Mongol promotion of trade along the Silk Road brought blue cobalt mineral from Persia to adorn jars in China
An important blue and white 'peony and lotus' scroll jar, dating from the mid 14th century (Yuan Dynasty) is expected to sell for more than £1m at Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale on 8th November during London's Asian Art Week.
The jar comes from a distinguished private European collection and is similar to superb examples in the permanent collections of the Shanghai Museum and the Palace Museum, Beijing. If transported by land, it would have survived camel carriage across the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts as well as the snows of the Pamir range of mountains – the arduous overland route of the famed Silk Road which brought Chinese goods to the Middle East and Europe; if it had gone by sea, it would have travelled via the dangerous junk trading routes south and west of China.
Colin Sheaf, Chairman of Bonhams Asia, comments: "This jar is a miraculous survivor. The Mongols have had a bad press because of their terrifyingly destructive wars in the 13th century, but these led to the 'Pax Mongolica' which for over one hundred years allowed traders unprecedented opportunities to trade from Syria to Shanghai. This jar reflects the transfer of ideas, technology and trade of this extraordinary lost Asian Empire."
Rose Kerr, the distinguished former Keeperof Asian Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, says of the Bonhams jar: "In shape, design and painting style, the jar is an archetypal example of Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain. The manufacture of very large underglaze-blue decorated vessels like this jar only became possible at Jingdezhen (in Jiangxi Province, South Central China) in the 14th century. The production of such impressive and massive pieces depended on three factors: Imperial patronage, the expansion of the export trade, and improvements in technology at the kilns."
"The size of the guan jar, and its thick walls and weighted base, suggest that it was made as a storage vessel. In fact, large jars of this type were often made to contain alcohol, or water for making tea. By the 15th century the first Chinese blue-and-white had reached Europe, where it was also associated with fine dining. This is exemplified by a painting entitled 'The Feast of the Gods', by Giovanni Bellini, which shows large items of recognisably Chinese export blue-and-white porcelain."
"In 1278, at the very beginning of the Yuan dynasty, a new organisation called the 'Porcelain Bureau' was set up at Jingdezhen, on Imperial orders. The orders for porcelain are fascinating, particularly in view of the fact that the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were in fact Mongol invaders from the north, who might be presumed to have little interest in the official production of porcelain. However, the 'Porcelain Bureau' seems originally not to have been a regular factory, but rather a kind of depot at which porcelains were assembled from private kilns and dispatched northwards, when requests for vessels and utensils came down from the Palace."
Although some important items of blue-and-white porcelain were evidently produced specifically for Imperial use, it is clear that virtually from the start of manufacture in the 1320s, fine pieces were also exported. It is also demonstrable that stimulus and inspiration came back to China from the Middle East, in terms of design and technology. China's Mongol rulers appreciated the benefits of overseas trade, and developed policies to augment state commercial activity as part of their 'Greater Mongol Empire'.
Export was conducted both overland via the Silk Route, and by sea. Maritime routes were most important for the export of porcelain, because of its bulk and weight. Starting in the late 13th century, state control on exports was relaxed, and from 1323 onwards merchants were unrestricted in their overseas voyages, although the Yuan government taxed them and reserved the right to send official trading vessels to sea. Today, we have some idea of the scale of overseas trade in ceramics, from surviving early collections such as that from the Ardebil Shrine in Iran, and that preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Turkey. These collections include many large pieces related to this guan jar, which catered to Middle Eastern catering and eating requirements.
Another important Yuan Dynasty innovation was the use of cobalt oxide to paint on the pure white porcelain body of ceramics, and then to seal the painting under transparent glaze. Considering cobalt blue's great importance in Chinese ceramic history, and the international fame of Chinese blue-and-white, it is surprising to think that its use in the country is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ceramic-making in China has a history of more than seven thousand years, and yet blue-and-white porcelain only appeared at Jingdezhen about six hundred years ago. Scientific analysis of the cobalt blue on Yuan porcelain has shed some light on the question. It seems that the magnificent purplish-blue tone, typical of the best-quality pieces and of this jar, was actually imported from Iran. Low-fired earthenware ceramics decorated in underglaze blue were made in the Middle East before blue-and-white appeared in China. Both the cobalt, and the taste for such boldly-decorated wares, came to China from the West. Some of the purest mineral ores originated from the mines in the mountains around the Iranian city of Kashan, and it seems that these mines may have been the source of some of the cobalt used on the best pieces potted and decorated at Jingdezhen.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com