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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1093 

Lot 1093
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Lot 1093
Treasury 5, no.996 (‘Suyun’s Metamorphosis’)

Transparent sapphire-blue, ruby-red, emerald-green, and amethyst-purple glass and translucent pink, yellow, opaque black, and white glass; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded foot rim; carved as a single overlay with a continuous design of sixteen mythical creatures, various stages of the transformation of a carp into a dragon, some of the dragons with four claws, most with five, with two flaming pearls and one formalized cloud, the foot carved with a seventeenth dragon and inscribed in relief clerical script, Suyun daoren zhi 素雲道人製 (‘Made [at the behest of] Man of the Way Suyun’)
Height: 9.28 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.38/2.80 cm
Stopper: nephrite

Sotheby’s, Los Angeles, 31 October 1984

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw1994, no.116
Treasury 5, no.996

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March-June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994-February 1995

In the field of glass, it is a pleasant change indeed to be able to date something reasonably precisely and unambiguously. The Empress Dowager’s second-favourite eunuch (some say he was her favourite) used the name Suyun daoren. His original name was Liu Duosheng 劉多升 (also written 劉多生); his Daoist names were Liu Chengyin 誠印 and Suyun daoren. Liu was extremely wealthy; before he died in 1894, he both raised funds and donated his own money to build numerous Daoist temples. Because of his activities, a large number of eunuchs were ordained as Daoist monks. He even announced that eunuchs who left palace service could take up residence in the temples (as many did, some staying there until 1957). Our dating range for this snuff bottle is begins with the year in which Liu took orders (1871) and ends with the year in which he died (1894).

Some sources note the existence of the Suyun daoren zhi mark on Guangxu-era pottery, leading others to go one step further and draw the conclusion that Suyun daoren was a potter. It seems unlikely that a potter would adopt the name of the one of the most powerful living eunuchs in the country, however. It is far more likely that Liu Chengyin had both porcelain and glass wares made for him and directed that they should bear his religious name. This is borne out by the fact that the Ault Collection includes a series of bottles on both glass and porcelain made for Suyun (Kleiner 1990, nos. 197 - 200). No. 197 is a glass bottle very similar to this one, with a seal mark on the base bearing Suyun’s name. No. 198 is a blue-and-white porcelain equivalent, also of similar shape, size, and decoration, while no. 199 is a porcelain bottle similar in shape but decorated in famille-rose enamels with Pekingese dogs and precisely dated to 1891. Another blue-and-white porcelain bottle is known, of the cylindrical shape more normal for such wares and also bearing his name, this one decorated with geese. The dragons on this example and the blue-and-white bottle in the Ault Collection are of the five-clawed variety, and yellow dragons figure on both glass examples. A blue-and-white porcelain snuff bottle recently found online with the Suyun daoren zhi mark has a five-clawed dragon on each main side surrounded by four-clawed dragons. (Whether or not the bottle is authentic we cannot say, but we were pleased to note that the dealer confirms our identification of Suyun daoren as Liu Duosheng). The dragons support our longstanding suspicion that imperial prerogatives with regard to claws and colours had eroded by the end of the nineteenth century—although it must be noted that Suyun daoren’s use of these symbols hardly represents the rise of the humble artisan; as one of the Empress Dowager’s two favourite eunuchs, he had powers far exceeding those of the Guangxu emperor (who, come to think of it, had virtually no powers at all for most of his life). Another possibility is that it was Cixi who had the bottles made for Suyun daoren, and nobody was going to question her right to use imperial symbols.

Kleiner suggests that the Ault bottle demonstrates good quality glass overlay was still being produced in the Guangxu period, which we accept as true in the light of Sale 5, lot 102, but neither this nor the Ault glass overlay could be described as ‘good quality’ by the standards of the Qianlong palace workshops. There is nothing wrong with the glass itself, which might indeed be from the Qianlong period in view of its purity and vivid colouring, but the execution of the carving is quite crude. The mid-Qing decline that is so frequently cited, which by the mid-nineteenth century had degenerated into ineptitude, related to processes carried out on glass, rather than the glass itself. From that perspective, the Ault bottle and this one are hardly shining examples of the art of glass carving. The creatures are artistically and technically dubious, the dragons giving the distinct impression they should not be airborne without a safety-net. In the case of the blue dragon, in the middle register of creatures, the artist has so misunderstood the traditional formulation of the full-frontal beast that he has depicted it with its upper body tied in a knot. The application of the colours to the design is also careless, with considerable bleeding one into another and the green of the foot rim so poorly applied that it might be described as bleeding profusely.

Whatever this bottle may lack in quality, however, it compensates for it in its sheer Disneyesque lunacy of subject matter, and the lower register of metamorphosing carp would lend itself perfectly to serve as an illustration in Alice in Wonderland. As the bottle is rotated, a straightforward bright-pink fan-tailed goldfish (in so far as it is possible to be both straightforward and bright pink if you are a goldfish) is gradually transformed into a winged hybrid with legs and a dragon’s head. Above, we find two registers of proper dragons, eight in all, with two flaming pearls, while the dragon on the foot raises the total to the nine required for auspicious significance.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.


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