Posts Tagged ‘Chinese Blue and White’

…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 True Story of The Industrial Revolution.

January 30, 2011

Josiah Wedgwood was angry.  He didn’t like how the price of Prussian Blue, one of his colorants, had risen since it first became available.  Potters across Europe had for centuries admired the brilliant blues they originally saw on pots coming from the east – from the tin glazed Iznik wares in Anatolia to the tonnage of Chinese blue and white porcelains that flooded Europe from the 17th century onward.  The cobalt required to achieve these hues was available but expensive.  A cheaper local alternative was highly sought after.

In 1772 someone in Germany got the bright idea of mixing bullock blood with potash.  They calcined the mess and ended up with a prussiate of potash.  When this prussiate was dissolved in water, voila!  Prussian Blue!

Soon thereafter the Davidson and Davenport chemical manufacturing company in Newcastle upon Tyne, Scotland acquired the formula.  (How they pulled that off might make for an interesting story.)  Once word got out that a domestic Prussian Blue was available, a large number of English potteries jumped on the blue band wagon, Wedgwood included.

Business boomed.  So much so that Davidson and Davenport hired Northumbrian potter and tile maker Antony Hilcote to mass produce prussiate of potash.  He set up a “Blood-Works” on the west bank of the Firth of Forth.  Even on a factory scale, demand was such that prices inevitably rose.  So there was Wedgwood, complaining to his partner Thomas Bentley about the three guineas a pound he now had to pay for it…

The neighbors of Hilcote’s Blood-Works had more to complain about.  From local accounts, they were downright disgusted.

Readings:
Pratt Ware. John and Griselda Lewis.  Antique Collector’s Club/Woodbridge, Suffolk, England.  1984.

 

More Acquainted With China

March 28, 2010

18th century Jesuits made great travel writers.  18th century China made great fodder for European imaginations.  Together, they made Voltaire say “We are perhaps more acquainted with China than with many provinces of Europe.”  Sadly, Voltaire’s comment might well have been true (to this day some parts of France are unrecognizable to others).  By the mid 1700’s, Chinese blue and white porcelain was already an intimate part of Europe’s Decorative Arts landscape.  Combined with a major tea craze, a touch of arm-chair exoticism, and the growing power of various East India Companies, you can almost see the logic…

If honesty mattered, Angola in southern Africa could have received top billing.  Angola’s “acquaintance” with Europe and it’s American colonies, in the form of huge numbers of people kidnapped into slavery, was immense.  Generations of forced labor living alongside their slaving masters made Europe’s plantation economy possible.  Voltaire knew this.  He also knew how much his contemporaries valued honesty.

Which brings us back to that porcelain.  Especially those wildly popular “Willow Pattern” plates.  The various elements of this pattern told an oriental tale of love and redemption.  To wit:

A mandarin’s daughter, Koong-se, fell in love with his willow_plateaccountant,  Chang.  A fence was built in the apple orchard near the willow to keep Chang out.  A nobleman came by boat to marry the daughter.  During the wedding party in the temple Koong-se escaped with her beloved Chang.  The mandarin, the noble, and others ran across a bridge chasing them. The couple stayed in various safe houses until they were discovered and killed.  The gods, feeling sorry for them, allowed them to live on as two doves flying around in the sky.

Today, nobody cares (or even knows) about the star crossed lovers.  Still the willow, the boat, the temple, the birds, etc., doggedly remain – even on cheap printed pottery from WalMart.  A garbled tribute to the staying power of a quintessential blue and white pattern that once inspired poetry.

…But any blather about “acquaintance” falls apart.  What could be learned of China by looking at imagery invented by a guy named by Thomas Minton in Shropshire, England, in 1780 to sell his new line of porcelain?  The sorry fact is that the Willow Pattern, like so many ingrained memories of commercials in our own youth, was basically a jingle that never went away.

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

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850. Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh Ed.  Academic Press/New York. 1985.

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

The Discovery of France.  A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. Graham Robb.  Norton & Co./New York.  2007.