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24 Feb 2023

A survey of ceramics

Written by Patricia F Ferguson
A large porcelain dish is displayed against a plain background. It is painted in dark blues, deep reds and gold. It features two koi carp leaping in the centre, with various floral motifs around the edge.
Large dish, porcelain, painted in underglaze blue, iron-red, and gold, Imari-type palette, made in Arita kilns, Japan, Edo period, c.1700–20
Patricia Ferguson has carried out a survey of the Chinese and Japanese ceramics in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It has highlighted the many masterpieces in the collection, revealing their stories and their contribution to Scotland’s ceramic heritage.

In 2021 the National Trust for Scotland commissioned me to survey its collection of Asian ceramics. My brief was to draw together existing research, to carry out new research where required, and to establish the significance of the collection within the broader context of historic ceramic production and collecting. The focus of the survey was over 2,000 items of Chinese and Japanese pottery and porcelain found in nine properties across Scotland, from Brodie Castle near Inverness to Broughton House on the Galloway coast.

Travelling around the Scottish countryside, seeing the ceramics displayed in the houses and meeting the staff responsible for these collections were the most exciting parts of the survey for me. Thanks to Project Reveal – the National Trust for Scotland’s ambitious project to inventory, label, photograph and describe every artefact and work of art in the collections – detailed images and descriptions were also available for study. Ian Riches, the Trust’s archivist, gave me access to decades of curatorial files and guidebooks in order to draw together existing research about these key collections and to build upon that knowledge. Archival documents at the National Library of Scotland and the National Records of Scotland, as well as muniments kept at Haddo House, were critical in understanding the histories of the collections, further refined with insights from current and former curators.

The objects themselves had much to reveal. The majority of the colourful Chinese porcelains date from the mid-17th to the late 18th century and were made inland in Jingdezhen (in South China) for markets in Europe. However, there were also large assemblages of white wares made in Dehua (in Fujian province in East China), which was closer to the sea and early trading networks.

Japanese porcelain made in Arita from around 1670 to 1730 included the earliest Kakiemon-style wares and later Imari-style dishes and vessels, but also some rare Kyoto stonewares and items from the Meiji period.

Within the survey report, the objects are presented by property, divided by geography, then chronologically and by type, concluding with discussions of provenance and collecting histories connected with the donor families.

When considered collectively, clear patterns of consumption appear that parallel English ceramic histories. However, what is distinct is how these mostly mass-produced luxury objects were acquired, used and displayed. Scotland’s people have long relied on imported fine ceramics. Asian ceramics replaced Continental imports from the 1650s onwards, supplied by new mercantile networks that the East India Companies established in Amsterdam and London. By the late 18th century, Chinese porcelain competed with English ceramics imported into Scotland. Only in the 19th century was it viable to produce local Scottish wares in the latest cosmopolitan fashions, although it was still a risky venture. This is attested by the short-lived West Pans factory (1764–77), near Musselburgh.

“There is still much to be discovered and many unanswered questions, but the survey provides a robust start.”
Patricia F Ferguson
Ceramic specialist

Unique global stories materialised for each of the nine properties: sons based in Madras ordering armorial porcelain table services, which they would never live to enjoy; the inheritance of a 17th-century assemblage from an English royal palace; an artist acquiring ceramics in South-East Asia on one of his many sojourns. These hidden or forgotten stories will stimulate new engagement with audiences at home and abroad. The survey confirms the national importance of these Asian collections within Scotland’s ceramic heritage, as well as their international significance.

To find out more, you can read the full survey report.

Patricia Ferguson is a ceramic specialist with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. She has worked in London at the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum, and as Honorary Adviser on Ceramics to the National Trust (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). She published Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces in 2016.

What we do: Collections

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