An introduction to Ming blue and white porcelain | Curator’s Nook S5 Ep6

published on July 2, 2020

Hello I'm Jessica Harrison-Hall

and I'm a specialist in Ming ceramics

and welcome to my corner!

Today I'm going to talk to you about Ming ceramics

The Ming Dynasty in China runs from 1368-1644

and I have before me a selection of blue and white ceramics

made in Jingdezhen between 1368-1644

This saucer dish was made at the time of the Hongwu emperor

Now he conquered the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty in 1368

and he has an extraordinary life story

At one stage he was so poor he had to beg for land to bury his parents

and yet by the time he was 40 he was 'Son of Heaven' and ruling all of China

And during his reign supplies of cobalt – to make the under-glazed blue design –

was interrupted

And so blue and white wares during his reign

have a much weaker tone

because they use the imported cobalt quite sparingly

or mixed it with local cobalt

So what we're looking at here is a rather beautiful saucer

Originally it would have had a cup set in the centre here

and it has a very stiff bracketed edge

and this is reminiscent of metal work

We find these dishes made in silver and gold

with this same bracket-lobed rim

And then inside

can you see you've got these lotuses that are shown sometimes from above and sometimes in profile?

And what's particularly clever is that you can see there are some areas

where they left white around the petal

and that creates a kind of 3-Dimensionality to the flower

So each of these flowers have been painted with a very fine brush

and you can pick out all the different details in the flower

it's really quite exquisite

The second ceramic that we're going to look

was made in the Yongle period

now this is the high point for blue and white Ming porcelain

He ruled between 1403-24

and he was the emperor moved the capital from Nanjing North to Beijing

and he instigated a real change at Jingdezhen

where these porcelains were produced

So you get porcelains made with a much finer prepared body clay

and more beautiful glaze

and you can see, if you look closely at the flowers here,

which are all peonies

that the actual blue is used to sculpt the flower

so that there are certain areas that are white

certain areas that are pale blue

and certain areas that are dark blue

and if we look very, very closely

you can see some which are black

where the blue has really come all the way through the glaze

So one of the things about Yongle period

early 15th century blue and white porcelain

is that you have these sculpted flowers

each of the leaves makes sense in the pattern

and these particular flowers have these crinkle-edged leaves

And you may be wondering

'why is it in this shape?'

and that's because again it's copying a metal work form

It's not natural in ceramic to have these little hooks at the top of the handle

and you have to imagine originally it would have had a cover

and that from the knob on the top of the cover

that would have connected a chain to the top of the handle

and this strut here is entirely unnecessary for the ceramic

but would have helped support the spout in the gold original

And when we turn round the base of the handle

we've got these three tiny almost like nails

these studs

which would have fixed the metal handle to the body

It's very, very beautifully painted

and you can see it has a much whiter glaze surrounding the blue than the Hongwu piece

This is probably one of the most precious Ming ceramics that we have on the table today

Moving on to out third example

this was made in the mid-15th century

and what's interesting about this

is you start to get fabulous designs from woodblock prints

So if we start off on this example

we begin with this building here

with these typical Chinese roof edges that are upturned at the edge

Inside you can see a scholar waiting with a bottle of wine

and his servant is pointing out to the procession of people who are coming to see him

The first servant is carrying a sword over his shoulder

and the second has a musical instrument wrapped in silk called a qin

after them come the scholars themselves

mounted on horseback

with these fabulous black hats that have these wings at the side

Each one has a rank badge on his chest

and their horses are bedecked with fabulous bridles and saddles

trimmed with a pom-pom on the nose

Behind the 3 scholars we have 2 more servants

one who is bringing a shoulder pole with 2 picnic baskets attached

each of the layers here would have contained different delicacies

all contained within stacking lacquer boxes

And his friend behind him comes with 2 wine jars

full of delicious wine for their feast

And they're followed right at the end with another servant carrying a stack of books

and then the scene comes to an end with these sort of clouds

that's how we know it's the beginning and end of the scene

So how were these made?

They're fashioned from porcelain clay

thrown on a wheel and then painted with cobalt-oxide in solution

which when you paint it on appears black

after you've let it dry

you cover it with a clear glaze

and then fire it at a high temperature

These are fired in wood-fueled kilns that snake up the side of mountains in the southern part of China

near the city of Jingdezhen

and so because of this snaking form that undulates up the hillside

they're referred to as dragon kilns

You might be wondering what the jar is for?

It''s effectively a large container for wine

So originally it would have had a cover

and we see these in paintings

sitting on the floor

and from this wine would have been taken

and then put into smaller vessels like this decanter or bottles

The next item on the table is this box

which was made for the Longqing Emperor

who really only ruled for 5 or 6 years

between 1567-72

So this beautiful square box is interesting because it has this pattern of 2 dragons

you can see the heads here

and then the curling bodies that run all the way through

with the 5-clawed feet

and they're chasing this flaming pearl amoungst the clouds

And then the edges

each edge has got a different dragon around the edge

on the 4 sides

And then underneath we've got a box with 4 compartments

again each of the compartments is outlined with a blue line

the edges are unglazed

and then inside they're filled with glaze

And each of the edges has a roundel with a dragon

rather like the robes of a emperor

These come from textile designs

and there are 12 of them around the outside

This is the first piece that we've come across in this selection that has a reign mark

and yet we're always talking about mark and period Ming porcelain

The reign marks themselves are generally made up of 6 characters

sometimes of 4

the first 2 have the name of the dynasty 'Great Ming'

the second 2 have the name of the reign period

and then the last 2 are 'year' and 'made in'

so it's 'Made in the year of' and then the particular emperor's name

Blue and white wasn't invented in the Ming Dynasty

Blue and white goes much further back in Chinese history

and the first blue and white porcelains were made during the Yuan era

that's 1280-1368

and when we think of blue and white

we don't think of Yuan blue and white

we think of Ming blue and white

because that's the era in which blue and white porcelain came to Europe

First of all through the Portuguese

and later the Dutch and the English

and when blue and white arrived in Europe it transformed the way people dined

and it transformed interiors

If you think of laying out a table with pewter and with wood

it's all very dark and the ceramics at the time generally had lead-glazes

so in Europe they would have been greens and browns and rather dull colours

and then along comes something like this dish

which was made for export and shipped in large quantities to Holland and Portugal and England

and it would have transformed interiors by the light reflecting off the dish

So you can imagine much more multicoloured interior

and the patterns too were much more interesting

So very quickly in Europe people started copying these designs

all sorts of ceramics manufacturers right across Europe

Here we have a piece which was produced for the export market

right at the end of Ming Dynasty in 1643

This has got a bracket-lobed rim like the first dish that we looked at

but it's much coarser

in the centre you've got the crow with open mouth or bird with open mouth

this giant tree peony

and then in the calvetto this sort of panel design

with alternating flowers and lingzhi fungus

now these are a kind of fungus or mushroom which bestowed immortality on an individual

If we turn it over we can see that it's been rather roughly made

it's been fired on its footring

and has a lot of grit adhering to it

and in the centre you can see these chatter marks

which are like the spokes on the wheel of a bicycle

and it's very typical of this late-material

This came from a shipwreck discovered in the 1980s

and it's lain at the bottom of the South-China Sea for 300 years

and that's why when you look at it

it has a very matte feel to it

we can't see the same kind of glossy glaze that we see on the earlier Ming pieces

It was discovered in the 1980s and was sold to the Museum in 1985

It was 1 of 23,000 pieces on board

Quite an extraordinary thing

That is a whistle-stop tour of 300 years of Ming porcelain

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