Bowl designed perfectly to let the flavour flood out across the centuries
MATCHA is, apparently, having a moment. Chocolate bars, lattes, cup cakes – powdered green tea is suddenly a favourite flavour.
In Japan. powdered green tea has been popular for centuries, but is used to flavour all sorts of things and that flavour has come Britain’s way.
But it was originally a Chinese drink and The Wilson holds a vessel for drinking exactly that kind of tea.
It looks the simplest of objects but it and others like it helped shape a way of thinking about art in Japan, which travelled to Britain in the early 20th century.
The bowl looks modern too, but dates from the 12th or 13th century.
This bowl is called a hare’s fur tea bowl, and you can see why. The streaky pale markings on the bowl do make it look like a little like fur.
It was made in Jianyang in Fujian Province in south east China and came into the museum’s collection in 1989, acquired to add important older pieces to the museum’s Berkeley Smith collection of Chinese ceramics, which date from around the 14th to 19th centuries.
These bowls were made for local consumption.
For several centuries the best pottery – porcelain – has been made in Jingdezhen in central China, but in the Song dynasty (960–1279) there were several local centres making highquality ceramics.
The bowl is not made of porcelain, it is stoneware made with a black clay.
It has several layers of iron glaze applied to it and the furry effect is caused by the layers running together and reacting with each other.
Each bowl would have been fired with thousands of others in what is called a dragon kiln – long, thin kilns that go up a slope.
They can reach very high temperatures which you need for stoneware and porcelain and were admired in China.
Scholar and poet Cai Xiang wrote about the bowls in the 11th century: ‘Tea is of light colour and looks best in black cups. The cups made at Jianyang are bluish-black in colour, marked like the fur of a hare.
“Being of rather thick fabric they retain the heat, so that when once warmed through they cool very slowly, and they are additionally valued on this account.
“None of the cups produced at other places can rival
these. Blue and white cups are not used by those who give tea-tasting parties.”
Tea was already very important in China by this time, but not the leaf tea we use today.
In the Song dynasty, powder tea became popular, a kind of green tea whisked up with water in the tea bowl. It comes out a pale green colour which must look dramatic in the black bowls.
Powder tea went out of favour in China and the leaf tea we drink came into fashion, but in the 12th century, a Buddhist monk carried the tea and the method of making it back to Japan.
Buddhist monks coming to study at a monastery on Mount Tianmu in Fujian Provincestarted to carry the black cups back to Japan.
The Japanese started making very similar bowls, calling the glaze tenmoku after the mountain where they had originally found them.
The tea ceremony we know today developed in Japan using these and other simple, irregular-shaped and dramatically glazed bowls.
They stayed popular, and when western potters started to learn about Japanese ceramics in the early 20th century under the influence of Bernard Leach and his friend Shoji Hamada, they started to make tenmoku glazes.
Michael Cardew was Leach’s first pupil and started the Winchcombe Pottery in 1926.
He used an iron glaze for some of his pottery, but his pupil Ray Finch, who later took over the pottery, was really inspired by Japanese pots.
If you’d like to see some of our Chinese ceramics collection, visit the WOW Gallery, and if you’d like to find out more about a very different kind of pottery made in 19th century Britain, parian ware, book on our next Object Talk about veiled Bride by Copeland with curator Kirsty Hartsiotis on March 14 at 6pm.
You can book at cheltenham museum.org.uk by phone or visit the museum’s reception and Tourist Information Centre.
A tea bowl 12th-13th century tea bowl made in China. Below, a bowl from Winchcombe in the 1940s