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.