Posts Tagged ‘Tea’

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.

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The Hit Parade #5: Thomas Crafts Teapot

March 29, 2015

Full disclosure:  Because the Thomas Crafts homestead is only 20 minutes from my house, he’s sort of a ‘home-town favorite.’ Crafts Teapot

When you hold a Thomas Crafts teapot in your hands, you are in the presence of a master.

He operated an earthenware “Teapot Manufactory” in Whately MA from 1806 until switching to stoneware crocks in 1833.  His teapots were paper thin and perfectly thrown.  The spouts were formed, as was customary, with highly valued, personalized molds.  His mirror black “Jackfield” type glaze required an additional firing, unusual for redware of the time.

The Crafts ascribed teapot shown here sits at the pinnacle of pre-industrial American artisan pottery.  That alone is enough to merit inclusion in any list of pottery greats.  But modern students of pottery can draw several lessons here.

This teapot offers a window into the world Thomas Crafts inhabited.  Records show that, along with an assistant (usually his own kin), he could turn out 2,067 dozen teapots a year.  That’s roughly 88 teapots a day, 5 days a week, 56 weeks a year!  And Crafts was just one of countless American potters making teapots.  Furthermore, they were all competing against a Staffordshire behemoth factory system that flooded America with its own “Brown Betty” teapots.  This was a time and place that worshiped tea.

Thomas Crafts employed what we now call a “production potter” mentality.  It would be easy to equate this mentality to that of an automaton, given the quantity of teapots his “Manufactory” created.  But one would be mistaken to view the sparse character of this teapot as simply “form following function.”  Instead, like so much American redware, it offers a unique and focused study of form and volume.  It’s worth noting that the vast majority of historical masterpieces were produced using similar production mentalities.

To quote an old ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Ceramics Monthly on this same topic, “…which of these two qualities seems more synonymous with great pots; a never-ending quest to make something different that looks kinda neat, or consummate skill?   Skill takes practice, grunt work, and yes, repetition.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It will take you places you never dreamed of.”

Flow Blue

August 19, 2012

History never repeats itself.  It just rhymes.  Example, the trajectory of blue and white pottery.  Arab attempts to duplicate Chinese porcelain resulted in tin glazed enamel earthenware.  When Arabs added cobalt blue decoration, Chinese porcelain was forever changed – all this thanks to Kublai Khan’s globalization zeal.  Enter the Europeans, hooked from the first anchor dropped in Macao harbor.  Their quest for easily reproducible porcelain (or white clay, anyway) eventually led to Wedgwood’s “Creamware.”  Then to whiter “Pearlware.”  Then to even whiter “Ironstone.”  (An abridged history, but there it is.)

Blue was the spice that fed this circular feeding frenzy.  What emerged was the ultimate in English blue and white transfer printed ironstone.  At it’s best the cobalt saturated transfer print ink made the designs barely distinguishable.  Intensity incarnate.  “Flow Blue.”

Was this just a happy accident?  Cobalt easily “bleeds” in the glaze melt if you’re not careful.  But the subject of blue and white’s addictive appeal fills entire libraries.  That appeal was in full swing long before Flow Blue appeared.  Additional ammonia and calcium in the ink made the blue really flow.  There was nothing accidental about it.  But Stoke-on-Trent potters who began this madness were happy that Flow Blue hid faults in decoration, glazing and firing.

Some Flow Blue was indistinguishable from regular transfer print ware, blue but hardly ‘flown’ at all.  Such variations merely exemplified how the period’s myriad decorative styles were driven by economics; mass production begat mass marketing which begat mass consumerism.  The result?  A fundamental change in how we approached the dinner table, how we took our tea.

Flow Blue has been called a “poor man’s china.”  But price lists of the time belie this notion.  Flow Blue was the most expensive transfer print pottery up to the 1850’s.  Flow Blue stood out from the crowd.  It spanned the arc of Queen Victoria’s rule, if not (entirely) epitomizing Victorian decorative values.  (Flow Blue: 1825 – 1910, Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901.)

Post script:

The other day I added to my meager “poor man’s” collection of early pottery with a set of cracked, chipped Flow Blue plates (Joseph Heath, “Tonquin” pattern, 1840-1850).  Super cheap because of the cracks.  But they are addictive.  I feel their presence without even looking at them.  They sit on my shelf, a throbbing reminder of a time when pottery defined an era.

Flow Blue Plate

Readings:
Flow Blue.  A Collector’s Guide to Patterns, History, and Values.  Jeffery Snyder.  Schiffer/Atglen PA.  2004.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 

Keep Me Swimming

December 19, 2010

It came from India.  The name did, anyway.  And the recipe.  The Hindustani word which entered England as “Punch” meant “five,”indicating the number of ingredients for this wildly popular drink.  The five ingredients were alcohol (usually rum), fruit juice (usually lemons), spice (usually nutmeg), sugar and water.  Sailors in the East India trade brought punch home during the 17th century.  Punch soon joined posset, (milk with mulled wine), sack (sherry), and bishop (mulled wine) in the pantheon of English drinks.

The array of ingredients allowed for a broad variety of punch recipes.  Water was a major variable.  Less meant more, well, punch.  Drinking punch was not a ‘sedate’ activity.  It could be drank at home, but was standard fare in any tavern.  Punch’s popularity rivaled that other paradigm-shifting drink from the east, tea.  But tea was enjoyed in small individual bowls.  “A dish of tea,” as the saying went (the annoying, teeny handle was added later).  Punch, however, was passed around in a communal bowl.

The variety of punch bowls was huge.  From 6 inches in diameter to larger than one person alone could lift.  They were made in almost every type of ceramic available at the time from earthenware and delft to stoneware and porcelain.  The prowess of Chinese potters who made 20 plus inch diameter porcelain punch bowls astounded European potters.  Reputations were built on both the quantity of bowls collected and the quality of punch served.  Lord Fairfax of present day Fairfax County, Maryland kept a collection of over 20 Chinese porcelain punch bowls.

Punch bowl decoration followed the tastes of the day.  Although the image of a fish on the inside bottom of a bowl was a sure indication of it’s purpose.  The fish was often accompanied by such sayings as “Keep me swimming,” or “The longer I swim, the happier I’ll be.”

Toward the end of the 18th century, a set of individual cups became standard accessories.  The introduction of such refinements seems to have taken the fun out of punch.  It’s hard to shout “another bowl then!” in a room full of cup sipping gentlemen in powdered wigs without sounding a touch barbaric.  Punch had begun it’s long decent into the tame world of art receptions and high school dances.

So those renegade teenagers who spike the punch with vodka as an act of rebellion against the stuffy world of outdated respectability are actually keeping tradition alive.

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

Ceramics in America (1972).  Quimby, Ian, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.

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

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

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence. Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA. 1984.

 

Satan

November 21, 2010

They say the devil takes many disguises.  After initial contact with 16th century European merchants, many Ming Dynasty Chinese would have agreed.

They called all foreign merchants “Fan Kwae,” or Foreign Devil.  The Portuguese were “Se-yang Kwae,” or Devils of the Western Ocean.  The Dutch were “Po-ssu-hu,” or Red Haired devils.  The English were also “Red Haired” devils.  Merchants from India were “White Haired” devils.  The devilish French were “Fat-lan-sy.”  Swedish devils were “Suy.”  The Danes were “Yellow Flag” devils.  Americans were “Flowery Flag” devils…

It’s understandable that the Chinese would use these terms.  In 1517 the first Portuguese ship arrived in Canton, China.  After dropping anchor without permission the ship’s captain ordered a broadside to be fired thinking it would impress the locals.  The Chinese had no idea who these people were, but the crude display of violence was most unsettling.  In 1637 the English arrived.  Tired of waiting to met by Chinese officials, the English captain also decided to get everyone’s attention with a broadside.

These foreign devils courted the Celestial Kingdom for tea, mostly.  And porcelain.  And money.  A lot of money.  Today of course the tea and porcelain are no longer relevant.  But to get an idea what the original union meant to both parties, consider how they described each other.

From a 1627 English East India Company memo:

“Concerning the trade of China, three things are especially made known unto the world.
The One is, the abundant trade it affordeth.
The Second is, that they admit no stranger into their country.
The Third is, that Trade is as Life unto the Vulgar, which in remote parts they will seek and accommodate, with Hazard of all they have.”

And from the T’ai-wan Fu-chih, an 18th century Chinese text:

“The people which we call Red-hair or Po-ssu-hu …live in the extreme west of the Ocean extending from Formosa…  They are covetous and cunning and have good knowledge of valuable commodities and are clever in seeking profits.  They spare not even their lives in looking for gain and go to the most distant regions to trade…  If one meets them on the high seas, one is often robbed by them…wherever they go, they covet rare commodities, and contrive by all means to take possession of the land.”

Not exactly a marriage made in heaven.

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

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands. 1986.