Chi­nese porce­lain’s beauty sur­faces af­ter cen­turies un­der the sea

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - REGINA HAGGO Regina Haggo, art his­to­rian, pub­lic speaker, cu­ra­tor and for­mer pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in New Zealand, teaches at the Dun­das Val­ley School of Art. dhaggo@thespec.com

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.

PHO­TOS BY BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Porce­lain plate dec­o­rated with swim­ming fish.

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