DECORATIVE ARTS AND ANTIQUES
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Chinese civilization is often credited with a far greater antiquity than the facts will support. The earliest pottery, the funerary wares of Kansu Province, hardly antedate 2000 B.C. Chinese art generally, however, is remarkable for its continuity. The altar vase with the trumpet-shaped mouth known as the tsun, first to be found in bronze during the Shang dynasty [1523-1028 B.C.], is a familiar shape in porcelain as late as the eighteenth century, and was even copied in the 1750s by European porcelain factories. Motifs of decoration alter to some extent with the passing of time, some lose their meaning and [p. 416] significance, but even after three thousand years they are often still recognizable. The tao ti'eh mask, a very early bronze motif, occurs as painted ornament on the porcelain of the emperor Ch'ien Lung [1736-96], even though by this time its totemic meaning had been lost in the mists of time.
The Shang and Chou dynasties were noted for superb bronzes, but hardly for their ceramics. A fine white stoneware was made during the Shang period, but the only complete specimen is in the Freer Gallery in Washington. Glazes first appear during the second century B.C., probably the result of wood-ash falling on the surface of a pot during firing. A lead silicate glaze had been developed before the Han dynasty [206 B.C.-A.D. 220] had well advanced. This green or brownish-green, was probably discovered independently of the West, although the Roman world, already skilled glassmakers, had produced a green lead pottery glaze about the same time.
The most familiar Han dynasty pottery objects are the hu, a baluster-shaped jar based on a bronze prototype, and found glazed and unglazed; the green glazed 'Hill' jar, a cylindrical jar with a moulded conical cover representing the Taoist Isles of the Blest; and the 'Hill' censer, like a stem-cup with an integral saucer and a similar mountainous cover to the 'Hill' jar.
The origin of the pottery hu is not difficult to see. Some have moulded ring handles integral with the body, instead of the loose ring handles of the bronze version. The Tao ti'eh mask which occurs on some of them was an ancient bronze motif, even in Han times. Some of the finest specimens have a hunting frieze of figures and horses in relief running round the shoulder, usually called the 'flying gallop', which also has bronze affiliations.
Excavators have brought to light many tomb-figures and other objects of grave-furniture, such as models of servants and retainers, farm animals, domestic appliances like cooking stoves, such farm buildings as pig-sties, and even the house itself. Generally the figures are smaller and less realistically modeled than those of the T'ang dynasty [618-906], but are nevertheless lively and evocative of the life of the period. They testify principally to an agricultural way of life rather than the Court life of the T'ang period.
The body of Han dynasty wares is either dark grey, when objects are unglazed and decorated with unfired pigments [rarely lacquer], or dark reddish brown, when a glaze is present. Glazed pots were fired mouth downwards, with consequent small glaze defects at the rim. The glaze is finely crackled, and usually iridescent due to burial, since all Han pottery has been excavated or recovered from tombs.
The fall of the Han dynasty was followed by a period of strife during which very little of importance was made, but a Tatar Kingdom was established in northern China as the Northern Wei and produced tomb-figures in a blackish-grey body decorated in red and white slip and unfired pigments which stylistically bridge the gap between Han and T'ang figures. Yüeh celadon from Shensi Province first occurs during this period, and is discussed under the heading of Celadon.
The T'ang dynasty is a period of enormous importance in Chinese ceramic history, and a time of unprecedented expansion which coincided with comparative freedom from foreign invasion.
Contacts with Persia and the Middle East generally were many, and the influence of classical Greece, the delayed product of Alexander the Great's conquests, reached China, and is apparent in the form of some T'ang pottery, such as pilgrim-bottles and the decoration of certain urns.
An important aspect of T'ang pottery is the potter's mastery of coloured glazes, either alone as monochromes, or in combination. The glazes are of the lead silicate variety, and colours are green, blue, dark blue, yellow, orange, straw-colour, and brown. These were applied over a lightly-fired buff earthenware body soft enough to be cut with a knife or marked with the fingernail. Both tomb-figures and jars were often decorated with glazes of several colours sponged on, giving a dappled effect. These glazes, like the monochromes, rarely come down to [p. 417] the base, but usually stop short about one-third or two-thirds of the way from the top.
Although much of the production was soft earthenware, the hard-fired wares were not entirely neglected. The earliest literary reference to Yüeh celadon belongs to the eighth century. The earliest Ying ch'ing occurs during the T'ang dynasty; so does the earliest Ting ware. There are several stonewares with a dark brown or a black glaze. Important evidence for the dating of T'ang wares comes from excavations at Samarra on the River Tigris, where the Caliph Mu'tasim built a pleasure palace in 838 which was abandoned in 883. The numerous fragments of T'ang pottery found here could not possibly have been made after the latter year.
The tomb-figures of this period were first brought to the attention of Western collectors in the 1920s by George Eumorfopoulos. They had only been discovered a decade or so before, when a railway-cutting was driven through a T'ang graveyard. These models in the lively naturalness of their modeling were quite unlike anything previously known in Chinese pottery. The horses were a breed from Feraghan, instead of the Mongolian ponies which normally occur as an ornamental motif in Chinese art, and camels vigorously modelled are extremely impressive.
Ladies of the Court, musicians, servants, tomb-guardians, and many other subjects are usually decorated with coloured glazes, but are sometimes covered only with a straw-coloured glaze, or the glaze is omitted altogether.
With the coming of the Sung dynasty, which began in 960 and ended with the Mongol invasion of 1279, wares fall into well-marked categories the origin of which is, for the most part known and traceable to definite kiln-sites. During this period the emphasis was on stonewares with a monochrome feldspathic glaze, of which six are esteemed to a point where they are termed 'classic'.
These classic wares are Ju yao, made at Ju Chou in Honan Province; Kuan yao, first made at Kai-fêng fu [Honan Province] and, after 1127, at Hang Chou; Ko yao and Lung Ch'üan yao, made at Lung Ch'üan in Chekiang; Ting yao, made at Ting Chou in Chihli: and Chün yao from Chün Chou in Honan. The word yao means ware. These wares are considered in more detail under the appropriate headings, but all of them represent distinct and important technical advances, especially in the mastery of the feldspathic glaze fired at the same temperature as the [p. 418] body, and in the achievement of colour variations by controlling the atmospheric content of the furnace.
Although not among the classic wares the black glazed tea -bowls and other objects from Chien-an in Fukien Province and the very similar wares from Honan, are also important. They were especially esteemed by the Japanese for use in the Tea Ceremony, and by them called temmoku. The body is a dark grey coarse stoneware covered with a thick treacly glaze which ends in a roll just above the base. The Chien potters devised many decorative variations to the simple glaze. With streaks of brown it was called 'hare's fur'. The 'oil-spot' glaze, with silvery iridescent spots, was in great demand among the Japanese Tea Masters.
The most striking departure from the pattern set by Sung wares generally came from the kilns of Tzú stoneware, sometimes covered with a white slip, was employed to make jars, often of dramatic or monumental form, and other wares. Painted decoration was employed in novel ways which had not hitherto been used in the decoration of pottery, and which were to play their part in the development of painted decoration in the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties.
Painting was principally executed with a brush in black or brown slip, broadly and with great dexterity and economy of line. Towards the end of the Sung dynasty a few pieces simply painted in red and green enamel occur, and the technique of enameling as a method of decorating pottery had been learned from Persia. Also from Persia came underglaze blue, where it had been used since the ninth century. There are literary references to the use of underglaze blue during the Sung dynasty, but no certain example till the Yüan dynasty. Many other techniques, apart from painting, were employed at Tzú Chou kilns were in existence in T'ang times, and are still flourishing today, the wares seem to have been very little esteemed in Sung Court Circles, probably because of their divergence from the admired classic wares.
The greater number of surviving wares from the YÄan dynasty [1280-1368] are celadons of one kind or another which are separately discussed [see Celadon]. These are usually decorated with elaborately carved floral ornament. It is, however, at this time that porcelain of the kind with which we are most familiar begins to emerge. White translucent, glazed, and painted, the finest wares were made at the Imperial Kilns at Ching-tê Chên in Kiangsi Province, where kilns had existed from very early times. The Percival David Foundation, London, has an altar vase of this kind painted in underglaze blue which is dated 1351. It has now been established that the use of underglaze copper red in painted decoration had its beginning about the same time, and a few exceedingly are specimens have survived. The Mongol dynasty's connections with Persia were close. Chinese commentators write of the employment of 'Mohammedan blue' [hui ch'ing] in decorating porcelain at this time, and porcelain ewers with a bridge spout of the period are closely based on those of Persian metalwork.
The Mongols were defeated, and the native Ming [Bright] dynasty established in 1368 by Hung-wu. By now the kilns at Ching-tê chên were well established and during the reign of Yung-lo [1403-24] produced a porcelain referred to as t'o t'ai [bodiless] because it was little more than paper-thin porcelain sandwiched between two layers of glaze. This suggests a complete mastery of both material and firing techniques. In the same reign the so-called 'secret' decoration [an hua] was first employed. The design was incised into the body of a very translucent porcelain with a needlepoint, or painted on to the unglazed surface in white slip. After glazing the piece had to be held to the light to see the decoration. This was evidently popular, because it was repeated later in the Ming dynasty, and again in the eighteenth century.
The general characteristics of Ming porcelain are a fine grain body, white in colour, tinged buff on the unglazed footring. Glazes are usually fairly thick and sometimes more or less hazy with bubbles. They are often slightly uneven, with a bluish tinge due to traces of iron which also confer the buff colour on the footring. The musliny texture of the glaze surface which the Chinese call 'chicken skin' occurs quite commonly, and 'pinholes' in the glaze surface are also common. Most Ming wares lack the precise finish [p. 419] of those made in the following Ch'ing dynasty. It is an error, however, to think of them as necessarily heavy and clumsily potted. It is true that wares like celadon dishes, and the large early blue-and-white dishes have this character, but they were made originally to withstand the hazards of transport by ship or merchant caravan, and are not representative of wares intended for home consumption. Ming potters were not usually very careful about neat and precise finish, unlike 18th-c. potters who, in this respect, often approached modern Western factory standards, but the scale of values is different, and Ming porcelain painters were capable of superbly free drawings of natural objects, like aquatic birds amid reeds, observed with a sly and subtle humour unmatched at any other period.
The reign of Hsüan-tê [1426-35] is noted for the excellence of its blue-and-white wares, and for those decorated in underglaze copper red. Stem-cups with three red fish or fruit began in this reign, although 18th-c. versions are far more numerous. Porcelain painted with underglaze blue was made in large quantities, lotus flowers amid scrollwork and aquatic birds being favourite subjects. The colour, a blackish blue, seems as though drawn into thicker spots at intervals, the 'heaped and piled' blue of the Chinese commentator, a feature repeated in the archaizing wares of the eighteenth century.
Not a great deal is known about enamel painting at this time. The author of the Po Wu Yao Lan, writing in 1625, referred to them as 'deep, thick, and piled on, and consequently not very beautiful'.
By the reign of Ch'ên Hua [1465-87] the situation had altered. Blue-and-white was being neglected and excellent quality enamelled porcelain produced. The reason for the unpopularity of blue-and-white according to the Po Wu Yao Lan, was the failure of supplies of a good cobalt blue. It is about this time that the method of applying enamels directly to the unglazed body [émail sur bisque] was first practiced. This gives an entirely different effect from enamels applied on the glaze, and although nothing exists which is certainly as old as this, later examples are much sought.
The most important innovation was the introduction of the tou ts'ai or contrasting colours. This was a combination of underglaze blue and enamel colours, the latter laid on the glaze within underglaze blue outlines. The most representative examples of this particular group are the 'chicken cups', so called from the subject of their decoration. These were repeated in the 18th century.
The following reign of Hung Chih [1488-1505] is noted for the introduction of a yellow ground, and that of Chêng-tê [1506-21] for the revival of blue-and-white porcelain, no doubt due to the acquisition of fresh supplies of Mohammedan blue, a supposition made the more probable by the existence of specimens from this reign bearing Arabic inscriptions. During this period copies of enamelled wares from earlier reigns were made, and an innovation is a decoration of incised dragons coloured green on a yellow ground. Although Chêng-tê porcelain is scarce, by this reign it becomes possible to date specimens with a far greater degree of certainty. The reign of Chia Ching [1522-66] is also noted for the fine quality of its blue-and-white, and in this reign underglaze copper red more or less disappeared, to be replaced by overglaze iron red, sometimes called tomato red.
The palette termed Wan Li Wu Ts'ai [Wan Li five colour decoration], which in the second half of the 17th c. developed into the famille verte palette, was actually first employed in the reign of Chia Ching. Wu Ts'aiis a combination of underglaze blue and enamel colours.
The reign of Wan Li [1573-1620] to a great extent continued styles already existing under Chia Ching, but many more wares now began to be made for export to the West. Even Western pewter forms, such as the plate with the condiment ledge, occur towards the end of the reign, just as Chinese forms were copied in European tin-enamelled ware. The export porcelain of this reign was known to the Dutch as Kraak porselin [carrack porcelain], because this is what they were capturing from Portuguese carracks intercepted on the high seas. The blue of these wares is greyish, and often pale. They lacked precise finish, but the painting is lively and lacks the stiffness of contemporary wars for home consumption. The export wares of the period are not especially rare today, and they commonly appear in the Dutch still-life painting of the seventeenth century.
Towards the middle of the 17th c. a new kind of blue-and-white porcelain occurs. The body is cream-white rather than blue-white, and the underglaze blue is a pure sapphire. Many of the vases are almost indistinguishable from those of the reign of K'ang Hsi [1662-1722] of the Ch'ing dynasty, except that the base is flat and unglazed, and a few rare specimens bear a cyclical date a few years [p. 420] before the end of the Ming dynasty. This group, precursors of K'ang Hsi blue-and-white, is termed 'Transitional'. These remarks serve to emphasize that, for the most part, the use of dynasties and emperors in trying to assign dates to wares and their development is a useful, but artificial, convention, since at all periods there was a good deal of overlapping, and wares produced in small quantities in one period might not receive attention till a later on when they were produced in greater quantities.
An important variety of ware about which there is very little definite information is that known as San ts'ai, or three -coloured, made principally in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Surviving examples are mainly vases, garden-seats, and large bowls, and decoration is by means of brilliantly coloured lead silicate glazes kept from intermingling by threads of clay which separate the elements of the design. The usual colours are dark blue, turquoise, and aubergine of variable shade and intensity, and the body may either be stoneware burnt to a dark brown where unglazed, or porcelain. Specimens are difficult to date, or to assign to a kiln or kilns.
It is equally difficult to date, and award a provenance to, stoneware objects of various kinds, like the decorative ridge-tiles covered with coloured glazes which continued some of the T'ang tradition.
The important wares of Tê Hua and Yi-Hsing are discussed in the glossary, and celadons continued to be made at Chü Chou, to where the lung Ch'üan kilns were removed early in the Ming dynasty. Floral decoration is characteristically Ming in style, and it has been suggested that a ring bare of glaze and burnt to a reddish-brown within the footring is indication of a Ming date, which accords well enough with observation.
The Ming dynasty came to an end in 1644 and was replaced by invaders, the Manchus, who were Tatars from Manchuria. In Chinese, this dynasty was called Ch'ing [Purity], and it became noted for the wares made during the reign of three emperors - K'ang Hsi, Yung Chêng [1722-36] and Ch'ien Lung [1736-96]
The wares of the Ch'ing dynasty [1644-1912] are truly enormous in their variety, and by this time a great deal of technical knowledge and experience had been acquired. Wares now began to be potted with far greater precision, and a production-line system was introduced at Ching-tê Chên by which manufacture and decoration were broken down into a large number of separate operations, each performed by one man. Even decoration was split into its components, with one man painting figures, one birds, and another trees. This system, described in reports sent to Europe by Jesuit missionaries, was undoubtedly known to Josiah Wedgwood when, towards the end of the eighteenth century, he began to rationalize his own production. The employment of these methods necessarily brought changes in their train which were hardly salutary. The spontaneity and humour of a good deal of Ming porcelain painting disappears, to be replaced by a 'tighter', less adventurous style which gives more attention to detail and less to fluency of line in drawing. Ch'ing porcelain is too often a display of technical virtuosity which lacks the sensitivity of early wares.
The greater number of enamelled wares of this period fall into two categories known as famille verte and famille rose. Two other categories - Famille noire and famille jaune - are less well known because specimens are fewer. Famille noire refers to a relatively small number of vases - beloved by George Salting and the Empress Dowager - which have a black ground washed over with translucent green enamel in conjunction with flowers in the famille verte palette. Famille jaune has a yellow ground, instead of black.
Enamelled porcelain was first separated into these categories in the middle of the nineteenth century by Albert Jacquemart on the basis of the colour predominating, and the subject is further discussed in the glossary. Towards the end of the eighteenth [p. 421] century the rose and verte palettes were combined to form rose-verte, a colour scheme employed for export wares of debased and overcrowded design painted at Canton.
Underglaze copper-red was employed for both archaizing wares and those painted in contemporary styles, and the Ch'ien Lung potters mastered the difficult art of combining copper red and coblat blue. A very important group of wares developed, during the reign of Ch'ien Lung, from copper used in this way. These are the flambés - copper glazes fired in a reducing kiln, some of which are called sang de boeuf from a fancied resemblance to ox-blood. This colour was not attainable in Europe till almost the end of the 10th c., when its secret was discovered by Bernard Moore in Staffordshire. The flambé glazes are usually streaked or suffused with blue, or bear a blue splash, or splashes, much in the same way as Sung dynasty Chün ware. The sang de boeuf glaze is generally to be found on large pieces - jars, vases, and bowls - but the delicate peachbloom glaze, which belongs to the same category, is only to be found in small pieces, like those made for the scholar's table. Peachbloom is a pink of variable shade and density which has occasional faint green specks. Good specimens were much prized in eighteenth-c. China, and inferior copies were made in Japan which are still good enough to deceive the unwary.
Monochrome glazes are especially numerous throughout the eighteenth century. The rose enamel was thus employed, and the coral red monochrome was derived from iron-red. There were several yellows, of which the Imperial yellow is the best known. This is a dark brownish-yellow lead glaze. Brown glazes, sometimes termed café au lait, cover vases with famille rose floral painting in fan-shaped reserved panels. These are sometimes termed Batavian ware because they were shipped by the Dutch from Batavia, one of their Far Eastern entrepôts. The so-called mirror-black, to be found principally covering rouleau vases decorated with delicate patterns in oil-gilding which have often now worn off, is related to the old Honan black glazes, and has nothing to do with famille noire. The wash of green enamel is missing. Some of the greens described by Chinese commentators are difficult to identify. Names like cucumber green, camellia leaf green, and apple-green are typical. Turquoise and blue lead glazes, usually covering small pieces and figures, continue a type first introduced during the Ming dynasty.
The Ch'ing dynasty developed some not particularly happy novelties, such as porcelaine lac burgautée--porcelain painted over with lacquer and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Imitations in porcelain of jade, lacquer, bronze, rhinoceros horn, and even grained wood, were also made.
Belonging to this period is the so-called Chinese 'soft-paste' porcelain. This is not a soft-paste in the European sense, but an opaque, fine-grained, white porcelain with a crackled glaze painted in underglaze blue. The glaze, according to Chinese sources, contains hua shih [slippery stone], once thought to be soapstone but, since analysis reveals a complete absence of magnesium oxide, may in fact be pegmatite. Pieces are small, and of good quality.
During this period vast quantities of porcelain were made for export to the West, largely of European form, with decoration specially commissioned, but also of such Japanese wares as Kakiemon and Imari decorations in demand in the West. There is little doubt that this trade had a debasing effect on Chinese taste generally which becomes more evident as the nineteenth century progresses.
The reign of the first nineteenth c. emperor, Chia Ch'ing [1796-1820], who should not be confused with Ming emperor, Chia Ching, has little or nothing of importance to show, apart from the snuff bottle, the best examples of which are in hardstones of one kind or another. The graviata decoration, in which the body was covered with incised decoration painted over with opaque enamels, began in the reign of Ch'ien Lung and continued into that of Tao Kuang [1820-51]. The rose-verte palette was commonly employed for wares [especially export wares] with a lumpy, musliny glaze. Enamels became increasingly opaque instead of translucent, and tended to cover most of the available surface. During the reign of Tao Kuang some good copies of the more showy wares of the early decades of the 18th c. were made, such as the large ewer and stand decorated with a fruiting peach on a bough which runs to the rim of the stand and continues over on to the back.
Ching-tê Chên was burned down in 1853 and rebuilt in 1864; during the reign of Kuan Hsü [1874-1909] the factory produced copies of such eighteenth-century glazes as sang de boeuf, applegreen, amille noire, and peachbloom which are hardly deceptive. Modern wares are of negligible importance.
This is a very brief outline of the wares which came from the better known kiln sites. There were many other smaller kilns throughout China, about which little is known. There are also many specimens, about which little can be said, that originated in one or other of them. The discovery of 'waster' dumps has led to the identification of some wares, and this process is likely to continue in future.
In the last fifty years or so vast quantities of pottery and porcelain of all periods have been discovered in China by itinerant antique dealers and shipped to the West. Much was bought from grave robbers who concealed the sources of their 'finds', which has not helped the dating and attribution of some things. Some of the wares thus exported were forgeries and reproductions discussed below. [pp. 416-422]
Spurious Wares - Copies of early Chinese wares are of two kinds - those made in a spirit of emulation and veneration, and those made for fraudulent purposes. Of the two, the first category is the more numerous. One comes across stories of Palace officials who purloined a fine vase or bowl and replaced it with an exact copy, but [p. 422] these are apocryphal. The potter can make a passable copy of a particular type; it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to make an exact copy of a specific object. Some of the archaizing wares of the eighteenth century, like Yung Chêng imitations of Hsüan-tê blue-and-white or underglaze red stem cups, can be deceptive unless one is well acquainted with the earlier ware.
Generally, it may be accepted as certain that, whenever in the past there has been a fashion for a particular type of ware, forgeries will have been made. This applies to K'ang Hsi blue-and-white, and the famille noire vases, much sought after towards the end of the nineteenth century, although few of them would deceive anyone of experience. The closest copies of export wares have not been made in China, but by Samson of Paris and Herend of Hungary, the latter making, also, good copies of famille verte.
By far the greater number of forgeries are of T'ang tomb-figures, especially the ambitious models, like camels and fighting horses, and the most deceptive provide a stringent test of connoisseurship. The most difficult are the unglazed models decorated with unfired pigments, but the subject is separately discussed in the glossary. [pp. 422-423]
[L. G. G. Ramsey, F.S.A., ed. The Complete Color Encyclopedia of Antiques. Preface by Bevis Hillier, Editor of The Connoisseur. Compiled by The Connoisseur, London. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1962. Revised and Expanded Edition.]
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The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].