On a plate

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 27

Europeans used carcasses to decorate tables – until trade between the Spanish and the Chinese presented a more elegant solution. William Sargent stands back in admiration

At first glance, these exquisite, sculptural porcelains might seem bizarre, even useless. They come from China, but illustrate a complicated story of 18th-century dining habits in Spain: what was eaten, how it was eaten, and what it reveals about economic, social, cultural and religious forces.

Trade links between China and Spain had been established for centuries. In fact, developing direct sea trade with Asia had been the goal of many European countries, eager to acquire a range of luxuries that only Asia could offer. The Portuguese were the first to discover such a route, although they were quickly followed by the Dutch, English and Spanish, among others. In 1565, a direct trade route was established between Manila and Acapulco, which provided Chinese goods throughout New Spain and Spain, a trade that continued for 250 years until 1815.

These animal-form tureens – part of an exhibition at Bonhams that will be held at New Bond Street saleroom from 5-8 November – were used at meals, so they can be understood only when you look at European dining traditions.

By the 17th century, fish and meat were often served in pies. Sometimes the crusts were surmounted by a carcass that represented the contents, usually various fowl. Around 1745, pies began to be replaced with realistic European ceramic replicas.

The earliest known reference to ordering animal-form porcelain tureens from China is from the records of the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) in 1763, when 25 boar's-head and 25 goose tureens were commissioned. The high expense and low profit for such wares meant that they were more often acquired as private trade by ships' captains, merchants and officials, or as supplementary cargoes.

A service of 486 pieces – bearing the arms of Juan Bautista de Uztáriz y Gaztelu, 1st Count de Reparaz – was ordered around 1770. Only three tureens are now known to have survived from this order: two carp tureen and a boar's-head tureen. It might be difficult today to imagine a dinner set with anything close to 486 pieces, let alone a set of animal-form tureens. But this was the norm for nobility in 18th-century Spain – and elsewhere in Europe.

The first ceramic fish tureens made in Europe represented plaice. Not having European models to copy, it would be natural for the Chinese to use carp when asked to produce fish tureens. Carp made up a significant part of the Chinese diet, especially in southern China. In addition, the word for fish (yu) is a homonym for abundance and carp (li) is a homonym for advantage, with each symbolising a variety of desirable outcomes: wealth, harmony, marital happiness. Of course, this complex web of associations would have been lost on European customers.

A goose tureen and stand, dated to 1775, was ordered for Domingo Esteban de Olza y Domezáin (1723-1816), the first commissioner of the Royal Company of the Philippines from 1785 until 1797. The company was founded for the promotion of direct trade between Spain and the Philippines. Originally there were two goose and two carp tureens – generally tureens were ordered in sets of two, for balance on a grand table.

Boar's heads are now a familiar subject from Dutch still-life paintings of game, but actual boar's heads had been placed on the table during mediaeval banquets in England, a tradition that survives today at some colleges. And while the first boar's-head tureens produced in Europe were realistic, the Chinese versions are stylised.

By this point, China already had a long history of figural ceramics, known as xiangsheng, or 'porcelain made in the shape of living forms'.

Father François Xavier d'Entrecolles (1664-1741) described the production of moulds for some of these at Jingdezhen. His description suggests the great difficulty the makers experienced in producing such large pieces, the complexity of moulding, and the problems of firing. This drove up prices and ensured the rarity of such objects, then and now.

No direct replicas of large European tureens are known, so orders may have been made by verbal descriptions rather than by providing physical models. But it would have been easy enough for Chinese potters to create something to meet European requirements from their experience making other artefacts. For example, duck-form metal incense burners would have lent themselves well to porcelain versions.

One such 17th-century incense burner is in the collection of the Queen. Both the metal burner and ceramic tureens are divided horizontally along the mid-section of the body, so the top can be lifted from the neck and under the tail.

As these extraordinary objects make plain, Spain's rich decorative arts culture owes a major debt to Asia, a wonderful consequence of the long and productive trading partnership they shared from the 16th century.

William Sargent is a Senior Consultant in Chinese art for Bonhams.

Dining in Comfort and Prosperity: Chinese Tureens for Spanish Nobility is at Bonhams,
101 New Bond Street, London W1S 1SR on
5-8 November. Admission free.
Enquiries: Asaph Hyman +44 (0) 20 7468 5888

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