The Peabody Essex Museum's collection of Chinese export ceramics

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2012 | 

The objects shown are selected from the nearly three hundred examples featured in William R. Sargent's monumental Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, published earlier this year.

Porcelain; diameter
17 ½ inches. Museum purchase.

The shield bearing a seven-headed hydra bifurcated by a banderole with the Latin motto Saptenti nihil novum [sic] ("nothing is new to the wise") places this charger in a small group of related ceramics. They have been published frequently, but the source of the design has not been determined. Among them are a bowl (British Museum) that may be the one depicted in a 1638 still life by Willem Claesz. Heda (1594-1680/82) and an earthenware bowl made in Iran, 1650-1700, that is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In addition, a small dish with this decoration is the only piece with a specifically European design among the porcelains collected by Manuel I of Portugal (r. 1495-1521) and his son and successor John III (r. 1521-1557) that were later installed in the ceiling of Lisbon's Santos Palace. That dish has led to the thought that the motif was ordered for the Portuguese market, a supposition strengthened by its similarity to a relief carving found on the facade of St. Paul's church in Macau and the discovery of a shard showing a portion of the shield and hydra heads among a thousand other kraakware shards recovered from the site of the St. Augustine Convent in Macau. Nonetheless, the complex tracing of the seventeenth-century provenances of the various ceramics with this motif, which encompass Macau, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Iran, complicate what must remain an enigma for the time being.

Jingdezhen, 1860-1880. Porcelain with bamboo casing and handle; height 6⅞ inches. 

Because they were frequently used for storing ginger, these humble vessels came to be called ginger jars. The form came into being during the Kangxi era and was produced in a variety of sizes by provincial kilns solely to store trade commodities. Despite its pedestrian roots, quotidian usage, and ubiquity, the ginger jar came to symbolize hearth and home in the United States and elsewhere, and many American and European artists included them in paintings. For example, Paul Cézanne rendered a similar jar, also wrapped in bamboo, in at least four still lifes. Fragments of such vessels have been found in numerous archaeological sites in the Americas, including a Native American Pomo village in northern California. While it was primarily intended for common commercial sale, the form gained notoriety in 1868 when Duveen Brothers in London sold a Kangxi example decorated with a delicate prunus pattern for the then unheard-of price of £1,200.90. Describing that jar, Jack Duveen wrote, "the white prunus sprays, nervously drawn on this palpitating blue, had an effect almost of lightning."

Common Mouse from John James Audubon (1785-1851), Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (Philadelphia, 1839-1848). Hand-colored lithograph, 23 ⅛ by 29 ⅛ inches. Peabody Essex Museum, Philips Library; photograph by Kathy Tarantola.

CENSER, Dehua, 1650-1720. 
Porcelain; height 4 ½, 
diameter 6 ⅛ inches. 
Museum purchase. 

Originally produced for the Chinese market as censers, small containers with openwork lids such as this could have been used in the West as potpourris and have also been recorded as "butter tubs" and "sugar pots." Both octagonal and hexagonal models were produced. One of the latter is listed in the 1721 inventory of Augustus the Strong ("N16 2 hex. butter dish with stand"). The 1724 inventory of Philippe II, duke of Orléans and regent of France, includes five white porcelain covered sugar boxes in the form of potpourris with matching saucers, which most assuredly are examples of this same form. An example listed in the 1778 auction catalogue of the collection of Sophie Arnoux (or Arnould), an actress and opera singer during the 1750s, is identified as "Japanese porcelain in old white," but a marginal sketch by Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780) shows it to be the same model as this one from Dehua. Yet another example is shown behind the famous Hong merchant Howqua in the portrait by Lamqua seen here. Its placement on its own wooden stand shows that wealthy nineteenth-century Chinese merchants also treasured such functional pieces.

Portrait of Howqua (Wu Bingjian; 1769?-1843) attributed to Lamqua (Guan Qiaochang; 1801-1860), c. 1840. Oil on canvas, 25 by 19 inches. Gift of Rebecca B. Chase, Ann B. Mathias, Charles E. Bradford; photograph by Mark Sexton.



LARGE DISH, Jingdezhen, 1720-1725, decorated in Europe, possibly the Netherlands, c. 1725. Porcelain; diameter 15 inches. Museum purchase. 

The original decoration on this dish from the late Kangxi period includes carved (anhua) lotus scrolls within a narrow cobalt blue cell diaper border. The fully realized chinoiserie scene in the center was painted in Europe, loosely based on Chinese sources but displaying a surprisingly thorough understanding of those sources. The colorful parrot perched in the tree is a well-documented, independent European design that was widely popular at a time when merchants and travelers collected parrots as emblems of exotic lands.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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