The next little stretch of time will be taken up with another huge project. So, for the time being, here’s a question: You are given two reclining deer as a prompt for a design on a charger. What do you do?
Everybody knows the story of how Chinese blue and white porcelain thoroughly influenced world ceramic history. But we look at this story backwards, from its results. How did it look from the other direction, from it’s beginning?
Mid 9th century Tang Dynasty grandees were repulsed by isolated southern Chinese potters’ gaudy color and decoration experiments. Anything other than green (replicating jade) or white (replicating silver) belonged in tombs.
Far away Arabs instantly recognized that new work’s value. Shiploads of southern Chinese stoneware, mostly bowls, were sent to the Abbasid Caliphate in large re-useable ceramic jars. These jars had auspicious inscriptions, often in Arabic, scrawled along their outside. Arabic was the ‘official language’ of the entire trade network connecting southern China to the Persian Gulf and beyond.
Arab potters noticed Chinese stoneware encroaching into their home market. They responded by inventing a smooth white tin glaze for their own earthenware. A world of color beyond somber Chinese greens and whites was now possible. Cobalt blue was the first new hue, followed by many others. Then someone in Basra invented lusterware, truly replicating copper and silver.
The Arabs began signing their work. They also sent it back to China, along with Mesopotamian cobalt, to try this new look on white Chinese stoneware glazes. The first Chinese blue and white was probably painted by resident Persians.
The Tang attitude seemed to be “fine, take the foreigners’ money- they actually like that vulgar stuff!” But so much money was made that people criticized the volume of trees wasted by this work, and all the new ‘art pottery’ for elite tea ceremonies. Whole mountainsides were deforested to feed the kilns.
The growing impact of ‘aliens’ led to a vicious reaction, with widespread looting and killing of resident foreign traders. Colorful, decorated ceramics dried up. The incoming Song Dynasty reverted to safe, comfortable celadons and whites.
The world had to wait another five hundred years for Persian traders to (again) ask Yuan Dynasty potters to put Mesopotamian cobalt on their new porcelain. ‘Blue and white’ as we now know it exploded onto the world stage, blossoming over the next three hundred years into pottery history’s single most recognized chapter.
Back in the 9th century, Arab potters saw this tidal wave coming. Their response – tin glazes, cobalt blue, polychrome, and luster ware – set the whole story in motion. And they did all that in only 40 years.
Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC. 2010.
“How far is the southern sky in the eyes of a lone wild swan?
The chilly wind strikes terror into one’s heart.
I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the great river,
And my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.”
A poem was painted onto a bowl in the southern Chinese town of Changsha during the T’ang Dynasty, around 875ad. It spoke of tragic longing for a far away loved one. The bowl’s intended owner wouldn’t care. The Abbasid Arab would think it was cool because it had Chinese writing on it.
That person never saw the bowl, however. It was found in 1988 among the wreckage of a 9th century Arab trading ship off the Java Sea island of Belitung. This wreck illuminated the evolution of several small, local trade routes into an international network connecting Zimbabwe to China. That evolution also inspired epic pottery innovations.
Before getting into that, let’s go back earlier in T’ang times, when pottery wasn’t terribly valued. Ornate, poly-chrome ceramics were for burials only. Increasingly outlandish tombs prompted sumptuary laws severely limiting funeral pomp. Ceramic funerary art quickly art died out. So did the Silk Road, from increased instability along that fabled route. Then came tea. China, like Europe 500 years later, changed radically. Pottery (tea wares) immediately caught upper class attention. A 755 – 763ad civil war was the final spark. Refugee potters fled to Changsha, previously a southern back-water dumping ground for exiled losers from the cosmopolitan north.
The refugee potters copied popular Yue green glazed tea wares. Yue green looked like jade, which complimented the tea’s color. Changsha’s potters were ignored. They came from a ‘place of melancholy’ with ‘dense and poisonous vapors.’ Location is everything.
Changsha’s ignored, cast-away poets, like it’s potters, did whatever they wanted. Poets like Huaisu the Wild Monk invented ‘Wild Cursive’ with free, irregular lines and fluid character links. Changsha potters applied this new, wild brush work to their green ‘vapor cloud’ pottery.
Such looseness defied conventional T’ang aesthetic uniformity. But Arabs loved it. Trade with the Abbasid Caliphate via new maritime routes exploded. Changsha became southern China’s major trading and pottery center.
This story has many spin-offs. We’ll settle for now with an observation of possible interest to Pennsylvania ‘Tulip Ware’ devotees.
The most common Changsha floral design was a petaled flower with a central dot. These ‘rosettes’ appeared here before anywhere else in China. One could follow this pattern to Abbasid Baghdad, then to Fatimid Egypt, then to Umayyad Spain, then Renaissance Italy, then Anabaptist Moravia, then North Carolina and Pennsylvania…
Imagine your world turning on the central dot of a mad monk’s petaled flower.
To be continued…
Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC. 2010.
Charles looks out at passers-by who only pause, “how strange,” before moving on. It isn’t Charles’ fault. He was painted that way. Of all the commemorative delftware plates on all the museum shelves all the world over, this is one of those select few bizarre portraits with eyes blatantly, even intentionally, off kilter.
King Charles II of England wasn’t the only one to get this strange eye treatment. It is occasionally found on delftware plates depicting all the last Stuart monarchs from Charles II, to James II, to Mary, and finally Anne, along with the first Hanoverian King George I just after her. But, curiously, no other gentry portrait plates, nor royalty images on forms other than plates, include such odd eyes. Books and magazines are silent about this ‘royal treatment.’ This is a job for the experts.
A museum curator explained most of these plates originated in Holland, where Mary and her Dutch co-Regent William of Orange were quite popular. A collector counter-claimed that most, if not all, of these plates came from Bristol. But why the eyes? Another curator mused, “Were the potters trying to ‘show perspective’ by slanting the eyes?” Even the experts admit being flummoxed.
Worried that my query might fizzle out into suggestions and ‘what-if’s,’ I turned to that ultimate arbiter of wisdom – Facebook:
“I was reading just yesterday about Mary’s death, and then William’s, and then about Anne’s succession, and her sad life losing 16 children…I think that Mary was unkind to Anne. I get the feeling this potter did not like Mary,” posted a fellow interlocutor.
Maybe the potter didn’t like Mary (Mary certainly didn’t like her sister Anne). And maybe other potters didn’t like Charles (the puritans didn’t), or James (not many people at all liked James), or Anne (an important patron of the arts who struggled to be liked), or George (who, being a king of a whole new line, had his own share of troubles).
Are we left clinging to the slippery slope of 17th and 18th century English royalty popularity contests? Or do we just admit the limits of worn out cliches when studying human nature.
I look at Charles, and Charles looks back. The potter who painted him remains opaque. I continue looking…
Queen Anne, Patroness of Arts. James Anderson Wynn. Oxford University Press/London. 2014.
Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600 – 1800. Amanda Lange. Historic Deerfield Inc./Deerfield MA. 2001.
English Delftware. F. H. Garner. Faber and Faber/London. 1972.
Pretty much everything mentioned below actually happened. The only question is – did it?
Can a dot be more than just a dot? Who knows? Who cares?
Perhaps we should back up a bit. My first serious encounter with early pottery, and with making pottery in those styles, began with my tenure at the living history museum of Old Sturbridge Village. Among those old pots which grabbed my attention were curiously dotted 18th century English slipwares. When I saw a jar replete with a dotted slipware bird attributed to 19th century Connecticut potter Hervey Brooks, whose work is interpreted at OSV, a somewhat snarky thought struck me: to make slipware look old, just stick some dots on it!
Later, while exploring delftware, I noticed dots regularly lining borders and filling spaces on tin-glazed pottery across the spectrum.
Where did all these dots come from?
Years earlier I had come across an illustrated history of the Book of Kells. Dots galore! Given the proselytizing nature of 6th century Irish monks throughout the British Isles, maybe their dotted imagery inspired later slipware potters via old illuminated parish bibles. But why did the Irish dot their imagery in the first place? And what of those delft dots?
Dipping back into Irish monastic history, these Scholastic monks traveled far and wide to collect the most valued commodity of their time: books. This is how the Irish “saved Western civilization from the Dark Ages.” Did roaming Irish monks collect Egyptian Coptic Christian manuscripts during their sojourns in Venice, Alexandria or Sicily? The Copts decorated their texts with a plethora of dense, sinewy, floral designs – including lots of dots. Might these dotted Coptic patterns have inspired the illumination masters of Iona, Lindesfarne and Kells?
When Islam washed across Egypt a century later, did the Umayyad imams adopt the Coptic dot for their own illumination purposes? Were their Korans among the loot pillaged by rampaging Mongols and brought back to China? If so, this persistent little dot would be present when equally dense cobalt blue designs blossomed on white Chinese porcelain. The dot certainly re-invaded 16th century Europe by latching onto carrack porcelain, inspiring delftware (among other styles) and forever changing pottery history.
Is the dot a sort of visual virus, attaching onto a host for survival and propagation? I’ve seen no scholarly opinion supporting this thesis. I’ve seen none about dots at all. So I’ll just leave it out there…
English Slipware Dishes, 1650 – 1850. Ronald Cooper. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1968
Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860. Paul Lynn. State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York. 1969.
English and Irish Delftware, 1570 – 1840. Aileen Dawson. British Museum Press/London. 2010.
The Book of Kells. Edward Sullivan. Crescent Books/New York. 1986.
How the Irish Saved Civilization. Thomas Cahill. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/New York. 1995.
caveat: the following train of thought happened entirely after the fact. The plate shown here resulted purely from a confluence of design ideas, time constraints, and physical limitations. Thus it ever was for the potter…
If an efficient way to destroy a culture is to destroy it’s language (or simply kill off it’s population), then a good way to honor a culture is to learn it’s language (and leave the people be) – likewise for a culture’s artistic heritage. But a culture’s visual language can take on a curious life of its own while traveling through the ages.
So, let’s talk delft. Delft is a creole ceramic expression. What began in the Arabian peninsula as a blue decorated tin-glazed response to white Chinese porcelain traveled back to China and then sprayed out in various forms, blanketing the globe. Each stop along the way sprouted whole new styles of expression (like delftware), even as local potters freely drew from what came before.
How cool it would be to trace this language by following a single image or decorative device along it’s entire historical arc! By seeing that image express change and/or constancy in the hands of an Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Yemeni, Persian, East and North African, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Irish, or Mexican potter. Maybe curators, collectors, or scholars could identify such an image. I can’t. The big picture is too sprawling.
I’ll have to do like the old potters did and make my own ‘little picture.’ This one begins with a collision of two motives – to paint a fish (thus joining the ranks of fish-painting potters), and to wrap my head around an ‘Italianate’ delftware border pattern – combined with a diminishing inventory of blank plates as the clock ran out before a show.
Floating in the background were a 12th century Yuan Dynasty export porcelain bowl intended for the Indian Ocean trade, an early Dutch plate possibly made by an immigrant Italian faience potter, an obsession with Southwark floral imagery that creeps into every unguarded corner when I decorate, my brush and stick learning curve, a vague possibility that I may be related to early Delft potters, and a healthy dose of repetitive muscle strain.
Can one respectfully interpret the range, spirit, and boundaries of a historical style while still telling a unique story? Who knows? On the other hand nothing the potter makes exists within, or comes from, a vacuum.
The tale I offer goes something like this: “Here’s me wandering along in the language of pottery history.”
Nothing new to report just yet from the front lines of pottery history. Instead, here’s a look at what’s been going on around here.
History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…
The M’ing Dynasty Chinese judged their export porcelain as purely 2nd rate fodder for a lower-browed European audience. And the European foreigners who gobbled up export porcelain were, to the M’ing, strange, impenetrable, exotic, dangerous aliens.
But not all M’ing Chinese looked down on export ware, or those who bought it. Before East India Trade delegations became commonplace in Canton, Macao, and elsewhere, a few officials (a very few) collected export porcelain as expressions of those foreigners who were, to them, strange, exotic, impenetrable, curious aliens.
Chinese export porcelain opened up a completely new world for 16th century Europeans. Entire industries were spawned to get more, and to make it cheaper themselves. Until that occurred, Europeans saw the foreign Chinese who made this wonderful work as strange, exotic, impenetrable, glamorous aliens.
In the years since the China Trade, many scholars have understood the wider view that export porcelain indeed expressed European culture of the time as much as it did the capabilities of M’ing potters. Take, for example, a typical export item known as the klapmut. Both Chinese and Dutch used soup bowls. The Chinese drank thin broths right from the bowl. Dutch stews needed spoons. The narrow Chinese drinking rim didn’t allow resting space for spoons, so the Dutch directed Chinese potters to include a wide spoon rest rim: voila, the awkward sounding klapmut. Today’s elegant wide rimmed bowl began life as a foreign shape for Chinese potters – strange, exotic, impenetrable, unusual, and alien.
Does any of this old history matter today? It’s nice, as a potter, to know why I make bowls with wide rims. Deeper historical analogies can be less satisfying because history never repeats itself perfectly. Witness the current fear-mongering and election year lunacy, fueled in part by masses of people fleeing violence in the Mid East and beyond. Europeans and Americans have sympathized with the refugees who bring with them only what they can carry and remember. But many now struggle with the growing vitriol swirling around these foreign, strange, exotic, impenetrable, desperate aliens.
The refugee crisis needs, among many things, large doses of human decency and is quite a large topic of itself. But as for the jingoistic xenophobia? If contemplating the history of Chinese export porcelain (or of history in general) offers any small consolation it is this one immutable guarantee: “This too shall pass.”
Vermeer’s Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. Timothy Brook. Bloomsbury Press/New York. 2008.
Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them. This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.
Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure. European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since. Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’ Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations. It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money…
From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans.
These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares. But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile. So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times. They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire. A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes.
Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics. It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.
Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters. Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.
And why not? Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery. Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.
Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status. Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name. But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic. And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries. Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.
Catawba Indian Pottery. Thomas John Blumer. University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL. 2004.
Early New England Potters and Their Wares. Lura Woodside Watkins. Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA. 1968.
A New Face on the Countryside. Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver. Cambridge University Press. 1990.
The modern redware potter drives home from a show pondering crazy thoughts like “why am I doing all this,” and “does everything I do look backward?” (stylistically to earlier eras, financially to better shows, etc.) The redware potter is traveling the Used To Be Highway.
Such a highway exists, of course, but not necessarily in the depressing way described above. Interpreting historical styles, like redware, falls solidly along a venerable continuum of reproductions, copies, and revivals (and fakes and forgeries) made since ancient times.
Romans, fascinated by earlier Etruscan pottery, commissioned Etruscan style work for many of their lavish pavilions. Chinese potters copied older work to honor past masters. Medieval European artisans made historical reproductions for holy pilgrimage tourists. Copies of 16th century Siegburg stoneware, often from original 16th century molds, were popular during the late 19th century German Gothic revival. The nascent 19th century American tourist industry considered historical work a patriotic act. And maintaining traditional cultural expressions in the face of changing times has motivated artists throughout time.
Blue and white pottery gets complicated. This idea went back and forth in so many ways across the globe that it almost resembles light. Is light (for example) a wave or a particle? Is Delft (for example) a copy or an original style?
Then there’s fakes and forgeries. What appears to be simple malfeasance (and often is) can also be a complex issue. Was early Delftware a forgery? Are fakes worse than pilfered archeological sites? What of desperate families peddling fake artifacts in impoverished but historically significant areas, or the work of Ai Wei?
Copying masterpieces was for centuries a principle method of arts instruction. Intense observational and technical skills are required, and honed, when studying historical artifacts in this way. A simple test illustrates this point: make two mugs, one which you thought up in your head, the other as an exact replica of someone else’s mug. Ask yourself afterwards which effort stretched your skills more?
It’s tempting to draw some meaningful conclusion about why potters today might work within historical styles, given the array of available paths. (Or are these stylistic options just interpretations of a different sort?). But regardless of the route they took to get there, or the bumps along the way, many potters (and other artisans) who make historically based work will tell you – it’s just tremendously fun to do.
Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America. Donald Webster. Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT. 1971.
Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York. 1940.
The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar. Hawthorn Books/ New York. 1960.
If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noel Hume. University Press of New England/Hanover, NH. 2001.
The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries. John Thomas. Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York. 1971.
Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body. Gérard Gusset. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada. 1980.
Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence. Exhibition Catalogue. Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA. 1984.