The Peabody Essex Museum’s collection of Chinese export ceramics

Editorial Staff Art

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.

GINGER JAR,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.

TWO MONKSJingdezhen, 1725-1745. Impressed on the bottom of each with the four-character potter’s mark of Hing Yun Luen. Porcelain; height (of each) 6 ½ inches. Gift of the Copeland Collection.

When true (opposing) pairs were not available, it was not unusual for eighteenth-century European collectors to buy multiples of the same model, like these two figures, to form geometric installations. These particular figures are notable for the impressed four-character potter’s mark on the bases because, unlike potters in Dehua and Yixing, those in Jingdezhen did not traditionally mark their wares. The figure exhibits physical characteristics associated with Mile-fo, the fat-belly Buddha, a non-historical character derived from the Maitreaya-or Merciful One-Buddha who, by the Song dynasty (960-1279) was one of the most popular gods in East Asia. A gouache-on-paper painting from an album in the museum’s collection identifies a similar (if slimmer) figure simply as Hao chung, or a monk. Inscribed on the interior cover of the album is, “I bought these Chinese drawings for 16 Guineas at the Auction of Mr. Martin the Supercargos Effects in March 1747, P. Yorke.” We do not know who Yorke was, but Martin was a supercargo on the East India Company ship Hastings in 1745.

Portrait of a Monk, Guangzhou, c. 1730. Gouache on paper, 21 ¾ by 16 ⅞ inches.  Photograph by Walter Silver.





COVERED PUNCHBOWL AND UNDERDISH, decorated with the Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm Palace in Sweden, Jingdezhen, c. 1763. Porcelain; height (of punchbowl) 12 ½, diameter 16 ¼ inches; diameter of underdish 22 inches. Museum purchase. 

The scenes depicted on this bowl, cover, and underdish appear to represent a fairly precise moment in the history of the Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm Palace in Stock­holm. The original pavilion, built by King Adolf Fredrik (1710-1771) as a temporary folly for the birthday of Queen Louisa Ulrika (1720-1782) and presented to her on July 24, 1753, was a fantasy re-creation of the Cathay she so loved. Additional supporting buildings were then constructed: the king’s pavilion (seen at the right of the Chinese Pavilion) was completed in 1757, and the Confidence (at the left), where meals were taken, which was begun in 1758 but not completed until about 1763. The temporary Chinese Pavilion was demolished, and the foundation stone of the permanent structure, which still stands, was laid on June 2, 1763. The decoration on these pieces shows the temporary structure as well as the Confidence, dating them to the moment between the completion of the Confidence and the erection of the new central pavilion. Only four covered punchbowls with underdishes decorated with Swedish scenes are known; two others are known with Danish scenes.

TEAPOT AND STAND,with so-called Richard Philcox decoration, Jingdezhen, 1780-1790. Porcelain; height (of teapot) 4 ⅜ (missing lid), width 8 ¾ inches; diameter (of stand) 6 ¼ inches. Gift of Carl L. Crossman in memory of Priscilla Waldo Papin (teapot) and purchase with funds donated by the Buddy Taub Foundation, Dennis A. Roach, Director (stand). 

The monogram “RP” is centered within a C-scroll and floral cartouche, at the bottom of which is depicted a cobbler accompanied by the legend “I must Work for LeLtKer’s [i.e., Leather’s] dear.” The brackets on the larger cartouche depict samples of men’s and ladies’ shoes. The one other published example of this motif is a mug with (in place of the monogram) an inscription that reads, “vivat [long live] / Rich.d Phillcox / Whit / His honest / Fammily,” and, on the reverse, “vivat rye [long live Rye].” Conjectures that “rye” refers to the whiskey and that a cobbler’s trade label must have served as the Chinese decorator’s source are far less interesting than the explanation of the decoration offered by W. Holloway, a local historian in Rye, England, in a story published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections in 1868. He records that Rye cobbler Richard Philcox took care of a gentleman who had escaped a sinking East Indiaman off Rye Bay. The gentleman eventually made it to China and had a service of porcelain made in thanks. The service was inherited by Richard’s son Joseph, who sold it by lottery through Holloway, who concluded his account with the words: “All sublunary things are evanescent; and thus the Cobbler’s China is scattered abroad, and the name of Philcox is extinct in Rye.”

CRAB TUREEN,  Jingdezhen, 1736-1795. Porcelain; height 3 ½, width 9 ¼ inches. 
Copeland Collection gift. 

This tureen modeled in the form of a crab on a lotus leaf is one of only three published examples. The eyes-formed like dumbbells-are set freely in openings so that they move when the lid is handled. A sauce tureen would be the obvious function of this form, though the 1783 inventory of Joaquim Inácio da Cruz Sobral refers to tureens shaped as a pomegranate, a crab, and ducks all used as butter dishes.

The museum owns a series of China trade watercolors depicting the production of porcelain, including the one shown above right, which illustrates a potter putting the finishing touches on the construction of an object much like this tureen, while a completed one is on the ground nearby.

The “IHS” monogram on this large dish makes it one of the earliest Chinese porcelains to reflect European influence. While IHS surrounded by a crown of thorns is generally accepted by scholars to indicate the Jesuit order, here the motif is intended neither as a Jesuit symbol nor as a crown of thorns. The crown of thorns is almost always depicted as  two branches entwined, whereas here the monogram, one of several variations used since the third century to stand for Jesus Christ, is surrounded by an olive or laurel wreath, easily recognizable by the ribbon at the bottom and the tied ends at the top.

Evidence suggests that orders for porcelains showing the IHS and wreath motif may have been placed by Portuguese Christians as early as the 1520s. For example, certain Chinese porcelain bowls from this period exhibit the IHS monogram interspersed among depictions of an armillary sphere, an emblem first used by Manuel I of Portugal. If the bowls bearing the arms of Manuel I were ordered for him, they-and this charger-would necessarily predate 1521, the year of his death.

The Society of Jesus, founded in 1534, was recognized officially by Pope Paul III in 1540, at which time the society adopted the IHS monogram, typically surrounded by rays of light. It was not used in conjunction with the crown of thorns until the nineteenth century. In any case, the dating of this dish to between about 1520 and 1540, disproves its once-suspected association with the Jesuit order.

SHRIMP EWER,Jingdezhen, 1590-1620. Porcelain; height 7 ¾, width 6 ½ inches. Museum purchase. 

This ewer is molded to represent a shrimp rising from the waves among lotus plants. A lotus stalk forms the spout and a lotus pod the filling aperture. The original lid (now missing) would have been in the form of the top of the lotus pod, and cuts made into the rim of the pod indicate that the lid would have locked into place. It has been replaced by a lacquered and gilded lightwood lid, possibly of Asian manufacture, that appears to have significant age. At one time, the tip of the spout had broken away and was repaired with gilded lacquer. Both alterations suggest that the ewer was once in Japan, perhaps made for the Japanese market, though this cannot be confirmed.

The shrimp (xia) is among the rarest forms used for zoomorphic ewers and kendis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Considered flexible and able to bend at will, the shrimp became symbolic of things going smoothly and of the ability to change one’s fate. Although early versions were undoubtedly made for local markets, such ewers were collected avidly by visiting westerners, and a number of examples can be found in early collections in Europe.  

WILLIAM R. SARGENT is an independent scholar and curator, and the former H. A. Crosby Forbes curator of Asian export art at the Peabody Essex Museum.  His publications include The Copeland Collection: Chinese and Japanese Ceramic Figures (1991) and Views of the Pearl River Delta: Macao, Canton and Hong Kong (1996), as well as an essay in Chinese Ceramics: Neolithic to Qing (Yale University Press, 2010).