Porcelain: A Matter of the Heart

IN Eric Newby's wonderful book, ``A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush,'' an incident that is presented perfectly illustrates the importance of porcelain to the human heart. Newby and his companion, Hugh, were trekking near Kabul, 13,000 feet above the Chamar Valley. They encountered great hardships. The local people were very poor, rough, and belligerent. Here they encountered a barefoot man on horseback. Newby found him handsome, but added, ``... like most of the people we had so far seen, with the same look of hardly-controlled savagery. Across his nose there was a shiny white scar. `A man did it with a sword,''' was all that he would say about it.

``When he was offered tea, he produced his own cup. It was beautifully made of thin porcelain decorated with a pattern of flowers. It was a Russian cup, made before the Revolution, at the factory of the Englishman, Gardener, at St. Petersburg.''

Hugh fell in love with the cup; after prolonged negotiations it was arranged that he would purchase it, and another like it, but when the pair were to be delivered, the deal fell through. The man's wife refused to allow them to be taken from her; she sent a message that if the cups were sold she would cut off her husband's supplies, a terrible threat in those high mountains.

Aside from a rather unexpected view of the women of the region, this points up the hold fine china has on people - they will not part with it. They need this luminous, transparent, ringing material to help them on.

A better known example of this mania is that of August the Strong of Poland, who exchanged a regiment of dragoons for 48 Ming vases. There was no other price possible, and he felt he simply had to have them.

China, the undisputed queen of the great empire of pottery and porcelain (consider even the name, china) was making excellent pots in Neolithic times, and continued to do so through the centuries, establishing towns devoted to this one industry.

In the 9th century, under the Tang Dynasty, potters discovered how to make true porcelain. It was a triumph of experience, experiment, intuition, artistry, until, even without thermometers or test tubes, they knew how to vitrify the ``biscuit,'' how to fuse the glazes. Knowledge relating to these skills had, naturally, been exchanged with other ceramic centers - for instance, from the Middle East came the secrets of painting with cobalt. But secrets were seldom divulged, everyone had to find out for himself - it depended also on the nature of the clays, the water.

The town most renowned for the art is Jingdezhen in Jaingxi, southeast China. It had a perfect site for the work - the right clay nearby, wood to be had, and a river of pure water, which ran through it up to Lake Poyang, northward. The fragile wares were conveyed over the lake, and by canal, the short distance further to the Yangtze. Here the freight went downstream to Nanjing and thence to the sea, on to Japan, or south to Canton, and from there to Europe. The export trade became extremely lucrative.

Two letters, one written in 1712 and one 10 years later, describe Jingdezhen. A Jesuit missionary, the observant P`ere d'Entrecolles visited the place and left these two enthusiastic and comprehensive accounts. He said that there were then a million people living there, all connected with this one goal, and that the glow from more than 3,000 kilns illuminated the night skies. The work was highly organized and subdivided; a piece might pass through as many as 70 hands.

When a furnace in Jingdezhen misfired, the broken shards were tossed into the river, which became paved with these brilliant fragments, sparkling in the light, ``very refreshing'' to see, d'Entrecolles wrote.

By this time the Qing Dynasty was firmly established; it lasted from 1644 to 1911 on the foundation laid by the two remarkable emperors, Kangxi and Chien Lung, each of whom reigned for 60 years. Both were great patrons of porcelain, but with or without them, China's hold on the trade was enormous - everyone loved Sung celadons, Ming blue-and-white, and, now in the new dynasty, the fashionable colors - famille rose, verte, noire.

Meanwhile in Europe, an enormous market awaited the arrival of Chinese porcelain. At the end of the 16th century, and into the 17th, Europe was well advanced in the courtly arts, music, costume, poetry, but Europeans still had not managed really to fit out their tables, or refine the art of dining. There was some earthenware in use, but still the peasants used wooden trenchers, the nobles silver, and the kings gold.

Upon this scene, unaided by market consultants, computers, or statistics, suddenly burst the wonder of Chinese porcelain. It came about through the agency of the East India Companies (Portuguese, Dutch, English, French) and their vast trade. Europe bought immense quantities, soon beginning to send back to China models made in wood, indicating their preferences as to shape, their tastes in patterns, ordering sets made which included specific coats-of-arms.

The European desire for porcelain became so great, and was so costly, that it was evident that it must be made at home. In 1708 the mystery of its composition was discovered by an alchemist, B"ottger. From this arose the factories of Meissen, Nymphenburg, and many others.

The pieces shown here belong to the collection of Sir William Butler, and have recently been shown at the Frick museumin New York City. They date from the transitional period when Jingdezhen was feeling the political turmoil during the fall of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing. The lovely saucer has a cobalt blue rim, surrounding a design of peonies against a faintly traced rock, the flowers being of aubergine, red and yellow, with green leaves. The floral pattern is done in enamels, and the rim border of a rare underglaze blue. It dates from around 1655.

The green jar with its broad, rounded shoulders comes from the same period, and has a beautiful overglaze enamel over a white glaze - it also is a rare example.

These pieces show us how art goes on, despite dynastic and other upheavals, and reassure us with the certainty that such perfect objects can survive to delight us, century after century. The care and skill, the patience and taste expressed by the Jingdezhen potters here over 300 years ago are qualities which transcend chaos, disarray, chance. Their fragility is also their strength, their elegance a fortress.

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