If I had an unlimited budget and a choice from of all the art and antique objects in the world, my fantasy collection would probably contain a disproportionately large number of Chinese monochrome ceramics. Anyone who has read my book Random Treasure is already aware that I have in the past owned two spectacular pieces – a Northern Song Dynasty Yaozhou celadon bowl (bought for about £22 in a local auction) and a Qing Dynasty Langyao copper-red vase (bought for £6.99 in a local charity shop). I don’t have either of them now. They were too precious for me to keep, so I sold one at Sotheby’s and one at Lyon & Turnbull, and made enough money to feed my modest real-world pot-buying habit for many years to come. Their pictures are below, but if you want to know the full stories and the bottom line, you’ll have to get my book. No spoilers here.
Among the monochromes in my fantasy collection would be a strong representation of flambé glazes. Literally speaking you can’t call them monochromes because they usually come in a combination of blues and deep reds and sometimes purple, but like true monochromes they depend for their appeal not on pattern or decoration but on their shape, quality of making and the deep, hypnotic qualities of their glazes.
“Based on mineral (usually iron or copper) oxides, flambé glazes (or transmutation glazes) are fired at high temperatures (up to 1500º C) in a kiln atmosphere that is rich in carbon monoxide, owing to the shutting off of oxygen at a critical moment. (This is known as a ‘reducing’ atmosphere.) This results in a violent reaction within the glaze, which is transmuted into an unpredictable range of reds, purples, blues, lilacs and greens. The glaze was perfected by the Chinese in the 18th century and first copied successfully in Europe in the later 19th century.”*
As opposed to the display that I see in my imagination, my actual current collection of monochromes is very small and highly uninteresting. A Qing celadon plate, a couple of reproduction Dehua Guanyin figures, two modern ge-type vases, a few miniature pieces which featured in an earlier blog posting.
And three flambé-glazed vases. One’s a reproduction (or possibly a fake), one’s been shattered into many pieces and poorly repaired, and the third is not even remotely Chinese.
Starting with the reproduction (or fake), the first thing to say about it is that not only is it a reproduction (or fake), but experts wouldn’t call it a flambé glaze at all but a jun glaze. As I understand it (which I don’t really), jun glazed wares were made from the Song dynasty to the early Ming dynasty – say from about 1000 to 1500AD. But the rich sky blues and turquoises and purples of jun glaze fell out of fashion when blue-and-white became all the rage. In the 18th century, during the long reign of the Qianlong Emperor, interest in ceramics from earlier ages was revived, and efforts were made to re-discover the old glaze recipes. These experiments were fairly successful, leading to the production of a new generation of reproduction (or fake) jun wares which still carries on today. But it seems that these same experiments also led to the discovery of the recipe and techniques for producing flambé (and/or langyao) glazes, which have a slightly different composition and firing method.
Note to blog readers: Please don’t show the above paragraph to anyone who really knows about Chinese ceramics. I don’t think I made all of it up, but it’s a fact that the depth of my knowledge is very much thinner and more superficial than the flambé glaze on any of my pots.
To return to the jun vase, it’s about 7 inches tall, quite roughly potted in a greyish earthenware, and covered with a lovely thick drippy jun glaze in blue with some purple mixed in. I bought it at my local saleroom a few years ago for less than £20 because I had admired jun glazes from a distance but had never owned or studied a piece, and here was an opportunity. I had no expectation of it being a genuine period piece from the Song or Yuan dynasties, and am pretty certain that it’s nothing more than a late reproduction (or fake) made in the 20th century. No matter. I think it’s most attractive, and that the way the glaze doesn’t quite reach to the base, leaving bare clay exposed, is one of its most appealing features. I haven’t shown it to any experts for fear of being laughed at, so I don’t have confirmation of anything that I’ve said about it.
The second Chinese vase is in a gourd shape, covered with light blue crackled celadon overlaid by a flambé glaze in a deep copper-red fading to blue near the neck and base. At some time in its life it has been broken into many pieces and poorly put back together again with glue, which means that it will hold very little interest for experts and (again) I’m ashamed to seek an expert opinion because it’s such a mess. I can’t find an image of any other piece quite like it, but I’ve persuaded myself, on the basis of no evidence or expertise, that it’s an 18th century Qianlong period piece. I love its shape and the richness of its glaze, but I also love it for its provenance.
This vase came to me with a group of pots which I bought recently from the widow of Alexander Sharp (1918-2010), an outstanding Scottish potter who is almost entirely forgotten. I don’t think I’ve mentioned Alex in my blog before, but I’ll certainly be blogging about him in the future, having set myself the task of restoring his reputation and establishing his name in the firmament of the great studio potters of the 20th century. I have spent considerable time and effort gathering a representative collection of his work (you can see some of it here: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/rogerstewart509/alexander-sharp-pottery/ ), and was fortunate earlier this year to meet the lovely Elizabeth Sharp and interview her about her late husband’s life and work.
Elizabeth, who is in her nineties and in full possession of her faculties, drove a very hard bargain when she sold me a selection of Alex’s best pots, together with just one piece not made by him – this repaired Chinese flambé vase which was displayed in a prominent place in her living room in suburban Glasgow. In retirement, Alex spent many hours working in his greenhouse/studio at the bottom of their small garden experimenting with new glazes, and I’d like to think that at least some of his inspiration came from the exceptionally rich and appealing glaze on this vase.
And finally to the elegant elongated double-gourd vase with a flambé-type glaze, shown in the centre of the group photo, much taller than the others at 11.5 inches. It cost me £3.00 in a charity shop in Portobello, to the East of Edinburgh, about six months ago. Although superficially it appears a good match with similarly-glazed Chinese pieces, I knew as soon as I turned it over to look at its base that it isn’t Chinese at all. There’s no footrim and a partially glazed base with no maker’s mark – so it’s just another unmarked piece of Art Pottery (as opposed to studio pottery) of the type which I don’t usually buy. But I was having a rather thin day without any other purchases, and this vase stood out from the rubbishy bric-a-brac on the shelves, so I bought it just to have something to bring home and investigate.
Art Pottery was popular among the middle-classes in the late 19th and early 20th century, reflecting the arts and crafts taste and the fashion for Japanese and other Far Eastern objects. I have never collected nor studied British Art Pottery in any depth, and admit to finding quite a lot of it fairly uninspiring. But I admire some pieces, especially the monochromes which were developed in imitation of earlier Eastern glazes. Of these, my favourite is the re-discovered flambé glaze, seen at its best in some exceptionally beautiful high-fired pots by firms such as Bernard Moore, Ruskin and Doulton.
Much Art Pottery is helpfully marked with the factory or maker’s name or logo on the underside – so it’s usually easy to identify pieces by, for example, Burmantofts, Ruskin, Linthorpe or Bretby. Other pieces – Wemyss, Moorcroft, Della Robbia – can be readily recognised by their distinctive style or decoration, so you don’t even have to upend them to know about them. But it’s much more difficult if the pot is unmarked. Art pots were imported from Europe in enormous quantities, so how do you even know if it’s British?
That’s why I don’t normally buy unmarked Art Pottery. Unless you’re a real expert, identification is a mug’s game. Googling gets you nowhere because the search term is simply too wide to get meaningful results. That’s how it was with this charity shop vase, until I posted photos on one of my geeky online collectors’ groups§, whose members include Art Pottery experts. Much to my surprise, I got an identification almost immediately. The vase turns out to be easily attributable to a particular pottery and a named designer. The pottery: William Ault & Co of Swadlincote, Derbyshire, making pots from 1887 to 1922. The designer (cue drum roll): the great Dr Christopher Dresser.
Wikipedia describes Dresser (1834-1904) as “one of the first and most important independent designers”, “a pivotal figure in the Aesthetic Movement” and “amongst the most influential ceramic designers of any period”. He designed for Ault between 1892 and 1900, but it is thought that the pottery continued producing his designs after the contract ended. Many pieces of Ault pottery are unmarked, but my very helpful contact was able to show me a photo of an identical pair of vases (albeit with a monochrome yellow glaze) in an old exhibition catalogue which confidently attributed them to Ault and Dresser (and confidently priced them at £2,800 for the pair!).
So the tall vase unexpectedly turns out to have all the best characteristics of random treasure – a rare pot by a top designer, of great interest and significant value to collectors, found unidentified and forlorn in a most unprepossessing environment. I like it for that. By contrast the two Chinese flambé-glazed vases will be thought to have little merit and less value. But somehow I still prefer them, one a reproduction (or fake), the other beautiful but tragically shattered.