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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1090 

Lot 1090
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Lot 1090
Treasury 6, no. 1263 (‘Sepia Surprise’)

Brown and gold enamel on colourless glaze on porcelain; with a convex lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a convex foot rim; painted predominantly in brown with a continuous garden scene featuring a perforated, convoluted rock formation supporting a halberd, gold-painted business end up, to the left of which a figure with two large feathers rising from his gold-painted martial headdress stands with a woman, while a man is about to emerge from a door to their left holding a mirror; the glaze extending to the inside of the neck; the foot and interior unglazed
Jingdezhen, 1800–1840
Height: 5.19 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.60/0.88 cm
Stopper: quartz (tiger’s-eye); brass collar

Robert Kleiner (1999)

Treasury 6, no. 1263

Several features suggest that this is relatively early. The shape, a cylinder rounding gently at the shoulders to meet a narrow cylindrical neck with a recessed flat circular foot, occurs on several underglaze-blue bottles that can be reasonably dated to the earlier part of the nineteenth century (see, for instance, Sale 2, lot 98). The interior is unglazed, which was typical of the late-Qianlong and Jiaqing periods, but became the exception by the early Daoguang reign. Finally, the subject matter relates more to the Jiaqing, when illustrations from legends and popular novels were in fashion, a trend that seems to have waned in popularity to some extent by the early Daoguang reign.

This predominantly brown palette, with only a few details painted in gold, is extremely unusual. The use of sepia designs seems to have been an experiment tried in the early nineteenth century. It also occurs on a series of probable Daoguang bottles on a black ground (see Geng 1992, nos. 173 and 174). What is surprising is that it was not used more often, since it is so effective. The present bottle remains one of the few that is painted almost entirely in the one colour without the black ground. It is also very well painted for porcelain decoration, with confident and well-controlled brushwork. This bottle succeeds in making the design continuous far better than some of the other ones we have seen that could be adaptations of woodblock illustrations. The wall behind the wutong tree makes that area of the design interesting and logical, and this in turn makes it less likely that we will notice that the tree covers the seam joining the opposite sides of the original picture.

The subject may be related to the successful plot to eliminate the treacherous Dong Zhuo 董卓 in 192. Dong was in control of what was left of the Eastern Han dynasty and used his power to take what he wanted to take and kill whomever he wanted to kill. One of his trusted officials, Wang Yun 王允, secretly loathed him but was unable to think of a way to topple him. A girl Wang Yun had adopted and was having trained in the arts of music and dance knew that something was troubling him; when she learned of his secret, she offered to help in any way she could. Her name was Diaochan 貂嬋 (sometimes written 貂蟬), and her offer gave Wang an idea. He managed to get Dong Zhuo’s adopted son Lü Bu 呂布 to his house, where he introduced Diaochan to him as his daughter. One thing led to another, and soon Lü Bu and Diaochan were betrothed. Next, Wang Yun entertained Dong Zhuo in his home and introduced Diaochan as a singing girl he had just bought. One thing led to another, and Diaochan was presented to Dong Zhuo as a gift. Next, Wang Yun made sure that Lü Bu heard the news. Lü Bu berated Wang, who told him it was just a loan, and he had no choice but to accede to Dong’s desire. The next day, Lü Bu went to Dong Zhuo’s residence, where master and concubine were late in rising. Diaochan signalled to Lü that her heart still belonged to him. The two men attended the morning court together, then Lü snuck back to Dong Zhuo’s residence and pledged to free the tearful Diaochan from her misery. When Dong returned from court and saw the two in such intimate conversation, he was enraged. Lü Bu quit the scene, leaving Dong Zhuo in a rage. One of Dong’s advisors urged him to pardon Lü, whose military prowess was an asset to the regime, but when Dong told Diaochan that he would allow Lü and her to marry, she switched tactics and beseeched him to keep her. Flattered and besotted with her tender beauty, he agreed. Lü Bu hesitated to take revenge on his adoptive father, but Wang Yun convinced him that he would be doing a service to the country by getting Dong Zhuo out of the way. A few days later, during an ambush by Wang Yun’s men, Lü Bu got his chance and assassinated Dong Zhuo. These events were popularized in fiction and drama, and it is difficult to identify the source for this snuff bottle’s illustration, but the scene here could be Dong Zhuo returning from court to find Lü Bu and Diaochan declaring their love.


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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