A short history of Satsuma ware

A private collection of fine Satsuma

Satsuma ware was first manufactured in 1600 when Lord Shimazu invited Kinkai, one of hundreds of Korean potters who had emigrated to Japan, to open a kiln in his Satsuma domain located in the far south of Kyushu.(1) The earliest examples were made from dark clay with a high iron content covered with a black glaze, but following the discovery of a local white clay Satsuma potters also started to produce lighter-coloured wares that were the ancestors of the crackle-glazed works illustrated on the following pages. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and most likely well into the nineteenth century, the ceramics made in Satsuma were as different as it is possible to imagine from the minutely decorated pieces illustrated here, but local tradition relates that at some point a group of potters was sent to Kyoto to study the art of enameling. The earliest known enameled Satsuma wares, probably dating from as late as the 1860s, bear a passing resemblance to much earlier pieces produced in Kyoto, suggesting that there may indeed be some connection between the two.

The Japanese displays at the Paris Exposition of 1867 included examples of what would later be called Satsuma ware. These were still relatively simple, but in the short space of eight years between 1867 and 1875, when George Ashdown Audsley and James Lord Bowes published their lavish and monumental Keramic Art of Japan, something extraordinary happened: not only did the decorated wares become much more elaborate, but enameled Satsuma suddenly acquired a long and totally unsubstantiated history. Audsley and Bowes were already aware that the longevity of Satsuma was being exaggerated but they still suggested that it might date back two and a half centuries, while in 1877 a London sale of 'old Satsuma' featured pieces supposedly made for presentation to the Pope in the sixteenth century! Not until the 1890s was some semblance of chronological plausibility restored.

The international popularity of Satsuma when it was exhibited at events such as the 1873 Vienna World Exposition encouraged potters from all over Japan to make their own versions of the ware, so that the word 'Satsuma' soon lost most of its geographical sense, although sometimes the bodies were still thrown and fired in Kyushu and then sent elsewhere for decoration. In an effort to maintain the connection with the Satsuma domain, some examples (such as lot 447) are marked with the distinctive mon (family crest) of the Shimazu family, consisting of a cross in a circle, often in gold on a red ground, but in the Western imagination 'Satsuma' was no longer a place. Instead it encompassed a romantic vision of the exotic orient, and so it has remained to this day, even though this supposedly most Japanese of products incorporated a number of recently invented Western techniques and was later influenced by European ceramics brought back from the international expositions: for example, most of the distinctive gilt color in Satsuma wares manufactured at Awataguchi in Kyoto was made from 'liquid gold', a material developed at the Meissen factory in Germany.

This was a time when discerning collectors of Japanese arts and crafts were becoming increasingly aware of Japanese lore and legend, thanks to books such as Tales of Old Japan by Algernon Freeman Mitford (1871), the more titillating The Nightless City: Or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku by Joseph Ernest De Becker (first edition, 1899), and the numerous publications of the Irish-Greek journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Japan from 1890 until his death in 1904. Yabu Meizan and the other canny craftsman-entrepreneurs of Osaka and Kyoto quickly adopted decoration that met the needs of this better-informed new clientele by including such subjects as oiran (senior courtesans) in formal procession through the Yoshiwara, daimyo (feudal lords) and their long retinue of samurai retainers, or rakan (direct disciples of the Buddha) and other divine and semi-divine beings, as well as episodes from well known myths and legends.

Later Satsuma wares were also made in the knowledge that Japanese woodblock prints and printed books were being collected in huge numbers in the United States and Europe. The lots offered on the following pages includes two examples that are closely based on actual printed originals, one a relatively obscure print but the other a famous image from a book illustrated by the great artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). The charger (lot 445) is decorated with a design from a three-sheet print by Utagawa Yoshitora (active about 1836-1887) entitled Yoshitsune Ezo watari no zu (Yoshitsune Crosses Over to Ezo) illustrating an imaginary episode from the later career of Yoshitsune, the doomed hero-in-exile so beloved of Mitford and his contemporaries.(2) Although broadly faithful to the print triptych, the decoration had to be compressed horizontally, a jinmaku (camp curtain) was introduced in the foreground and the artist's signature was removed from the cartouche on the banner at the left and replaced with the print's title, taken from the top right-hand corner of the original woodblock design.

The interior of the bowl by Yozan of Kyoto (lot 476) features a lively Edo-period crowd scene from a source that has yet to be identified, while its exterior is lavishly painted with pictorial cartouches set against a background of musical instruments and maple leaves: an autumn landscape, an eagle and pine in the Kano manner, and a design taken from Utamaro's book Seiro ehon nenju gyoji (A Picture-book of Annual Events in the Green Houses), originally published in 1804.

Utamaro's late masterpiece would have been well known among connoisseurs by the time the bowl was manufactured, since it is discussed at length in the French critic Edmond de Goncourt's pioneering 1891 study of the artist, where this particular scene is described in detail:

Dans l'admiration enfantine de femmes, dont l'une pour voir de plus près, est à quatre pattes sur le plancher, un peintre est en train de peindre surtout un panneau d'un mur de la salle de l'exposition des courtisanes, un gigantesque Ho-ô—un peintre qui, par ses habitudes, pourrait bien vraisemblablement être Outamaro.

(Watched with childlike adoration by a group of women, one of whom goes on all fours to get a better view, an artist is shown painting a gigantic hoo (phoenix) that completely covers a panel of the wall of the room where courtesans are put on view. The artist's manner suggests that he may well be Utamaro himself.)(3)

At least in overall outline the ceramic version is a tolerably close copy of Utamaro's original, but with several alterations that reflect the special capabilities of the medium: the colors are brighter, the garments are more richly dyed and embroidered, no surface is left undecorated, and the women's facial expressions are assimilated to the skills of the Satsuma decorators. Through the lavish use of foreign gold, the Seiro or 'Green Houses', secluded sites of sensual delight that were inaccessible to all but the most privileged citizens even in 1804, were transported to a glittering Neverland that continues to delight collectors the world over.


(1) For the general history of Satsuma ware, see Oliver Impey, Malcolm Fairley, and Tsuyoshi Yamazaki, Meiji no Takara: Treasures of Imperial Japan: Ceramics Part II: Earthenware, London, 1995, passim, and Joe Earle, '"Satsuma" Ware', in Joe Earle, Splendors of Imperial Japan: Arts of the Meiji Period from the Khalili Collection, London, 2002, pp.138-141.

(2) This print may be viewed in the online database of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 11.41357a-c.

(3) Edmond de Goncourt, Outamaro, Le Peintre Des Maisons Vertes (Utamaro, Painter of the Green Houses), Paris, 1891, p.88; the illustration has been widely published and an example may be viewed in the online database of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 2011.806; the same design appears on a late-nineteenth-century Imari porcelain charger, sold in these rooms, 12 May 2009, lot 173, and another dish reproduced in Christian J. A. Jorg, Fine and Curious: Japanese Export Porcelain in Dutch Collections, Leiden, 2003, p.125 (no.137).

A foreword from the collector

My wife and I have been passionate collectors for more than fifty years. Our love of collecting covered a wide range of items which on the surface appear to be diverse, but on closer examination display a common thread. Design, shape, patina, color, and quality of manufacture all play an important role in our selection of an article for our collection: we collect not for investment—although value does play a part—but for the love of the article. The artist or maker will of course also play an important part in determining our decision to purchase. As a general rule, a leading or well-known maker or producer will create an article of aesthetic elegance.

Our collection was initially spread over impressionist art, abstract art, and sculpture. What brought us to the next field which drew our fascination and urge to collect? We were drawn to the shape, form, and patina of good Georgian silver, possibly as a result of our being accustomed to seeking these qualities in our sculpture collection. The high quality of workmanship by the old English silversmiths is to be admired. A subsequent study of the English silversmiths led us to the makers of pre-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century watch cases and thence, by connection, to pocket-watch makers. We became avid collectors of English pocket watches of that period. The road from old English pocket watches to old English carriage clocks was not a very long one. We became fascinated with the range of clocks, their performance, their varied case designs, and the mechanical skills required in their manufacture, having regard to the tools available at the time.

Our fascination for and love of collecting Satsuma-yaki commenced as a result of a visit to an antique market during a visit to London in the mid-1960s. Our business took us to Japan on numerous occasions and there at the old Haneda airport and later at Narita airport we often saw items of pottery with excessively bright gold overglaze and enameling, usually depicting Daruma. These, we were told, were bric-a-brac items of Satsuma created for the American market. They were bright and loud and lacked the sensitivity of Japaneseart and culture. They were not attractive.

Browsing through the London antique market, we noticed a small oval vase. The cream-coloured crackled earthenware glaze with overglaze blue and pink shading and subtle enameling and gilding showed that this was good Satsuma. It became our first piece of Satsuma and marked the start of a long and most stimulating period of Satsuma collecting. It was signed Kinkozan,a descendant of the famous Kinkozan family of Kyoto,and made in the latter part of the nineteenth century (the Meiji era). Satsuma-yaki was first made by Korean potters who had migrated to Satsuma, a province in the southern island of Kyushu close to the Korean peninsula. From the end of the sixteenth century until the late eighteenth century it was mostly decorated with monochrome glazes, but thereafter it was decorated with overglaze enamels and gilding. These later wares form the basis of our collection and most other Satsuma collections. Kyoto and its Awataguchidistrict became important centers of Satsuma production. Amongst the more famous producers whose work we collect were Kozan, Seikozan, Ryozan, the Kinkozan family, and of course the prince of makers, Yabu Meizan. Most works by these makers are of high quality and are always on our search list as they are on those of other collectors.

Just as we constantly searched for good artists, sculptors, silversmiths, and watch-and clock-makers, so did we search for good and artistic Satsuma makers and decorators.


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  1. Suzannah Yip
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8368
    FaxFax: +44 20 7468 5840

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