Tang dynasty pottery was preceded by Chinese ceramics dating back as far as the Palaeolithic age but it wasn’t until the Tang took over from the unifying Sui dynasty in 618 that China flourished. Considered by many to be a golden age of art, culture and discovery, it was also a wonderful period of development and innovation in the world of Tang dynasty ceramics and it is why today, Tang dynasty antiques are so highly prized.
Early Tang dynasty pottery varied dramatically and used high-fire and low-fire techniques but in the 289 years of Tang dynastic rule, the most successful and sought-after pieces were Tang sancai, literally ‘three colour.’ This form of Tang dynasty ceramics is moulded earthenware with colour added in naturalistic places rather than over the entirety of the piece and the process of producing high quality Tang dynasty pottery was relatively complex for seventh and eighth century potters – the moulds are baked in kilns to around 1,100°C, then the glaze is applied and finally the temperature is reduced to 900°C and baked again.
The origins of Tang sancai – polychrome lead-glazed decorated Tang dynasty pottery – were in the northern Chinese cities of Shaanxi and Loyang and for the most part the process used varying shades of yellow, green and white, earning the nickname ‘egg and spinach’ in the west, although other colours were used.
Two Chinese standing unglazed pottery figures, one of a warrior with an open jacket holding a shield, the other of a civil officer wearing an official hat with his hand clasped beneath his long flowing robes, tied in a bow at the collar, each with finely detailed facial features, the robes with original terracotta colour, white and black pigment, with wood stand.
A pair of Chinese pottery large unglazed models of equestrian archers, one with his right arm raised to hold the bow and his left arm pulled towards his chest to hold the arrow, the other with his left arm raised to hold the bow and his right arm pulled towards his chest to hold the arrow, each seated on a painted animal skin saddlecloth, one with black dots on a white ground, the other with white dots on a black ground, the horses with open mouths, pricked ears and trimmed manes, each archer with expressive and concentrated facial details with a long beard and moustache, all with original pigmentation in terracotta colour, white, black, pink, all on a rectangular base.
Chinese pottery sancai, three-colour glazed miniature circular box and cover, he, with gently domed cover, straight sides with a curved foot and flat base, the glaze evenly splashed falling short at the foot rim revealing the unglazed buff-coloured body.
Large Chinese sancai, three-colour glazed pottery standing figure of a West Asian civil official, his hands clasped at the front, wearing long flowing robes with three-colour splashed breast plate and cuffs, rich chestnut jacket, upright collar and shoes, with white glazed skirt having traces of oxidisation and splashed raised rockwork form openwork base, the detailed face and official hat unglazed with traces of original pink and black pigment.
Chinese pottery sancai, three-colour glazed bowl, wan, with everted rim and raised cavetto, the three-colour splashed glaze covering the interior and exterior falling short of the buff-coloured inverted foot rim, the well of the interior with spur marks from the firing.
Chinese pottery sancai, three-colour glazed quatrefoil moulded cup, bei, fluted with twelve foliate lobes, the interior splashed with amber and white on a predominantly green ground, the exterior with four raised leaf scroll-end reserves, each on a stippled ground and beneath linear fluting at the rim, the well of the interior with three spur marks from the firing.
Chinese pottery amber glazed standing horse with straw glazed head and wide bulging eyes, muscular body and unglazed saddle and cloth, loosely tied on each side with traces of original pigment, the mane ridged for hairwork attachment, the behind similarly pierced for a hairwork tail.
Chinese pottery sancai, three-colour glazed circular cosmetic box and cover, he, with gently domed cover, flat sides and curved base, the unglazed base revealing the buff-coloured body, the interior of the box base with traces of clear glaze turning iridescent.
Chinese pottery sancai, three-colour glazed quatrefoil presentation dish, pan, supported on four outward curled legs moulded on the sides with scrollwork, decorated with a deep cobalt blue and white-splashed glaze, the reverse partially covered with an amber glaze falling short of the centre revealing the buff-coloured body.
Chinese green and amber glazed pottery oil lamp, youdeng, in the form of a carp holding a six-petalled receptacle above its head, the body with detailed moulded scales and incised lines to the tail and dorsal fin.
Chinese pottery two-colour globular pouring vessel, hu, with broad rounded body, short neck, flared rim and hexagonal spout on a gently everted foot and recessed base, covered overall in a rich and lustrous green and white splashed glaze extending on the interior of the rim with a clear glaze in the well, falling short of the foot and base revealing the buff-coloured body, the shoulder with a ribbed and raised band, the rim with a further ridge.
Chinese sancai, three-colour glazed jar of ovoid form with gently flaring rim, painted on the shoulder with five petals in green, cream and chestnut glaze and incised with three concentric bands, dripping down towards the unglazed buff-coloured smooth unglaze pottery body, the flat base unglazed.
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.
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.
Further information on Tang
Many of these stunning Tang dynasty antiques were used as pieces that were buried with the dead for use in the afterlife, known as mingqui. They mainly took the form of horses, camels, servants and soldiers and even camel drivers from Africa and central Asia depicted by their thick beards and facial features with realistic detail unprecedented in the history of not only Tang dynasty ceramics but in all of Chinese art.
It has been suggested that no other potters of any other dynasty have been as skilful in their stunning representations of horses and consequently Tang dynasty antiques and sancai are collected and admired by collectors from around the world.
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