In the year twelve thousand and twenty, a group of interstellar archaeologists are visiting the abandoned planet of Old Earth, exploring for scant remains of early human civilisations. In the desert they discover the ruins of a concrete and metal structure which their dating techniques determine was abandoned 10 millennia ago. They know that it’s a primitive computer server facility developed by Early Man (sorry, Early Person) and they have replicated a reading device to provide access to the one and only memory card which has survived largely intact through the ravages of time. On the memory card they find the Random Treasure blog.
After the Universal Translator has deciphered the meaning of the text, the archaeologists begin to read:
I rarely if ever touch upon anything topical in this blog, but this time it’s different. You need to know that I am writing this piece in the midst of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown of 2020.
The intern hesitates. She asks:
“excuse me, but what was the Great Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown of 2020? Is that the event that triggered the Breakdown of Early Capitalism on this planet ten thousand years ago and initiated the Second Dark Age?”.
“We can’t be certain,” says her mentor, “we don’t have any records after the year 2021. It might have been a pandemic that sparked off the descent into chaos but it could be something else – we know from a few sources that there were other destructive elements at work. There were things called ‘The Web’ and ‘The Trump’ and ‘the 5G’, but we don’t really have a clear idea what they were”.
They start to read from the beginning again.
* * * * * * *
I rarely if ever touch upon anything topical in this blog, but this time it’s different. You need to know that I am writing this piece in the midst of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown of 2020. Anyone who might be reading these words soon after publication will know exactly what I’m talking about. But in the infinitesimally small likelihood that this blog might survive in the long term as part of my digital legacy, perhaps I need to fill in a bit of background.
Sorry, scholars of the future, but it isn’t this blog’s job to provide you with an overview of world affairs in 2020. You’ll have to find that out for yourselves. But for the purposes of this blog post I should make you aware that in the early 21st century it took scientists more than a year to develop a vaccine for a new infectious disease. I’m sure it’s not like that with you. You will either be able to make a vaccine overnight or (more probably) will have eliminated viral illnesses altogether.
But not so for us. To prevent the spread of a highly infectious strain of Coronavirus across the population, most people in the world were required to stay indoors for weeks and months, only permitted to venture outside for essential employment, to buy food and to take short periods of exercise. The disease was deadliest among older people, so it was they who were sequestered most tightly. By the way, in our time older people are those over 70 years of age.
This blog post is being written during week seven of the Lockdown, with no real prospect of the 71-year-old blogger being released in the foreseeable future. The worst part of it is missing seeing my children and grandchildren and going out with friends for coffee (a plant-based hot beverage). But my life is easy compared to that of younger people who are required to balance working from home with home-schooling of children, often exacerbated by loss of employment and increase in debt. On the other hand, very few children or young adults are carried off by the virus, while the death rate among the elderly is frighteningly high.
I didn’t mind it at first. Being a happily married retired person with an adequate pension income, no debt, a house in need of improvement and a large garden, I had plenty to keep me busy for the first few weeks. But then I got bored.
One of the major problems was lack of inspiration for writing this blog. In former times I was out and about every week on my rounds of the local charity shops and salerooms, acquiring ceramics and rugs and pictures and other outrageous junk of all descriptions. It was a safe bet that every couple of weeks I would come home with an object sufficiently interesting or bizarre to prompt me to conduct some basic research and write a new blog post about it. But the lockdown shut off that outlet for my compulsion to produce endless verbiage about inconsequential trivia. Disconsolately, I took to roaming around the house looking for something to write about. But it was no good. No inspiration. I got the blues.
Which is when my eye lighted upon the mantelpiece in the kitchen and I had an idea. Yes, I’d write a piece about blue, or, more precisely, about blue and white.
There are 20 ceramic pieces on the kitchen mantelpiece (or 23 if you count the covers of two lidded vases and one teapot). It’s a display which has been fairly recently re-arranged, but its composition might not be very different from that assembled in this same spot by successive occupiers since the house was built in 1857. About the only thing the pieces have in common is the fact that they are coloured with underglaze cobalt blue over white. Except that one of them has some other colours in it. And I’m not 100% certain that all of the blue is cobalt blue.
So, why is it that in these twenty-first century days of simplicity and minimalism, there is so much fancy blue and white pottery about? Why is it that if you ask people to visualise an antique oak or mahogany dresser with its shelves loaded with cups and saucers and plates, 87% will describe a mental picture of rows of bright white vessels with intricate dark blue decorations with vaguely Chinese-looking patterns? (I made the statistic up, but challenge you to disprove it). It’s because that’s what you see when you’re visiting stately homes and country mansions. Below stairs in the kitchen and servants’ quarters, you see blue-and-white ceramics alongside sturdy brown pottery and bright polished copper; in the drawing room alongside fine polychrome Meissen and Derby porcelain; and in the dining room alongside silver and cut glass.
Then in the tearoom afterwards, you see more of it. Blue-and-white ceramics have been so uninterruptedly popular and so tasteful in the West for such a long time – around 400 years – that we’re culturally conditioned to think that’s what old china looks like.
Cobalt has been used as a pigment for thousands of years. Cobalt oxide “is one of the very few [pigments] that can withstand the highest firing temperatures that are required, in particular for porcelain, which partly accounts for its long-lasting popularity” . Its use for making rich, deep blue patterns on ceramic objects is thought to have developed in Abbasid-era Iraq in the 9th century, and the techniques were then borrowed by Chinese potters during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. In the 17th century Chinese blue-and-white pots became a craze among the rich of Western Europe, and were imported in vast quantities to meet insatiable buyer demand. Naturally, locally-based potters tried to get in on the game by attempting to copy Chinese originals, at first using tin-glazed earthenwares, and then from the 18th century in porcelain. As the market broadened and new mass-production methods were developed, hand-painting was replaced by transfer decoration. By the early part of the nineteenth century, blue-and-white pottery and porcelain was cheaply available and incredibly popular among aspirational city dwellers of the industrial revolution. That’s why so much of it survives – because of its irresistible appeal to all types and all classes of society in many countries over a very long period. And because so much of it was manufactured in the first place.
Today, the second-hand and antiques market provides an inexhaustible supply of old blue-and-white ceramics to suit all tastes and all pockets. Which means that there are innumerable collectors out there, many of them specialists with boundless knowledge and expertise in their own particular chosen branch of blue-and-white.
Most of these experts would scoff at my kitchen mantelpiece.
It isn’t a purist’s display. Proper collectors would specialise in a favourite type of blue-and-white, maybe Dutch delft, or Chinese porcelain, or British transferware. But the selection on my mantelpiece is a mishmash. It includes pieces from China, England, France, Holland, Japan, Morocco and Scotland. They are made from porcelain, stoneware and earthenware. Most are from the nineteenth century, but one or two might be a bit earlier or a bit later. Some are handpainted, some are transfer decorated.
I won’t try your patience by describing each of the 20 objects in exhausting detail. I could, but I won’t. Instead I’ve selected a piece from each of the seven countries represented in the display. Even that many might be pushing it a bit. Whatever, here they are.
From China, a lidded vase, 34 cms tall. A classic baluster shape which could have been produced at any time from around the fifteenth century, with a lion finial on the cover. It’s in porcelain and was almost certainly made in Jingdezhen, the longtime centre for Chinese porcelain manufacture. It isn’t a rare item and it’s not particularly old. But the more you look at this sort of thing, the better you are able to distinguish the good ones from the not-so-good ones. My personal assessment of this vase is that its tall elegant proportions, the quality of its hand decoration in the traditional prunus pattern, and its finish, particularly around the base, are well above average for the type. On the underside there are two concentric blue circles, which don’t signify much because this mark has been in use for around 500 years. However, if I were describing this vase for sale, I’d probably call it “Kangxi revival”, i.e. made in the late nineteenth century in the characteristic style of the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722). Damaged and restored. Bought for £4 in a charity shop in Banchory, Aberdeenshire.
From England, a lidded vase, 28 cms tall. At first sight, you might think from the colour and the shape that this is another Chinese baluster vase, similar in appearance to the genuine Chinese version shown above. But on closer inspection you see that it’s made in pottery not porcelain, it’s moulded not thrown, and the chinoiserie decoration is transfer-printed not hand-painted. It’s a blatant copy of a Chinese original, made in Staffordshire at a factory which I can’t identify (but which an expert might be able to name). The type of glaze is called pearlware, which you can tell from the blue tinge in the clear coating on the underside. You might be surprised to learn that it is much earlier than the Chinese example, and was probably made between about 1810 and 1820. It’s also quite a lot rarer than the original type of vase which it copies. Damaged and restored. Bought in a job lot in a local auction.
From France, a large plate or charger, 42 cms in diameter. This big thickly-potted, crudely-made and primitively-painted plate is the only object on my mantelpiece which features other colours than blue. The blue border (perhaps not cobalt blue) is applied with a shaped sponge dipped in pigment, so the type of decoration would be described as spongeware. The simple polychrome central flower vase device is disconcertingly non-central, having been painted just a little to the right of where it should be. The material is earthenware with a tin glaze, a type of faience pottery which was made in many parts of Europe. My instinct tells me that it’s from France, but I can’t pin it down to a particular factory or even a particular region, and it might be from somewhere else such as Italy or possibly Spain. I think it was made in the late eighteenth century, but it might be a little or a lot later. Can’t really tell you much about it other than that it is charming and naively attractive despite the poorly repaired damages. Bought impulsively in a local auction.
From Holland, two small plates, each 16 cms in diameter. These very pretty tin-glazed earthenware Delft plates are from the eighteenth century but are not especially good examples of their type. They are quite common and have little value. But there is something very special about them. A century or so after they were made, a small blob of molten lacquer was applied to the back of each plate, into which a seal was impressed. Which is how we know that these modest plates passed through the hands of the Duveen family, arguably the most influential dealers in the history of antiques and fine art. So they might look like small, ordinary Delft plates, but their provenance associates them with works by artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael and with collectors such as John D Rockefeller and J Pierpont Morgan. I have written about these plates and the Duveen connection in another Random Treasure blog post which you can find here. Both plates are badly damaged. Bought together for £20 in a local auction.
From Japan, a porcelain vase, 18 cms tall. This fine piece is made in a thin, exceptionally hard and translucent porcelain, with a high-quality hand-painted underglaze decoration of chrysanthemums and blossoms. It is quite austere in shape but has two tiny animal masks protruding from its shoulders. It was made in Japan in the nineteenth century and is of a type of porcelain called Hirado or Mikawachi ware. “The golden age of Hirado porcelain lasted from 1751-1843, during which time the finest porcelain in Japan was produced … By the 1840s Hirado ware had become an export eagerly sought by sophisticated buyers in the West. Hirado porcelain was featured in the great international expositions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” This example is probably from the second half of the 19th century, and I can’t say much more about it because, like with many of the myriad kinds of Japanese ceramics, I’m unequipped to make judgments as to its quality or aesthetics. Very slight damage from a hairline crack. Bought for £1.50 in a Leith charity shop.
From Morocco, an earthenware shallow dish, 21 cms in diameter. This type of ceramic is called “Fassi”, from the town of Fez, and the shape of vessel is called a Tabsil. Here’s a description of a similar object taken from an auction catalogue: “During the late 19th century Fassi ceramics … maintained the established local ceramic traditions in spite of increasing French interference over artistic output. Created with the urban consumer in mind and decorated with distinctive Islamic geometric patterns, the ceramic wares from this time demonstrated the popularity of a selectively blue and white colour palette. To some extent this can be linked to the established influence of Chinese porcelain in Islamic ceramics, whilst the growing availability of blue cobalt imported from Europe may also be considered a major factor for the prominence of this colour.” In good condition for its age. Bought for almost nothing in a jumble sale several decades ago.
From Scotland, an ashet, 32 cms long. The term ashet (derived from the French assiette) is Scots usage for a large rectangular or oval serving plate or platter. Ashets are not rare objects: you see lots of them, and probably the most frequently encountered of all is the type which carries the famous Willow Pattern transfer decoration. “For a century and a half the ‘Willow Pattern’ has been the stock-pattern of nearly every British Pottery manufacturer”. Although it has a distinctively Chinese look, the Willow Pattern was in fact developed in the 1790s in England specifically for printing onto ceramics, and a charming but fake Chinese folk-tale was woven around it (strictly for marketing purposes) which purports to explain the meaning of its various elements – the willow tree, the bridge, the fence, the birds, the human characters, etc. This particular example (one of three willow pattern ashets displayed on my mantelpiece) was made by the celebrated Scottish firm of J & M P Bell of Glasgow, established in 1841, and the underglaze printed mark on the back indicates that it was produced fairly early on in the pottery’s illustrious history, perhaps in the 1850s. In fair condition with some crazing and discolouration. Bought very cheaply in a charity shop.
So there you have it. My kitchen mantelpiece. And the significance of it is …
* * * * * * *
Here the readable data on the ancient memory card runs out. The archaeologists of the year twelve thousand and twenty look puzzled. The intern articulates all of their thoughts:
“What’s a mantelpiece?”
“We’re not entirely sure. We haven’t encountered the term before. It might be some sort of domestic shrine upon which they placed artefacts associated with their deities.”
“And what about all those names – France, Morocco, Scotland and so on. From the context they seem to be place names, but none of the words are familiar”.
“Ah, it seems clear that this was a polytheistic culture. These terms are probably ritualistic names of places connected with the homes of their gods. This writer claims to have owned twenty of these sacred objects, and by mentioning their prices so dismissively he is signalling his exceptional power and wealth. He must have been a mighty chieftain”.
“Oh, yes, I see, Professor. I’ll write all this up in our report. And what new knowledge do you think we can glean from this account in regard to the Breakdown of Early Capitalism and the beginning of the Second Dark Age?”
“Sadly, I fear that we have learned very little from this particular source. We’ll just have to keep digging …”