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.
Chinese pottery straw glazed ovoid jar and cover, guan, with four double-loop handles at the shoulder above an incised line repeated on the cover surmounted by a flat knop, covered overall in an even straw glaze falling short of the buff-coloured foot rim with a further incised unglazed line on the lower body, the interior covered in an olive-green glaze with three spur marks in the well.
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 globular waterpot and cover, guan, with gently inturned mouth and ridged lipped rim, the cover with a bud-form finial, splashed on the body with a bright three-colour glaze running towards the unglazed slightly concave foot revealing the buff-coloured body, with a clear glaze on the well of the interior, the cover similarly decorated.
Chinese pottery blue glazed jar, guan, of well-rounded globular form with flat base and short flared neck, covered overall in a rich and even royal blue glaze extending in large splashes on the interior which also has a clear glaze, the rim with three spur marks from the firing.
Chinese pottery phoenix-head ewer, fengshouhu, with slender pear-shaped body, moulded on each side in an oval shape reserve on a splayed buff-coloured pottery foot, with slender neck and stem-form handle forming a flower behind the phoenix bird’s head of predominately blue colour splashed with cream, green and amber glaze beneath a crest and flat rim, one side moulded with a galloping archer turning back to perform the Parthian shot surrounded by flowerheads on a blue ground, the other side with an open-winged phoenix bird standing on one foot perched on a flowerhead surrounded by further flowerheads on a blue ground, the neck and handle of a rich amber glaze, the flat rim with three spur marks from the firing.
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.
Large Chinese pottery sancai, three-colour glazed Bactrian camel, the body predominantly of rich amber glaze, standing with its head raised back with wide open mouth, flared nostrils and bulging eyes, a swept-back mane and flowing hair behind its head, the neck with long strands of hair combed to both sides and heightened in a straw glaze, wearing a three-colour splashed saddle cloth pleated at the edge beneath its straw-glazed tufted humps swaying in each direction, the top of the legs and the tail also heightened in straw glaze, the base unglazed with original drips of glaze.
Chinese large pottery sancai, three-colour glazed jar and cover, guan, painted with ‘a hundred prunus blossom’ in cream and amber glaze on a green ground beneath an amber glazed neck and rim, the cover surmounted by a bud-form finial and similarly decorated. Total height with cover 11 ¾ inches, 29.8 cm.
Chinese amber glazed marbled pottery small circular cosmetic box, he, with flattened edge and gently domed cover with matching flat base, the interior similarly glazed 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 sancai, three-colour glazed pottery basin, pen, moulded in the centre with a six-petalled flowerhead encircled by six conjoined larger petals in cream, green and amber highlights on an amber glazed ground beneath a striped stylized petal border in the deep cavetto, beneath green and cream glaze on the rim, the exterior with amber glaze falling short of the smooth buff-coloured body, three interior spur marks.
Chinese sancai, three-colour and blue glazed pottery jar, guan, with short flared rim and broad baluster body, covered overall in a rich blue, amber and cream glaze falling short of the buff-coloured foot.
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 amber and cream glazed pottery cup, bei, in the form of a carp, the body moulded with detailed scales and scrolls, supporting an eight-lobed petal-form rim, the tail forming the handle.
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.
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.