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1 Jul 2022

Multilayered stories of a Chinese porcelain vessel

Written by Wu Yunong, PhD student, University of Glasgow
Mounted Chinese porcelain vessel with Dutch decoration in Japanese Kakiemon style | Brodick Castle collection
As part of a Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) doctoral internship Beyond Beckford, Wu Yunong, a PhD student from the University of Glasgow and Thalia Ostendorf, a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, are carrying out research at Brodick Castle. Yunong tells us more about some of their discoveries.

In the collection at Brodick Castle, there is a Chinese porcelain vessel embellished with striking decoration. Even more striking is how much work had been conducted to form its current appearance, and how many layers of stories are hidden beneath.

Originally a Chinese porcelain vessel, probably manufactured in the early 18th century, this object was exported to the Netherlands where it was painted with overglaze enamels. Later the ormolu (gilt bronze) mounts were added in the 19th century, probably in Europe, after which it was acquired by the British collector William Beckford (1760–1844). The dating of this object is not precise, but we do have records showing it as a porcelain from the Kangxi reign (1662–1722) in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) with the 19th-century mounts. Sometimes we can use reign marks or kiln marks to gain a better sense of the production date for Chinese porcelain, and hallmarks for the mounts or metalwork. Unfortunately for this piece, there are no marks on either the porcelain or the mounts.

Decoration on the other side of the mounted Chinese porcelain vessel | Brodick Castle collection

In the 18th century, there was considerable importation of plain white wares to Europe by Dutch traders. Easier access to and increasing availability of Chinese porcelain allowed European decorators to use these ‘blanks’ as canvas and add decorations in any tastes preferred. In contrast, whitewares imported in earlier periods were rarer and therefore much more cherished. A typical example of these early wares is the famous Gaignières-Fonthill vase, one of the earliest documented Chinese porcelain objects to have arrived in Europe in the 14th century. This vase, a highly appreciated qingbai ware, was once mounted in Europe and subsequently possessed by several figures and collectors including Beckford. It was rediscovered by Arthur Lane in 1959, sadly without any mount, and is now in the National Museum of Ireland.

Export porcelain of blue-and-white or whitewares were, in some cases, carved or incised with floral spray or animal motifs under the glaze, allowing the glaze to pool in the indentations and create a light-shade effect. This kind of carving design is sometimes described as anhua – secret or hidden decoration. For this piece, the carving was subtle enough that one needs to carefully look for it. In a way the later addition of enamel decoration also helps hide the anhua, though the carved lotus can still clearly be spotted as most of it is not covered by the enamel. A pair of pink ground vases with lids also found in Brodick, use a similar technique but with the etching-like carving conducted upon the enamel rather than on the unglazed porcelain body. The carving spreads across the whole vase and is only noticeable at close distance, from the perfect angle, with sufficient lighting, and discerning eyes.

In terms of this mounted porcelain piece, existing evidences suggest it to have been a teapot, minus its handle, spout and cover, with only the globular body being left to mount. This was first pointed out by Anton Gabszewicz in 'Ceramic Delights at Brodick' from the 1995 yearbook of National Trust for Scotland. The chipping underneath one of the ormolu handles implies potential damaged area of the spout, and for whatever reason the ormolu was added to disguise it. One example in the Chitra Collection, that of a Kangxi teapot with anhua design, does have a similar form, though the pattern of anhua only covers a limited area. An even more solid piece of evidence which only came to me recently is a teapot from the Dutch auction house Oriental Art Auctions. Its almost identical form, anhua pattern and overglaze decoration further prove the fact that the Brodick vessel was originally a teapot. The practice of mounting in this case also indicates a repurposing of objects, from a teapot to a possible potpourri bowl, denoted by the openwork near the rim of the mouth mount.

The overglaze Dutch decoration exquisitely depicts typical Chinese motifs such as ‘The Three Friends of Winter’ (pine tree, bamboo, and plums) and two birds, in reference to Chinese bird-and-flower paintings. The birds could potentially be magpies as they are a common motif in Chinese arts, symbolising joy and good fortune, regardless of the unique colour palette our Dutch enameller chose. However, the general decorative style in fact imitates not a Chinese one, but Japanese Kakiemon, which is also indicated by the tiger pattern painted near the bottom. Consisting of iron-red, bluish green, soft blue and occasionally yellow, Kakiemon created a distinctive colour palette of enamels which were popular in the European market from the 17th to the mid-18th century, and similar decorations were also applied to Meissen wares.

For the piece discussed here, the gentle touch of brushstroke and delicately painted details demonstrate great skill in decorating. It also suggests that whoever designed this decoration was making their choices based upon authentic Japanese and Chinese wares rather than pure European traditions. It is worth noting that another set of four porcelain plates in Brodick are also Chinese pieces with Dutch decoration. For that set, the enamel painting reflects another common motif among the 18th century Dutch decorators, with a parrot at the centre pecking on a cherry, and three parakeets perching on rose trees surrounded by foliate scrolls.

Export porcelain plate with Dutch decoration of parrots, one of a four-piece set | Brodick Castle Collection

I am grateful to Patricia Ferguson and Professor Nick Pearce for their generous help and comments. I would also like to thank Patricia Ferguson and Robert McPherson for correcting me on the term use of qingbai.

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