in the British Museum
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Article added on April 10, 2002
The British Museum holds the world's broadest collection of Ming (1368-1644) ceramics outside China and Taiwan. The collection is the result of 250 years of collecting which began with the museum's establishment in 1753. In total, The British Museum owns some 7000 Chinese artworks - from the Stone Age to the present - of which some 900 are Ming ceramics. Despite the collection's impressive breadth, some areas are not yet represented, such as water pots, incense boxes and cake trays made in the late Ming era for the Japanese tea ceremony. The catalogue's author, Jessica Harrison-Hall, acknowledges this fact. In her book, she not only presents all the 900 Ming pieces of The British Museum but she also discusses all types of Ming ceramics absent from the collection. Therefore, Ming Ceramics by the Assistant Keeper in the Department of Oriental Antiquities in The British Museum is a work of reference for scholars, students and collectors.
Porcelain was at the heart of Ming China and was its most visible representation to the outside world. The Ming era is regarded as a golden age of Chinese rule. It was contemporaneous with the European Renaissance and, as in Europe, the arts and architecture flourished and literacy spread rapidly.
Ming ceramics were highly priced in Europe. In the 14th and 15th centuries, there was no direct trade or tributary relations between China and Europe. The few porcelain pieces which appeared in Europe at that time were mostly presented by Near Eastern rulers and aristocrats to their European counterparts. In the 16th century, Philip II of Spain (reigned 1527-66) established the largest European collection of Chinese porcelain which consisted of some 3000 pieces by the time of his death. By 1600, about one third of all silver mined in Mexico and Peru went to the Far East, for ceramics, spices, textiles and other products. In the mid-17th century, trade in fine Chinese porcelain, mainly through the Dutch, dropped because of war and actions of Ming loyalists. Trade between China and Japan had flourished since the Tang dynasty (618-906). After the collapse of the Ming dynasty, especially between 1657 and 1681, trade between Europe and Japan developed and Japanese porcelain made in Arita, Kyushu, was exported to Europe. Gradually, local imitations of Chinese blue-and-white and polychrome wares were made all across Europe. In the Qing dynasty in the late 17th and 18th century, porcelain trade expanded from the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English to the French, Flemish, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians and Danes. Trade with the Americas as well as within Asia flourished too.
Jingdezhen, a town in the southern province of Jiangxi, was the most important manufacturing centre for porcelain during the Yuan and Ming dynasties - and consequently the most important manufacturing centre in the world. The majority of pieces in the Ming Ceramics catalogue were made there. Jingdezhen was also one the the earliest industrial towns in the world. The town developed into a major manufacturing centre partly because of its geographical position along the bank of the Chang River, its proximity to raw materials, access to waterways for transportation and availability of workforce, which was surplus to agricultural requirements. Potters employed at Jingdezhen made important technical innovations both in the manufacture of underglaze and overglaze decorated wares and in the increased efficiency of production.
The pieces presented in the book display the full range of quality and rarity of Ming ceramics, from objects made for the Yongle emperor (1403-24) to a coarse earthenware jar made for the transportation of foodstuffs from Chenghua (1465-87) mark and period covered box with blue and turquoise enamels (according to Harrison-Hall possibly the only example of its kind to survive), to a kraak dish (one of 23000 items on the Hatcher shipwreck of about 1643).
Jessica Harrison-Hall's catalogue not only presents the museum's entire Ming ceramics collection, she also delivers a brief history of the Ming Dynasty as well as chapters on the Ming porcelain industry at Jingdezhen (1368-1644), on the trade and diplomacy of Ming ceramics, on aspects of Ming life and Ming burials. Denise Ling introduces the reader to the conservation of Ming ceramics. Only the four pages by Harrison-Hall on fakes, forgeries and copies of Ming ceramics are somewhat disappointing because many readers would surely have preferred practical advice to a historical and theoretical introduction into this field (vital for any collector).
Jessica Harrison-Hall: Ming Ceramics in The British Museum. The British Museum Press, Hardback, November 2001, 640 p., 1025 colour and 100 b/w illustrations. Get it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr.
Yuhuchun bottle decorated in underglaze blue. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1403-24. Height 31.4 cm. (cat. 3:17). Photo copyright: The British Museum Press.
Square dish with underglaze blue and overglaze yellow decoration. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period, 1522-1566. Height 5 cm, width 24 cm, length 24.8 cm (cat. 9:87). Photo copyright: The British Museum Press.
Figure of an assistant to the Judge of Hell decorated in polychrome enamels with cold-painted details. Possibly from Shanxi province. Ming dynasty, c. 1522-1620. Height 136 cm, width 39 cm, depth 31 cm (cat. 19:3). Photo copyright: The British Museum Press.