January 31, 2011

Cantonese Baroque Splendor

A local find, this Cantonese enamel ewer was a little battered, but very exciting. I could remember seeing a similar example in the V&A Museum, London, way back in my student days, when I used to spend every spare moment wandering it's labyrinth of treasures.

It is a wonderful piece of Baroque style, shaped like a Roman soldiers helmet, with a scallop shell form to the base. This style was popular in the first few decades of the 18th century, suggesting a very early date for this piece.

Cantonese enamels are a vibrant production from the region of Canton, China. The earliest examples we see date to the reign of Kanxi, in the early 18th century. This ewer would therefore be a very early example of the type: most pieces we see are well into the 19th century, and it is still being created in much the same style today.

The usual pieces are simple cups, or boxes, or dishes. This form is pure European, most probably copied from a Portuguese metal example of the late 17th century. It was intended entirely as an export piece, to be sent back to Europe as a vibrant alternate to porcelain (examples of this shape exist in Chinese Export porcelain also). In Europe, it would have been paired with a shell shaped basin, and was intended to be used in the washing of your hands.

The enamels are stunning in their vibrancy, somehow being brighter in effect than a porcelain example. The brilliant white tin oxide ground on the copper body reflects light with an absolute clarity that porcelain cannot achieve.
As is the nature of enamels, there were numerous losses to this piece: it is after all a thin layer of glass on metal, and very vulnerable to knocks and pressure. Our restorer did a wonderful job bringing this rarity back to life.
Cataloguing it was quite a task, not having access to the V&A to verify my memory, and not being able to find a comparable example in a book.
Then today I had my "Eureka" moment:

In a 1997 King Street Christies sale, titled The China Trade, a very similar example with it's basin was sold..... Look at that estimate. Quite a rarity indeed!
Being able to identify this rarity shows that spending excessive amounts of time in museums such as the Victoria & Albert, South Kensington, is well worth while, for me it was 10 years later that I put my observations to use.

The ewer is part of our 2011 Exhibition currently being prepared for an April opening.

January 23, 2011

Some small treasures

Another day cataloguing, and many more exciting discoveries....

This small group have a lot in common. The miniature was purchased as an anonymous nobleman, and after extensive brain-storming I finally found the order he is wearing: an orange sash across his chest. This is the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, and was the highest order possible for the Prussian gentry. Naturally the crown prince was awarded it, and combined with other clues (he wears ermine - a symbol of Royalty- and the red robe to one side is embroided with gold Prussian crowns) the portrait suddenly became very exciting: it is a good image of Frederick II of Prussia, also known as Frederick the Great. The quality is supreme. Lining up the portraits I could find showed that this is apparently a fresh one, I suspect somewhere in the 1740's.

By coincidence, I have a wonderful German enamel box with various manuscripts painted on it, including an almanac for 1757, and on top of the documents is a manuscript reading Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Inside is a music manuscript, titled 'Mennuet': this is interesting, as Frederick was not only a well proven military man by 1757: he also had composed over 100 sonatas for the flute, and four symphonies!

Beside this you can make out a bronze medal, also dated 1757, and struck to commemorate the Battle of Prague in that year. The battle was a success for the Prussians, as they soundly beat their old foe, the Austrians. Prague, however, was not taken by Frederick, but besieged and then rescued by an Austrian counter attack which led to Frederick's first defeat at the battle of Kolin. That, of course, is left off both the box and the medal!

The other boxes in the images above are English enamels, and one rather splendid Meissen example painted with minute tavern and peasant life scenes. As a group, all items belong to an age, the 1750-70 period which was so lavish and decadent across Europe. Having items relating to Frederick is exciting, and they will be a main feature in our upcoming Exhibition and catalogue.

All these items will be released for sale in our 2011 exhibition, date to be announced shortly.

The South Staffordshire enamels above are rarities; the lions head is very charismatic , the snuff very unusual in having a Venetian scene printed & painted on it. Both date to the 1780's.

January 19, 2011

Hound-dogs & a Roman rarity

Here are a couple of great dogs - the little chap is Lomonosov porcelain from Russia, 1930's, while the larger one is a life sized Chinese guardian, from a Han dynasty tomb 2,000 years old! So much time between them, and yet one looks just like the pup of the other. Which it is, if you think about it.....

To one side, you'll see a large amphora vessel: this was purchased in London a few years ago as 'Roman', and deep inside had English news papers from the 1950's....
Amphora like this survive complete only in exceptional circumstances, such as from shipwrecks ( like the neck of one at the base of the photo), but this shows none of the usual signs; a closer examination reveals a grey ash-like substance in the grooves. Ash = volcano.... Romans + volcano = Pompeii! A quick look through a guide book on Pompeii revealed row after row of the exact form deep in the archives of the museum there.... So our amphora is in fact from Pompeii! Very rarely can we date something so closely, but this was made no later than 79AD!

These items can be seen in our ceramics reference library in Geelong.

January 17, 2011

Books & more books!

Here is a pano-photo of our bookcase in our Reference Library. The count has just gone over 1,000 - well over - and they are all on Ceramics or related fields. This is the Lorraine Rosenberg Reference Collection & Library, and is available to interested researches in the upper level of our shop in Geelong.

I have been spending a huge amount of time in here, as we prepare for our 2011 exhibition- lots of fascinating pieces are promised!

January 12, 2011

Persian surprise

An interesting vase has been sitting on the shelf for a few months, awaiting cataloguing. I believed it to be early, perhaps 17th century, but as I began to research it today, I discovered I was out by several centuries.

Above: the Mamluk vase, with a later Persian piece behind, and a Hispano-Moresque dish to the side.

The jar is made from the distinctive 'fritware', a sandy, gritty body which must be potted thickly in order to have any strength. It is a soft body, easily broken, and so a rare survivor in the ceramics world.
The decoration is remarkable. At first it appears Chinese, as suggested by the previous owner. The 15th century AD saw the emergence of the trade route between the Middle East and Ming dynasty China, and along the route came Ming Porcelain. Highly valued, it was much admired by the various middle eastern kingdoms, and copied by potters in both shape and decoration. However, lacking the knowledge of porcelain making, they re- created it in their local traditional ceramic bodies.
The early pieces were close copies, with oriental pavilions and figures: by the mid 15th century, Islamic influences were included in the decoration.

Examining my example, there are definite Islamic motifs; the bird is middle eastern in style, and the other panel illustrated below is an urn of flowers (or a tree?) often found in textiles from the region.

And yet, the overall effect is still Chinese Ming dynasty in style; the frieze of scrolling foliage below, for example, and the lattice borders with flowerhead reserves are straight off a Chinese porcelain piece.

It's the base that illustrates so dramatically the difference to anything Chinese. The massively thick body, basically sand fused together and held in place by the thick glassy glaze. You would expect this to be rather heavy if it was a typical pottery or porcelain, but because of the loose nature of the body, it is lightweight for it's size. And very vulnerable: there is a hole right through the side, probably caused by a simple knock against a wall.

To date it, I turned to the fantastic Tafeq Rajab collection in Kuwait, published ina lavishly illustrated catalogue, illustrated below.

Item 315 is a jar, blue & white, Syria, Mamluk period, 15th century AD. Size is 26.5 cm, the same as mine, and in the text it suggests an early 15th century date due to the faithful Chinese style decoration; later in the 15th century, they note the introduction of local designs, and this is where our vase fits: later 15th century.
Exact place of manufacture is yet unknown, but thought to be around the Damascus region, an area controlled by the Mamluk Sultanate, (1250-1517).

One side has not fired well, and has ended up vey blurred, probably from too much heat in the kiln. This has created a dreamy abstract side, very modern looking, despite being over 500 years old!

This item will be released for sale in our 2011 exhibition.

January 10, 2011

Gilty packer....

Today I unpacked a Chinese Export tea service, and was soooo cross! The 'professional' shippers had not taken any lids off items such as the teapot and jug, but merely taped them on and wrapped the whole. That is risky in itself, as you have two moving parts that potentially could damage each other by grinding together. But that was not the concern, as they all made it complete: neither was the way all the teabowls had been squashed together in a package, with a whisp of thin packing between them: by some miracle, they all survived.
It was the stunning stupidity of the packer in TAPING OVER GOLD!

Now on a modern piece, this is not an issue: modern gilding techniques are very good and the gold very hardy. But on an antique piece, the gold is fragile. Often it is honey gilding, meaning it is fixed in place with sticky honey, which burns off in the firing process. These early golds can be easily scratched, or scrubbed off... or completely ripped off by sticking tape over them!

If you are packing, or getting something packed, make sure they know what they are doing. Lids should be separate, and tape should never be used next to stick to antique ceramics!

January 07, 2011

Well & truly clobbered!

I've accumulated some lovely examples of Chinese porcelain which have been either enhanced or ruined, depending on your viewpoint: they began life as simple blue & white pieces, but were not "pretty" enough for the Europeans who were buying them - so the Europeans painted and gilded over the top, a process sometimes called clobbering. Clobbered pieces are despised by the purist oriental collector, but keenly sought after by a growing group of interested collectors.
In our collection, I have just catalogued an example which illustrates the process beautifully.

The piece is a 'slop' bowl in a European context, or a rice bowl in an Oriental. The Chinese original was produced during the reign of Kanxi, in the early 18th century; the European decoration was almost certainly done in Holland in the 1720-40 period.
It has the appearance and colours on a Japanese Imari piece, complete with chrysanthemum head mons- an effect the European painter was striving for.

But under the colours, you will see the original design: a series of leaves and plants in deep underglaze blue.

The peach colored panels are very unusual. They have a scraffito, or scratched in design of scrolling leaves, which is further enhanced with gilt lines.

The reason we can tell the original as opposed to the later decoration is the glaze: the original is the blue beneath the glaze, while all the European decoration is on top of the glaze. This decoration has unfortunately not bonded with the glaze too well, and in the above pic you can see the onglaze blue just beginning to flake off.

In the above photo, the blue has completely peeled off the glaze, leaving the underglaze blue leaf visible.

The best book on the subject is a recent publication by Helen Espir, "European decoration on Oriental porcelain 1700-1830".
Interestingly, the peach scraffito ground with gilt detailing doesn't appear in the many illustrated examples.

January 05, 2011

A dated English delft tea canister

It is always a thrill to identify an item which was previously a mystery. This tea canister, or tea caddy as they are often called, was a recent purchase, and is made from tin glaze earthenware, decorated in manganese. What is really exciting is the inscription on the base: "BB 1757".

I had a hunch it was English delft (always spelt lower case) as opposed to the more usual Delft (upper case) from Holland. Opening the book 'Dated English delftware' (Lipski & Archer 1984) proved my hunch- the same shape, painted in blue with a very similar pattern, is item 1528, and is dated 1774, while another very similar (1525) is dated 1763. Earlier pieces of the same shape are also recorded, beginning with 1707 and 1737. Our example is therefore dated to the middle of this type's long popularity.

Construction is very interesting, being lopsided, bowed, and with very sharp corners. Slabs of clay have been carefully assembled, a very tricky task. The shape is copying silver & pewter forms, and is most unsuited to clay: a wheel turned cylinder is the easiest and more popular form.

None illustrated have a lid, which being small and fragile most probably broke very early on. Ours has a well made tin replacement, constructed most probably by a traveling tinker who went door to door repairing such things.

You may notice the bright red mark to the underside: this has been applied to disguise and old price, which quite clearly says $1.00!!! I certainly did not pay that; as a dated piece, this is an absolute rarity, and despite a replacement lid and crack, will be one of the prime pieces in our 2011 exhibition.

January 04, 2011

Saucy Sauceboats

We have accumulated quite a collection of Sauceboats. Also called gravy boats, they were a necessity on the table of rich and poor alike.

Here are a few fresh ones, including tinglaze (faience) and porcelain examples: the two far left are French tinglaze pottery, early and mid 18th century: the rear one is Chinese Export, famille rose c.1760: the blue & white in the center is Worcester c.1755: the second from the right is La Courtille, Paris, c.1780, and the one at the far right is Marcolini Meissen also from the 1780's.

Happy New Year 2011!

Welcome to 2011: we hope you had a safe holiday.

At Moorabool Antiques, we are busily preparing our latest collection of rarities for sale: our Exhibition will take place in a few months, with hundreds of fresh pieces released for sale. Our 2011 Catalogue will be released as the same time: if you would like a copy, drop us an email.
Over the next few months, I will be posting a series of photos and details on items intended for the Exhibition, a "Sneak Preview" for all who read the Antique Ceramics blog.

Here's a glance at the items awaiting cataloging. The white Mercury is Berlin, from the early 19th century.