July 2015 Newsletter

Who Am I?

So often in conversations with clients or the general public I am asked about a piece, "Where has it been for all this time?" And "it will have seen so many changes in the world", so I have decided to look at one piece and develop some of it's history.


To begin with the obvious. This is Chinese from the 17th century; it is a blue and white porcelain square dish. It was made during the reign of the Emperor Tianqi 1621- 1627 at the kilns at Jingdezhen. It is a type known as Ko-sometsuke which refers to porcelain made for export to Japan. Ko-sometsuke literally means 'old blue'. Julia Curtis writes about Ko-sometsuke porcelains in Trade, Taste and Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for the Japanese Market as,
" ..they manifest an extra-ordinary burst of idiosyncratic creativity at a time of over whelming chaos in Chinese social, political, economic and military history".

From 1620 (the death of the Emperor Wanli) until 1683 (when the Qing Emperor Kangxi regains certain controls) this period is known as The Transitional Period. There was a huge shift and Transition for the Chinese, in Society, Dynastically, Economically, in Art and Development. The last of the Ming Emperors died (Chongzhen) in 1644 when the Manchus became the new rulers and the Qing Dynasty was established under The Emperor Shunzhi. Wanli's reign had started well with strong leadership and control. But this failed when the Emperor with drew from state affairs and the court and the Empire over all fell into massive decline and the court into debauchery.

Tianqi was brought up at the court of Wanli which has often been described as depraved. By all accounts he was a rather pathetic figure, being illiterate and having no desire or inclination to rule, but he was exceptionally gifted as a carpenter. Tianqi let the Eunuch Wei Zhongxian govern in the Emperor's name. This led to whole scale corruption with a tyrannical court and administration. After six years Tianqi died leaving an Empire in chaos. The Chinese people by now had decided that the throne had lost 'the Mantle of Heaven' and was no longer fit to rule and civil war broke out. Many, who could, left China many going to Japan including artists, potters and painters.

When this piece was made it was at a time of great upheaval. During this period China lost it's pre-eminent place amongst the other burgeoning Empires and struggled to maintain any power and control within and beyond it's borders. In the West during the Chinese Transitional period the Mayflower with the Pilgrim fathers landed at Cape Cod in November 1620, The Dutch founded a new colony, New Amsterdam on the Island of Manhattan in1625, 1632 saw the start of the building of the Taj Mahal, in 1642 the English Civil War started, The Dutch founded a new trading Port at modern day Cape Town in 1652 and Delft started production of pottery in 1675 copying Chinese porcelain. Possibly the two most important dates though occurred before this in 1600 Queen Elizabeth 1st granted a charter to The English East India Company, which later became The Honourable British East India Company after the accession of James1st of England, and in 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded.

In c1625 when the plate was made China needed trade as the government needed money to start to put down rebellions and the incursions made by the Manchus, the new European trade was not yet lucrative but the growing trade with Japan was expanding rapidly. The Japanese in many ways 'worshipped tea' and the ceremony associated with the drinking of it. A very refined cultural act but it required simple, rustic and specially designed pieces made with honesty to be used in the ceremony. Pieces could have very poor decoration, be warped, have numerous firing flaws but have a rustic honesty about them. The ceremony until the early 17th century used native Japanese ware e.g. those made at Raku, Seto., and Bizen. But the blue and white ware being produced at Jingdezhen away from the Imperial kilns became desirable for the same reasons that the Chinese dismissed it, it was imperfect and substandard with flaws and damages but deemed to be honest and of value. The Japanese found these pieces very attractive and started to import them. The Chinese now had a flourishing trade but they had to incorporate deliberate blemishes and firing flaws into the pieces other wise they would be dismissed. If you look at the plate, the top right corner has had too much cobalt applied so there is a deliberate misfiring in this area. To the back there is kiln grit left attached to the base. The sides of the dish show slight warping to the edges so they are not truly straight. All this is designed to keep the Japanese aesthetics wanting to import more.

The Japanese tea ceremony by the 17th century had become a very refined occasion. Tea had been introduced into Japan during the 9th Century by the Buddhist monk Eichu on his return from China where it had been used as a drink for over 1000 years already. In Japan it was to begin with used for medicinal purposes but quickly became a pleasurable experience. In the 12th century another Buddhist monk returning from China introduced the Chinese tea preparation of putting powdered tea into a bowl adding hot water and then whisking them together. This powdered green tea was used in the Buddhist monasteries until the 13th century but with the Kamakura Shogunate ruling the country they saw tea and the luxuries that went with it as showing status and became a staple of the warrior classes, who could win prizes if they could distinguish high quality teas above the inferior types. The tea ceremony developed further developing its own 'sabi' and 'wabi' principles, Sabi representing the material or outer side of life and Wabi representing the inner or spiritual experiences. By the 16th century tea drinking and the partaking of the tea ceremony had spread to all levels of the Japanese society so producing a big and more lucrative market for the Chinese

The tea ceremony obviously needed certain equipment and refinements. There was obviously the need for tea bowls, tea caddy, tea scoop and tea whisk but there were other essentials. A hanging scroll, usually written by famous calligraphers or Buddhist monks; beautiful flowers either as an arrangement or often of a single spray, and only those flowers that were fresh or in season were used. A meal was served and again only seasonal and fresh food was served and rarely meat, the courses of the meal were served on individual small plates. Finally the clothing was important with the wearing of the Kimono. This plate was used as a serving dish for the food.

There is debate about the painting used on pieces for the Japanese market whether the designs carried the same importance as they did for the Chinese. The painting on the plate shows mountains, a boat with three figures and scholars on the shoreline. In many ways it could loosely represent the Poem of the Red Cliff by Su Shi or showing a seated dignitary representing the desire to achieve greatness that lasts for generations. For me I think the 'naive 'painting is charming and the painting is a variation on the Red Cliff poem.

The back has an inscription 'yu lan xuan ji' which I am told translates as best as 'splendid or gorgeous magnolia'. Yu lan means Magnolia or jade orchid, ji also means luck. The character mark to the back is for respect and one of humility. I cannot prove it but the feel of the plate, the painting and the inscription all show status and I believe that it was a special order placed by a Japanese noble.

The dish has been exported across to Japan on a sea faring junk and then at some point has found its way to Europe. I certainly would like to know all the previous owners, and especially the stories that have been spoken around it. A wonderful piece that provokes a provincial and honest appeal not just for the Japanese but for many collectors of this group of porcelain described by Julia Curtis as 'The Wild Bunch' as they break all the rules. (Trade, Taste and Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for the Japanese Market)

I will be at The International Antiques for Everyone 23rd to 26th July at The NEC in Birmingham UK please down load a ticket(s) from the web site if you would like to come and please say 'hi' as you pass by.

My website is always being up dated with new stock so always feel free to ask any questions about pieces I have or have had.

Good luck with your collecting