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Sir Percival David's taste: one of the world's finest 20th-century collections of Chinese ceramics has moved to the British Museum. Jessica Harrison-Hall, its curator, explains the importance of Sir Percival David's collection, and introduces some of its highlights.

The arrival of Sir Percival David's extraordinary collection of some 1,700 Chinese ceramics at the British Museum has been described as the most important addition of objects since the gift of the Sutton Hoo treasure in 1939. For those studying, teaching and researching Chinese culture and China's relationship with the rest of the world, these subtle stonewares and perfect porcelains combine with the museum's larger holdings to provide a uniquely rich resource.

The collection has been on public display since 1952. It was originally shown in a 19th-century townhouse in Gordon Square, administered by London University and overseen by a succession of gifted curators. In 2006 it was recognised that the collection needed a new home. One of the conditions of its transfer to the British Museum was that all the pots must be exhibited, regardless of quality, together in an independent area. To accommodate this, a new gallery was built within the museum, with central display cases showing about 200 key objects, with the remaining 1,500 in library-style cases around the walls. As ceramics are not subject to restrictions on light for their preservation, sunshine floods through the windows and visitors can enjoy the ceramics with a view of fine plane trees reflecting the changing seasons.

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Sir Percival David (1892-1964) was the most prominent collector of Chinese ceramics in the first half of the 20th century. The strengths of his collection are inscribed wares of all periods; classic Song dynasty ceramics of the 10th to 12th centuries; fine 15th-century Ming dynasty porcelains; and porcelain and glass made for 18th-century Qing emperors. His collection is distinguished by its bias for objects in Chinese imperial or 'scholarly' taste. For example, there are very few wares made for export to Europe, only a handful of objects made specifically for burial and no ceramics predating the 3rd century AD.

The most ancient items are a group of six green-glazed early Yue wares made at the Shanglinhu kilns in Zhejiang province. These include a barrel-shaped model bird-house; a toad-shaped water dropper and toad-shaped water pot for calligraphy; a lamp-stand supported by a bear; a basin in the form of an ancient bronze vessel and a globular jar (Fig. 1). Made in the Western Jin dynasty, AD 265-316, this large jar is decorated with very early Chinese representations of the Buddha applied on both sides around the shoulder. Buddhism was introduced to China from India, and by the 1st century AD was rapidly gaining popularity among the Chinese, who readily adapted the teachings of Buddha to sit alongside indigenous religions and philosophies. Stonewares made in this region of northern Zhejiang province are characterised by a dark clay body and a thin yellowish-green glaze achieved by using a mixture of wood ash and clay. The potters then fired the ceramics in 'dragon kilns', which were built following the natural undulating curves of the hillsides.

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From the 3rd until the 14th century, white and green wares were the most important types of ceramics in China. In historical texts, style treatises and poetry from the 9th century onwards, writers praised southern green wares from the Yue kilns in Zhejiang province and northern white wares from the Xing kilns in Hebei province. In early China, people customarily named ceramics after the area in which they were made. So ceramics produced in the ancient area of Yuezhou were called Yue wares. Yue and Xing wares are the foundation for later green and white stonewares such as Yaozhou and Ding wares. The makers of a Yaozhou-ware box (Fig. 3) deeply carved four peony flowers into the leather-hard clay, added texture using a comb tool, and then dipped the box into liquid glaze. This glaze pooled in the grooves, creating a contrasting dark and light floral pattern. Potters fired ceramics of this type in saggars (clay fire boxes) within a coal-fuelled kiln. Bureaucrats may have sent items of this quality as tribute to the Northern Song Court. Merchants also widely traded Yaozhou wares, mostly of lesser quality. In the Song dynasty, the best kilns were at Huang-puzhen, near the modern city of Tongchuan city, which was then under the jurisdiction of Yaozhou, hence the name of the ceramics.

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Traditionally, Ru wares are regarded as the finest 'green' wares or celadons in China's history. There are estimated to be only about 65 Ru wares, outside the kiln sites, in the world (the British Museum has five). Sir Percival collected 12 Ru wares and some important test pieces of Ru glaze. A thinly potted brush-washer (Fig. 5) is a technical triumph by the craftsmen in Henan, who fully glazed it before firing it on a support with three prongs that have left three tiny unglazed sesame-seed-shaped marks within a depressed circular area on their bases. Inside, two fish--a rebus for abundance--are incised in the clay beneath the glaze. Both the brush-washer's oval form and incised decoration make it incredibly rare, even within this exceptional group. Sherds of related wares have been excavated at Qingliangsi, the main Ru-ware production site in Baofeng County, Henan.

In 1127, the Jurchen army invaded the Song capital Bianjing (modern Kaifeng). They captured Emperor Song Qinzong (who ruled from 1126 to 1127), his father and most of the court, and ruled northern China as the Jin dynasty (1127-1234). Emperor Song Gaozong, who ruled from 1127 to 1162, fled and established a new government, south of the Yangzi River, in Lin'an (modern Hangzhou). He had an official kiln set up there to recreate the northern Ru wares that the Song emperors admired so much. Guan wares form a less homogenous group than Ru wares and there is still much scholarly debate over their dating and some of the places of their manufacture. One guan dish in the collection (Fig. 4) has a refined shape: each petal lobe is curved and indented to create a naturalistic mallow-flower form. The potter has left his fingerprints in the glaze on the base, a tantalising and rare trace of the craftsman's hand. Writers described guan ware as having zikou liezu, 'purple mouth and iron foot', referring to the dark purplish-grey body showing through the glaze where it runs thin at the rim and to the ferrous-brown colour of the unglazed foot.

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Of all the wu wei ci (five classic wares--Ding, Ru, Jun, guan and ge), we know least about ge ware as the exact location of the kilns is unknown and scholars continue to debate their dating and provenance. A vase with tubular side handles (Fig. 6) is modelled after an ancient ritual bronze vessel for wine called a hu. The Qianlong emperor (ruled 1736-95) admired this vase and in 1785 had it incised inside the neck with verses, which he composed, on the beauty of its crackled, beige ge-type glaze: 'Despite the pattern of hundreds of intermingling crackle lines, its texture is fine and smooth to the touch. This is the work of the talented Elder brother (Ge). One discovers that the value of these undecorated wares is the same as that of unpolished gems. How could one compare this and the more elaborate products of Xuan(de) and Cheng(hua)? Each has its own individual charm'.

At the British Museum, we are working on a new project on Qianlong's inscriptions on jades, lacquer ware and ceramics. There are 27 objects with full Qianlong inscriptions in the Sir Percival David Collection, with dates ranging from 1737 to 1790, and more items with palace marks. The British Museum has its own smaller collection of such materials. Some of these inscriptions have been published but some have not even been transcribed.

Sir Percival's collection has essentially been a teaching collection for more than 50 years. This primary purpose is to be maintained in its new home. Although Sir Percival did collect stamps, his approach to the acquisition of ceramics was not methodical. Certain kilns are under-represented, such as the Cizhou ware kilns of northern China, while others, such as the Longquan kilns, are very well represented. One example of the latter is a celadon ewer with elegant pear-shaped body, long slim curved spout, curved handle and domed-knob cover after a metal prototype--probably silver but possibly bronze (Fig. 2). Its detailing, such as the base of the handle, which splits into three perfectly formed sections, is very fine.

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Sir Percival David bought the ewer from the Hirooka collection in Kobe, Japan. He distinguished himself from his peers by travelling to China, Hong Kong and Japan to buy wares, rather than confining himself to the European art market. Green-glazed wares, known as celadons in English, qingci in Chinese and seiji in Japanese, were particularly admired in Japan, where they were regarded as treasures, collected as antiques, and suitable shapes used for the tea ceremony.

Two altar vases in the collection are arguably the best-known porcelains in the world (Fig. 7). Their importance lies in the dated inscriptions on one side of their necks above the bands of dragons. The long dedication is the earliest known on blue-and-white wares. It records that in 1351 a man named Zhang Wenjin, who appears not to have been an official, presented these two vases and an incense burner (the whereabouts of which is unknown) to a Daoist temple in Yushan county in northeast Jiangxi, which lies southeast of Jingdezhen, where these vases were made. This inscription demonstrates that blue-and-white porcelain production was already well-established at Jingdezhen by this date. Originally the vases, modelled after bronzes, had porcelain rings attached through the elephant-head shaped handles. One of Sir Percival's great achievements was to reunite these vases. One came from the collection of the Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone (1871-1957), who sold it to Sir Percival in 1927, and the other was bought at Sotheby's on 6 June 1935 from the Charles E. Russell collection (1866-1960). Sir Percival paid 360 [pounds sterling] (roughly the equivalent of 40,000 [pounds sterling] today) at auction but the price of the other vase is unknown.

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Constructing the gallery, researching and conserving the collection and dressing the exhibition has taken two years. One of the most interesting processes was the three months spent trying out new arrangements of objects until the perfect balance of shapes and glazes was achieved. Sir Percival had a similar opportunity to train his eye by handling the palace ceramics collections in the mid 1920s before the ceramics gallery was opened at the Forbidden City. This experience perhaps led him to purchase the 'sacrificial', 'fresh' or deep-red monochrome-glazed porcelains in the collection. The Yongle and Xuande era represents the peak of technical achievement at Jingdezhen. As vessels ordered for ritual use by the early-15th century-Ming emperors, they enjoy a status above that of other porcelains. A beautiful example is a dish (Fig. 9) with a glassy glaze that has 'crept' at the rim of the dish to reveal the pure whiteness of the porcelain body. It is covered in tiny pin prick holes like skin pores and the colour possesses an incredible powdery depth, yielding layer upon layer of strong red shades of colour. In the cavetto is a design of dragons chasing flaming pearls.

Ceramic technology reached its peak at Jingdezhen in the reigns of the three emperors Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95). Production at the kilns was closely directed by court-appointed supervisors, who ensured that the ruling Manchus were supplied with new porcelain forms with innovative decorative schemes. The identities of the skilled craftsmen who finely potted one vase (Fig. 8) with a slender neck and trumpet mouth, then carved a band of chrysanthemum petals around the foot, are unknown. This innovative glaze was technically challenging. The secret of producing the early-15th-century red glaze had been lost and in the Kangxi reign (1662-1722) potters revived the production o f beautiful red wares but they were quite different. The vase was covered with a layer of clear glaze, followed by a layer of copper-rich pigment, possibly blown on, and further layers of clear glaze were added on top. When fired in a reducing atmosphere, this sandwiched colour developed into soft mottled red and pink with flecks of moss-green. Western writers describe this glaze as 'peach bloom', likening its soft dappled tones to the greenish-yellow, pink and red skin of a peach, but Chinese connoisseurs call it jiangdou bong 'cowpea-red'. Used for a short period in the Kangxi reign, it was applied to a limited number of forms, mostly small vases and writing utensils.

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The British Museum is greatly enriched by the arrival of Sir Percival's painted Qing ceramics. In one example (Fig. 10), the porcelain decorators at Jingdezhen went beyond the boundaries of the rim to incorporate the outside of the dish in a continuous design. The design starts at the foot ring and creeps up the sides to spill over into the dish and grows to form two flowering and fruiting peach trees, in shades of pink, green and brown. Iron-red and black are used to great effect. These colours are not opaque and sit nearer to the surface, creating a contrasting matt result.

The Qianlong emperor was a great collector of antiques and a patron of the arts but he also appreciated the latest in modern technology. A porcelain vase (Fig. 11) combines these three great passions. It is modelled on the shape of an antique 'arrow pot', a vessel with short tubes on either side of the narrow neck. In earlier dynasties, people played a drinking game of pitching arrows into the tubes and neck of larger bronze and ceramic pots of this shape. Secondly, the enamel decoration demonstrates the extraordinary skill of porcelain decorators who worked in the palace. The painting of orchids and lingzbi (a fungus symbolising longevity) with rocks is complemented by a 14-character poem that translates as 'A small path opens for the immortals through the deep clouds to paradise island; In the warm spring fragrance comes from iris and orchid flowers.' The three seals read yuxin 'elegant heart'; shou 'longevity' and qi 'marvellous'. The four-character Qianlong reign mark is written in standard script in blue enamel on the base.

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The arrival of Sir Percival's collection at the British Museum is a new chapter in its history. All the ceramics have been extensively conserved by seven specialist conservators who worked tirelessly for four months to ensure that visitors could enjoy the glazes and designs as they were originally seen. Another team transferred all the photographs and information in the gallery label system on to the British Museum website. About 100 internal and external staff and volunteers worked on this project to complete it on time. None of this would have been possible without the generosity and imagination of Sir Joseph Hotung.

In many ways, the opening of the gallery is just the beginning. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars focused on understanding the chronology of production, identifying manufacturing sites, and assessing the distribution of ceramics. Building on this research, we are now trying to understand more about the social contexts in which the ceramics were used and the way that they relate to objects in other materials.

Jessica Harrison-Hall is curator of Chinese ceramics and Vietnamese art at the British Museum, London.
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Author:Harrison-Hall, Jessica
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Date:Oct 1, 2009
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