Ming & Earlier
Perhaps the most well-known of all Chinese ceramics, Ming dynasty porcelain benefitted from China’s return to Han Chinese rule in 1368 after 97 years of the foreign Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. As the internecine struggles abated, Ming pottery flourished in the world-famous ‘porcelain town’ of Jingdezhen and beyond.
Out were the old tastes of Song dynasty monochromes and in were the new appetite for Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain. Not without coincidence, the desire for Ming dynasty ceramics was exacerbated both by China’s economic upturn in the fifteenth century as it shifted towards a market economy and at the same time the European renaissance led to thousands of pieces of spectacular Ming porcelain making their way from China to become prized possessions in Europe’s royal palaces and stately homes.
As Ming dynasty porcelain continued its journey of refinement, there were significant innovations that became benchmarks in the rich and detailed history of Ming pottery including jihong under the Xuande emperor (a blood-red glaze of which it is believed there are fewer than 100 remaining examples in museums), doucai (contending colours) under Chenghua, jiaohuang (yellow glaze) under Hongzhi and wucai (five colour) under Wanli. It was also during the reign of Wanli (1572 – 1620) that production techniques, including mixing kaolin clay and pottery stone in equal proportions enhanced the whiteness of the vessel body, enhancing Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain.
Chinese monochrome olive glazed pottery jar of ovoid form with three double-loop handles at the shoulder, above an incised line beneath the upright rim, covered in a bright olive glaze continuing on the interior, falling short of the buff stoneware body and the slightly splayed foot.
Chinese sancai, three-colour glazed pottery equestrian group, with Central Asian male rider modelled with his hands raised to hold the reins, wearing a green glazed long jacket with chestnut lapels, his face unglazed and heightened in black, white and red pigment, with detailed paint to his hair and Phrygian cap, fu tou, also in black tied at the back, the piebald horse standing with the head turned to the left with ears pricked and green splashes on a cream ground with three-colour saddle cloth and chestnut hoofs, the base unglazed.
Chinese sancai, three-colour glazed pottery standing figure of a court lady wearing long flowing robes, her hands hidden beneath a loose stole covering her shoulders and draped at the front, the green, straw and chestnut glazes well-defined, the unglazed head and face with details heightened in black, pink and white original pigment, her hair tied in three buns at the back and knotted up in a chignon, also heightened with black and white pigment.
Chinese Blanc de Chine Guanyin seated on a raised rockwork throne, wearing long robes extending to a cowl, resting her hand on her raised right knee, wearing a jewelled necklace and elaborate floral scroll tiara, covered in a cream glaze.
A Chinese Yaozhou monochrome deep bowl with conical sides and upright ribbed rim carved on the interior with three chrysanthemum blossoms on a continuous single scrolling branch amongst large leaves, the underside plain, covered overall in an even olive-green glaze falling short of the unglazed biscuit foot rim revealing the high-fired stoneware body.
Blue and white deep dish moulded in the form of a chrysanthemum flower head, on three short cabriole feet, painted with a mountainous river scene, the centre with two fishing boats sailing between a two tier house beside rockwork, the other bank with a viewing pavilion in the distance and the single peak of a tall mountain in the distance beneath the moon, a double line border at the petal edge, the underside white and ribbed with a thick blue tinged glaze, the edges with mushikui.
Large Swatow deep circular dish painted in turquoise, black and iron-red enamels with a large central scene of the ‘split pagoda’, with mountains in the distance, figures crossing a bridge and boats, all above three pagodas on rockwork, surrounded by four ruyi-head flaming medallions of fisherman, two with figures crossing a bridge, one with a fishing boat with one of the fisherman holding a net and the other with a boat in a river scene, between four four-character iron-red seals within a double square, the underside plain, the base and foot rim with sand grit.
Large Swatow deep circular dish painted in turquoise, black, iron-red and green enamel with gently everted rim, painted in the centre with a barefoot artist wandering in a landscape holding a branch supporting a long-tailed bird, with a rucksack of scrolls and gourd, a further rolled scroll sits on an easel extending from his rucksack, all beside a deer, rockwork, bamboo and beneath a large chrysanthemum, encircled by a lappet band of flowers and branches, the cavetto painted with four large lobed reserves, two with birds perched amongst aster and camellias and two with lotus flowerheads, all between chilong dragon roundels on an iron-red diaper ground of cash and cross-hatch, the underside plain, the base and foot rim with sand grit.
Blue and white saucer-dish painted with four horses in a field in various poses attended by a seated groom playing a flute, the underside with stylised branches.
A Chinese sancai (three colour) small pottery model of a standing cockerel the head looking forwards, covered with splashed green, chestnut and straw glaze, falling short of the lower section and revealing the buff pottery.
A wucai hexagonal deep dish with indented brown washed rim, painted in the centre with a lotus pond, a heron stands beside flowering lotus, leaves and aquatic plants with a bird in flight, within a moulded panelled border of six aquatic creatures, fish, toad, terrapin, shrimp, snail and crab on different diaper grounds, sealmark fu (happiness) within a double square.
Blue and white tea bowl of cylindrical form on a tall foot, painted with two pairs of characters ji xi "fortune and happiness" in stylised octofoil lotus flower head reserves on cash and scale diaper grounds beneath a band of scrolls at the rim and above two blue lines on the foot, the rim with mushikui.
A Chinese porcelain kosometsuke waterpot in the form of twin peaches, with stalk and foliage in relief, painted with four butterflies on a key-fret ground, the three biscuit feet of butterfly form.
Further information on Ming & Earlier
Early Ming dynasty ceramics took inspiration from the intricate but busy Islamic styles of the outgoing Yuan Mongols but it wasn’t long before the Han started to exert their own influences on design. From the 15th century onwards, Ming porcelain decoration became more subtle and restrained but as demand grew from Japan and Europe, it once again became more elaborate. It was one of China’s major exports and was often exchanged for Spanish silver. By the sixteenth century, Ming dynasty porcelain included vibrant colours such as blues, reds, greens and yellows.
By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was becoming increasingly common for producers of Ming pottery and Ming porcelain to add imperial reign dates to their wares and there started a trend for artists to sign their wares. A signature on a Ming vase of one of the most highly respected Ming dynasty porcelain artists could dramatically affect its price, such was the reputation of some of the artisan craftsmen of the era, not unlike the European painters of the day.