Archive for the ‘T’ang Dynasty’ Category

…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.

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The Story of How One Thing Leads To Another

August 28, 2016

“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…

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

A Funny Thing About Agateware

February 24, 2013

Everything about 18th century English Agateware was odd.  Maybe curious is a better word.  Production, sales, and public interest rose and fell in tandem with lulls between other ideas and fashions.  That is, agateware was so bizarre that people took note.  Until something else came along…

Of course, “agateware” (sometimes called “scroddled” ware in the US) refers to swirled layers of colored clays mimicking agate-like surfaces.  There were, are, two kinds.  Thrown (on a wheel) and laid (molded). 

John Dwight made the first recorded thrown agateware in the 1670’s.  Dwight’s Fulham shop was an innovation hotspot but he didn’t make much agate.  When Thomas Whieldon began, in the 1740’s, staining white clays instead of combining different clays of different color breakage dropped and production rose.  By the 1750’s Stoke-on-Trent potters were laying pre-mixed agate strips into molds giving more finely striated surfaces.  Production and sales jumped further, but continued to fluctuate until mass produced English porcelain nailed the coffin lid in the 1780’s.

Current opinion regarding this temperamental pottery’s inspiration points to T’ang Dynasty China; European excavators (robbers) of T’ang funeral sites brought (smuggled) examples of T’ang agateware back to the curiosity cabinets of European gentlemen collectors (fences). 

Potters by then could (and did) copy anything these gentlemen might show them.  Laid agate from 1750 onwards certainly looked technically similar to T’ang work.  This was the era of cheap European knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.  But China was weakening.  European missionaries and other no-account foreign devils freely roamed the countryside, digging up whatever they chose.

Dwight’s thrown agate happened much earlier, however, when controls were not so porous.  Even if T’ang relics were smuggled out then, Dwight was still “just” a potter – industrial pottery magnates were a couple generations away.  Could he have been that close to the Gentleman collector strata of society?  Or did Dwight rather see humble marbled pilgrim costrels from France or Italy and, in pondering those, he stumbled upon agate layered clays?

Or maybe he thought it up all by himself.  Of course, the idea that an old potter could think something up all by himself, when someone on the other side of the planet did it 900 years earlier, is ridiculous.  Where would be the fun in that?

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2003.  Robert Hunter, Ed.   University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2003.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Phillips Goldsmith.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

 

Rock Will Cover It

June 10, 2012

It wasn’t as if some government agency had written a position paper on post Revolution cultural development – although many individuals did.  Americans believed their arts would flourish once freed from English tyranny.  People were thus urged to favor fancy over purely utilitarian goods.  (“Fancy” meaning an intelligent stimulus toward creative thinking.)

But there’s a funny thing about mercantile capitalism.  Phrases like  “fancy goods” are quickly co-opted by bald-faced mass marketing.  The disappointment of such people as Charles Wilson Peale and Noah Webster was visceral when events turned out differently than expected.

There was probably no clearer, nor more ironic, example of this situation than the trajectory of the Rockingham glaze.

“Rockingham” originally described a rich chocolate brown glaze made on the Marquis of Rockingham’s Swinton estate in Yorkshire, England beginning in 1757.  When the Swinton pottery failed in 1842 the glaze went (quite successfully) to potteries in Derbyshire.  It also went with hordes of emigrating potters to America.

American potters – mostly English émigrés freed from the conventions of their homeland – lost no time in transforming Rockingham into a dripped, splattered, sponged, polychrome marvel.  Pottery from Bennington VT to East Liverpool OH was slathered with it.  Within three years of it’s introduction to these shores, Rockingham by James Bennett of Pittsburg PA won the 1845 Franklin Institute pottery diploma.  Trenton NJ was an epicenter of production, with (émigré) Daniel Greatbatch as perhaps Rockingham’s best practitioner.

Christopher Webber Fenton hoped to mimic Josiah Wedgwood’s nomenclature genius by calling Rockingham he made at the Norton Pottery “Flint Enamel.”  Local potters called Fenton’s nomenclature “humbug.”  Others called Rockingham “Variegated Ware,” “Fancy Ware,” or simply “Rock.”

A discerning eye looking at Rockingham’s finest examples becomes lost in the depths of flowing, layered colors.  At the risk of hyperbole (a common 19th century trait), one could almost see it as a genuine American T’ang glaze.

But most of the tonnage of 19th century Rockingham was quite gaudy.  Therein lay Rockingham’s down side.  The glaze’s overpowering nature could make anything look “fancy.”  So much so that in 1901, years after Rockingham’s craze had run it’s course, James Carr sighed while recounting what might have been a common exchange between pottery owner and shop worker:

“…roughness was the order of the day, and if I made a complaint the answer was: ‘Well boss, Rock will cover it.’”

brown glazed bowl

Readings

Fancy Rockingham Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth Century America.  Diana Stradling.  University of Richmond Museum/Richmond, VA.  2004.

After The Revolution.  Joseph Ellis.  W.W. Norton/New York.  1979.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.