The familiar image of a walrus-whiskered colonel sneezing into a spotted handkerchief and spreading the familiar brown dust over his waistcoat may need some updating. Snuff-taking in these days of diminishing pleasures may very well be making something of a comeback - especially among the younger set looking for legal thrills that somehow seem rakish and racy. And, just as in the past, producing a snuff-box at a party gives the opportunity to flash a family signet ring. Snuff-taking is a form of silent communication among the well-heeled.
Taking snuff probably began with the American Indians several centuries before Europeans discovered its charm in the 17th century. But once discovered, it was never to be forgotten and a whole lifestyle was founded on a few grammes of ground tobacco leaves, spiced with herbs and aromatic substances.
Early enthusiasts regarded snuff as a medicine. It was thought to possess pain-killing powers, beneficial to the eyes and teeth. Snuff was also supposed to ease throat ailments, asthma, and even constipation.
While the Europeans put their snuff into tiny boxes, the Chinese, who were firm addicts from the 1700s after the Portuguese had introduced tobacco to them, chose bottles instead. These were either intricately carved or spiritually minimalist, combining practicality with aesthetic refinement.
Robert Hall is one of the world's major dealers and experts in Chinese snuff bottles, and his recently-opened gallery, just off Cork Street, is a testament to his passion. For nearly a quarter of a century, he has specialised in what is already quite a select field of collecting and his new space is the first West End gallery to concentrate on this subject.
Arranged in glass cases, the snuff- bottles are immediately appealing. They seem in many cases to be pocket- sized versions of those huge temple urns and vases from dynastic China. The craftsmanship is intriguing. Some are so elaborate as to be deliciously gaudy. Others so plain that they compete well with elements of modern architectural design.
The exhibition features 70 examples from the collection of Lionel Copley, a G P from Pontefract, Yorkshire, who took more than 30 years to assemble it. His passion started with a snap decision to buy two snuff bottles in 1952 for about pounds 5 a piece - at that time a weekly wage for some. These are now worth thousands. Initially concentrating only on glass bottles, he moved on to acquire examples made of jade, agate, porcelain, crystal, amber, and even more humble and ephemeral materials, such as gourd.
As seasoned collectors know, Oriental antiquities are among the easiest to fake. Cracks can be introduced to glazes in vases, and verdigris used semi-carelessly but strategically. So, too, with snuff-bottles. There is an enormous variety and the quality is often questionable. As an expert, Robert Hall has seen several collectors who think they are sitting on treasure, whereas, in fact, it's tat. The Copley Collection is, however, superb and has been built up with a love bordering on obsession. The collection may well be of interest to the 600-strong members of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, founded in the 1960s in America, who meet yearly at snuff conventions to share enthusiasms. It is not unusual for a top-quality bottle to fetch dollars 200,000. Happily, Robert Hall has more affordable examples, which should leave just enough change to buy a tin or two of snuff.
Robert Hall, Chinese Works of Art, 15c Clifford Street, London W1 (071-734 4008)
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