more clumsily engraved - leafy fronds that haphazardly cover the surface of a few rock-crystal vessels in the Ottoman Palace Treasury in Constantinople (see C. Köseoglu, trans, and ed. J. M. Rogers, ‘The Topkapi Saray Museum: The Treasury’, London, 1987, p. 197, no. 54, and p. 199, no. 67, where the former is cautiously related to a “group of rock-crystal vessels, some probably of Mughal Indian provenance”). The second of the two examples in the Topkapi Saray is, however, of particular interest because the typical late sixteenth- early seventeenth-century type of Ottoman gold collar mounts (for the rubies and emeralds that were thickly applied to the rock-crystal flask's exterior surface) are in many cases placed on top of the engraved fronds, totally disregarding the leafy decoration. Therefore the engraved fronds on this rock-crystal flask do undoubtedly pre-date the addition of the Ottoman gold-mounted rubies and emeralds, and were presumably engraved at the time when the rock-crystal flask was carved, possibly in Mughal India early in the seventeenth century. A similar, but more elaborate, form of engraved ornament is occasionally found on clear glass huqqa bowls, such as the example in Cambridge (see ‘Glass at the Fitzwilliam Museum’, exh. cat., Cambridge, 1978, p. 65, no. 140, with illus.) or in America (see Robert J. Charleston, ‘Masterpieces of Glass’, Corning Museum of Glass, New York, 1990, p. 147, pl. 65). Although the glass may have been exported from England, the engraving is attributed to an Indian, probably Delhi, workshop in the late seventeenth century.
Finally, the European enamelled gold mounts are of doubtful origin. They are in the fashionable Renaissance style of the mid-sixteenth century and, depending on the location of the goldsmith's workshop within Europe, would have been made at some point during the second or third quarters of the sixteenth century - that is to say, coinciding with the early part of the reign of the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). Therefore, if the mounts had been genuine, the potiche and cover would not only have had to be carved in a Mughal Court workshop early in Akbar's reign and then been engraved with his name, but it would also have had to travel to Europe before this type of enamelled gold mount ceased to be fashionable. Fortunately, the very different fashion prevailing in Europe in the late sixteenth century is well documented in the Hapsburg Schatzkammer, which still preserves many of the finest mounted hardstone vessels carved under the patronage of the Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1612), especially in his Court workshops at Prague (see R. Distelberger, in ‘Prag um 1600: Kunst und Kultur am Hofe Kaiser Rudolfs II’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1988, I and II, nos 343-73, and 688-712).
In contrast, a close examination of the enamelled gold mounts, particularly the diamond-set mount on the base of the Waddesdon Bequest potiche, has revealed both technical and design details that are inconsistent with known European sixteenth-century practice - not least the smooth interior of the cast pierced base-ring mount with its four splayed 'feet'. However, the identity of the nineteenth-century goldsmith's workshop that might have produced these mounts is not known, especially as they do not exhibit any of the more obvious characteristics that are now associated with the work of the Aachen forger Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909). There were, of course, other talented fakers, especially in Paris, though their products are less readily identified.
In this connection, the faking of spectacular Renaissance enamelled gold pendant jewels “traditionally said to have been given by a Medici prince to a Moghul Emperor, perhaps in 1648” has already been noted and discussed in Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, I: The Jewels’, London, 1986, pp. 169-70). Two large and exceptionally grand 'baroque pearl' pendants - a Siren (or mermaid) jewel and a companion merman pendant - were almost simultaneously brought to England from India during the six years while Viscount Canning was Governor-General of India (1856-62). Neither had any documented earlier history, and both had been given the same dubious, but glamorous, association with the Medici and the Mughul Court. Whereas the Siren jewel has been thoroughly examined since it was acquired in 1982 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and rightly published as “probably ca. 1860” (see Clare Vincent, in ‘The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, New York, 1984, pp. 196-8, no. 117), the companion merman pendant, known as the Canning Jewel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. M. 2697-1931, see S. Bury, ‘Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982, p. 154, Case 26, no. 10), has still not been scientifically examined and republished, despite its controversial status having been identified in 1986. Visually it appears to contain telling evidence, especially on the reverse where, for example, the roll of hair above the neck is but one very puzzling feature. Furthermore, there is evidence that the goldsmith's work had been specifically made - not altered - to accommodate the large Indian carved oval ruby set in its enamelled scaly tail. The latter has always been regarded as a later addition, inserted while the pendant jewel was in India, and yet the design of the enamelling on the tail appears to incorporate it quite perfectly and the adjacent enamelling itself is also unaffected. There is a compelling need to re-examine the Canning Jewel in laboratory conditions to establish if it could pre-date the insertion of the undisputed Indian elements, such as the large carved ruby. The outstanding skill of the jewellers, goldsmiths and enamellers at the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Courts of the Mughal rulers has long been widely acknowledged and, indeed, by the eighteenth century the city of Jaipur had become the centre for the thriving Mughal enamel industry. In the nineteenth century the skills were still there, and no doubt if European Renaissance designs or models had been made available for the Jaipur craftsmen to copy there would have been no obstacle to their production. Consequently, although the modern origin of the enamelled gold mounts on the rock-crystal potiche and cover is no longer in doubt, the location of the workshop - India or Europe - remains an open question.
In conclusion, this potiche and cover, which would seem to have been carved in a Mughal Court workshop, is unlikely to be earlier than the reign of Shāh Jahān (1627-56), and perhaps was made many years later. There seems no reason to propose a different origin for the engraved foliate and floral ornamentation (to hide the flaws in the crystal), but the authenticity and purpose of the engraved cartouche with the name Akbar remains very much in doubt. Since the gold mounts in the style of the sixteenth century are spurious, it is likely that both the engraved cartouche (with the Arabic characters) and the mounts were added at the same time to create a unique relic of the links between the great Akbar and Renaissance Europe.
Stripped of these two distracting elements, the rock-crystal potiche and cover emerges as a Mughal carving of considerable rarity and increasing interest.
- Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 79, fig. 15
- O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 79
- Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. III. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.34, figs. 316-322.
- Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
- Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
- Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991
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