Bloom ming

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 60

Two major exhibitions this autumn – at the British Museum and in Edinburgh – highlight the marvels of the Ming dynasty. Here, Colin Sheaf describes the flowering of imperial porcelain

Mark: The Emperor Chenghua ruled between 1464-1487, in the first part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Earlier in the same century, Chinese potters at the Imperial kilns in Zhushan (outside Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province) began, for the first time, to write on top-quality vessels – including guan storage jars – the name of the ruling Emperor. The Chenghua reign was only the second time in Chinese history that this was commonly done.This mark is the ultimate sign of Imperial 'quality control'.

Glaze quality: Chinese connoisseurs consider Chenghua period ceramics as the finest ever created in China. Earlier ceramics commissioned for the Imperial Court were often elaborately and densely painted with blue. During the Chenghua period, the finest decorators developed the confidence to paint designs more sparingly. This was because the very finely levigated clay body, and the clear and luscious glaze, were visually so impressive that they did not need to be concealed under dense scrolling painted foliage or
a washed-blue background.

'Doucai' technique: The most sensational development in Ming Dynasty porcelain was when potters acquired the technical skills to blend inorganic colored minerals with a clear 'flux' and then decorate the white surface of a pot to heighten its appeal. These 'enamel' colors were 'fixed' during a second, low-temperature firing as they were too sensitive to survive the initial high temperature firing.

'Enameling': Imperial porcelain enabled potters to achieve feats of sophisticated but usually simple 'over the glaze' decoration. This had hitherto been impossible for painters, who previously had painted 'under the glaze' using only cobalt-blue (and copper-red).

'Doucai': (contrasting colors) was the name given to the technique, when designs thinly outlined in blue under the glaze were filled in over the glaze with green, yellow, iron-red and other enamels.

Lotus decoration: The leaf, stem and flowers of the lotus plant are core elements of traditional Chinese design in all media. The original 'lotus' symbolism arises from its association with the historical Buddha. This iconography was imported to China from India in the 3rd century AD. Lotus symbolism expanded in later centuries and came to symbolize a large family (the lotus head issued many seeds), with connotations of richness and ripeness (its magnificent flowers) and protection (its large shady leaves). 'Lotus pond' imagery painted onto an Imperial porcelain thus carried a range of allusions. Ceramic specialists have noted that this 'lotus pond' imagery is the only subject which appears on these storage jars in both underglaze blue and enameled design.

Shape: A guan is almost any kind of storage jar, of varying dimensions, and normally with a cover. It is a shape that has retained its popularity since the 10th century.

Colin Sheaf is Chairman of Bonhams Asia.

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