Archive for the ‘Luster’ Category

Every Good Child Deserves Favor

March 26, 2017

Have you ever had the good fortune of having a museum curator allow you into storage to view pottery not out on public display?  If so, (you usually just need to ask) you’ll understand the magic of seeing a drawer open before you for the first time, displaying a pottery type you heard about but had never seen in all it’s glory.  The friendly curator shows you these pots.  Cabinet doors open and there they are.  Row upon row.  Even if they’re of a style you previously thought not terribly interesting, that moment of breathlessness is remarkable.

This magic moment must have been magnified and condensed down to one single item back in the 19th century, particularly for children.  The lucky kids in question, initially from well to do families but increasingly from a broader economic pool, were occasionally given token pottery gifts.  These were usually small mugs, or sometimes mini bowls, plates, or other forms – but always with some transfer print image and/or quote alluding to the joys of behaving.

These children’s pots might have been meant as toys, or maybe they were the kids’ own set of dishes.  Birthday presents.  Graduation presents.  Rewards.  Specialties.  But they were never first line production items.  Most pottery firms made them, but hardly any bothered to advertise them.  Initially made of porcelain, as the 19th century wore on these giftwares were usually done in cheap yellowware with a decal hastily slapped on, often with a copper luster band along the top.

How did the kids feel about these pots?  Were they received in awe as treasured gifts?  Some small part of the explosion of styles and techniques known as the Industrial Revolution made just for them?  Or were they accepted like today’s cheap, plastic, collectible “Happy Meal” junk?

Some gift pots show considerable use.  It seems those with the most popular motifs and images were ‘loved to death,’ played with or otherwise used until they inevitably broke and were tossed in the garbage.  Others are to this day in pristine condition.  Many of these later pots tend to carry the most maudlin, moralizing sayings.  It’s almost as if, once given, they were unceremoniously shoved into a corner hutch, to patiently await collectors from a hundred years into the future.

One wonders about these neglected gift pots.  Who exactly were they really for, the child or the parent?

Readings:

Gifts for Good Children, The History of Children’s China 1790-1890.  Noel Riley.  The Old Chapel/Somerset England.  1991.

English Yellow-Glazed Earthenware.  J. Jefferson Miller.  Smithsonian Institute Press/Washington DC.  1974.

…40 Years Later

September 25, 2016

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.

Reading:

Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.