Chinese porcelain’s beauty surfaces after centuries under the sea
This tale involves tea. Not all the tea in China, but a lot.
Tea — 700,000 pounds of it — was part of the cargo of a ship that went down in the South China Sea 265 years ago. Packed with the tea were more than 225,000 porcelain dishes.
Some of that historic porcelain has made its way to the Art Gallery of Burlington and is now on show in The Nanking Cargo, an exhibition in the AGB’s Perry Gallery.
The Nanking Cargo refers to the freight of the Geldermalsen, which belonged to the Dutch East India Company. It set sail from Canton (Guangzhou) carrying — along with the tea and porcelain dishes — gold, tin, silk and cotton, all bound for Amsterdam. But in January 1752, the ship sank.
The shipwreck was discovered in 1986. Some of its cargo was retrieved, including 150,000 porcelain dishes. The divers had trouble locating them because of all the tea leaves swimming about.
In the 18th century, the tea was more valuable than the porcelain. The dishes would probably have been sold off at the dock on arrival. But when auctioned by Christie’s in Amsterdam in 1986, the porcelain fetched $13.5 million US.
Last year, an anonymous donor gave 240 pieces to the Art Gallery of Burlington, making the gallery the keeper of one of the oldest Chinese ceramic collections in Canada.
The pieces were made around 1750 in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, an important centre of porcelain production.
The city was famous for the blue and white porcelain ware that it began producing in the 14th century. Much of the export porcelain made in Jingdezhen was shipped from Nanking (Nanjing), so it came to be known as Nanking porcelain.
The exhibition includes plates, condiment jars, butter tubs, teapots, tea bowls and saucers, all thrown on the wheel. Their bodies are mostly white. Some, called Batavian, are white on the inside and brown on the outside.
The decoration, in blue, brown and gold, was hand-painted, frequently with flowers and fish. Landscapes abound, a not surprising subject given that landscape was held in high esteem in Chinese art. Here are some highlights. Some blue and white saucers are decorated with a Pagoda Riverscape, a fairly detailed landscape that comprises two bodies of land separated by water.
In the foreground, an island contains a pagoda built among rocks and trees. No two trees or rocks are alike.
A condiment jar has a body embellished with traditional floral motifs. Flowers such as chrysanthemums, hibiscus, roses and peonies with their many clustered petals were popular sources of inspiration. On the domed lid, a pagoda is flanked by trees.
Fish swim in the centre of a plate decorated in gold and brown. Floral motifs frame the central scene.
Motifs like these continued to be used in Chinese pottery. They also inspired some English pottery decoration, notably the Willow Pattern, which originated in the late 18th century.
And while the AGB has none of the tea, it does have one of the two bronze cannons that belonged to the Geldermalsen. The gallery is aiming to have it on display next year.
Jingdezhen was famous for blue and white porcelain ware it began producing in the 14th century
Blue and white porcelain saucer with Pagoda Riverscape decoration.
Cylindrical blue and white porcelain condiment jar.
Porcelain plate decorated with swimming fish.