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Ceramic Glazes: Going Beyond Blue and White

flambe vases at the Victoria and Albert Museum

At the mention of Chinese ceramics, most will immediately envision the blue-and-white porcelain variety, with detailed landscapes and floral designs painstakingly rendered in shades of cobalt. Few people admire blue-and-white china more than Bunny, except maybe her husband John Rosselli, both of whom have collected these wares for years. But today we want to go beyond the classic cobalt glaze to zero in on a few far-less-restrained techniques that embrace the element of unpredictability. 

Three types of ceramics throughout Chinese history are of particular interest: sancai, jun and flambé. The glazes on each appear strikingly abstract and contemporary even today, and we’ve looked to them as inspiration for lamps in the Bunny Williams Home collection.

A sancai pottery jar, Tang dynasty (618-907), from a 2019 Sotheby’s sale

The first technique is sancai, a lead-based, tri-colored decoration which gained popularity during the Tang dynasty in China from 618-907. Sancai ware is most easily distinguished by its green, amber and white color palette.

Horse and Female Rider, Tang Dynasty (618-907), from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many ancient sancai pieces were originally intended for tombs and often made in the form of horses, camels, or soldiers that were placed near the deceased. The best known examples are those recovered from burial grounds. Sections of these pieces, such as the face of the human figure seen above, were often left unglazed, which adds a ghostly allure.

A sancai-glazed ewer, Tang Dynasty (618-907), from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sancai pieces are fired at high temperatures—some glazes more than once to achieve the desired effect. Since the glaze is prone to running during the firing process, colors often mix together to create a streaked effect. The shape of this ewer in particular speaks to the Islamic influence on Chinese ceramics during this period, which is where the story of blue-and-white begins.

Ovoid Jar with a blue-splashed sancai glaze, Tang Dynasty (618-907), from the Harvard Art Museums collection.

Blue glaze required cobalt, which was imported from Persia by Muslim traders. Examples of blue sancai glazes do exist but they are rare, since cobalt pigment remained a precious commodity and relatively scarce substance during this time. Pieces like the above decorated with cobalt glaze therefore served as status symbols; a means of flaunting a wealthy family’s access to the pigment.

From the Bunny Williams Home collection: Mineral Lamp (left) and Pheasant Feather Lamp in brown (right).

The unpredictable nature of sancai glazes ensures that while the overall effect can be consistent, no two pieces are exactly the same. This is an ethos that we embrace by working with artisans who still practice traditional glazing techniques, like those used on Bunny Williams Home collection lamps above. The influence of sancai is especially evident in the glaze on the Pheasant Feather lamp, shown on the right, which also comes in a deep blue.

Photo by Francesco Lagnese for Bunny Williams Inc. 

Donning an exuberant glaze, the Pheasant Feather lamp adds looseness but is still at home among more traditional furnishings in this room by our interiors team.

A jun ware incense burner from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.

Fast forwarding a few decades brings us into the Song dynasty (960-1279) and onto our next glaze, that of Jun ware. In contrast to those from the Tang dynasty, glazes from this era are mostly monochrome and cool-toned. “Jun” refers to one of the five main kiln sites where the most well-known Song ceramics hail from.

Jun ware bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jun ware kilns were based in northern China and produced ceramics for the court during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Jun ware is usually thickly potted, with a thick, opaque blue glaze. Colors range from light lavender-blue to bright, at times iridescent blue, despite the fact that there is no true blue pigment used in the glaze. Rather, their appearance is the result of a glass emulsion that forms during firing which reflects the blue spectrum of light.

Jun ware dish with purple splashes, Harvard Art Museums.

Jun ware is also easily recognized by abstract strokes or splashes of purple, which are the result of copper-derived pigments being applied over a dried blue base before being fired again in a reduction kiln.

A lobed flower pot, numbered jun ware, from Harvard Art Museums

Jun ware continued to be produced in the 14th and early 15th century, though most of the vessels produced during time were made as planters. Many have numbers incised on their bottoms to indicate size. The Harvard Art Museums have an extensive collection of this “numbered jun,” including the piece above, which is well-coated with a copper solution.

The influence of Jun ware can be seen in the midnight blue glaze of this Small Speckled Lamp in the Bunny Williams Home collection. Dotted with small white spots, a thick blue glaze smoothly covers the lamp’s slightly faceted body.

Vase with flambé glaze, Jingdezhen, China, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795). From the Victoria & Albert Museum’s East Asia Collection

By the 18th century, the imperial treasury had a large collection of Jun ware and it had become highly prized. Centuries later during the Qing dynasty, the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-1735) would harbor a special interest in antiquity and seek to revive it. 

In 1727, he commissioned potters at the imperial factory in Jingdezhen to recreate the Jun ware of the Song dynasty, which leads us to our final glaze: flambé. (Also referred to as lang-yao or yao-bian in Chinese, sang de boeuf in French and ox blood in English.)

Seeking to recreate a glaze from hundreds of years earlier for which they had no formula, Jingdezhen potters arrived at an almost entirely different recipe. The vase shown above is case in point. The potter who created it believed he was imitating classic Jun ware, when in reality the glaze he produced is a glossy, deep red with bluish-purple streaks.

A flambé-glazed ‘pomegranate’ vase sold at Christie’s. The bottom is marked with a Qianlong seal (1736-1795)

These dazzling streaks are the result of flicking or blowing copper onto the vessel’s surface. Later, in the mid-eighteenth century, cobalt was sometimes used to add more blue into the streaks.

A fish-shaped porcelain vase with flambé glaze, late 18th century, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection

Flambé porcelain of the Qing dynasty was eventually imitated in Europe, especially at the Sèvres porcelain factory in France.

Tall vase with four handles by French ceramicist Auguste Delaherche, ca. 1893-94., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Flambé glazes also fascinated French and British ceramists of the late nineteenth century and inspired individual artists like Auguste Delaherche (1857-1940) and Bernard Moore (1850-1935). The elongated vase above by Delaherche is a take on traditional sang de boeuf.

Chinese, French, and English vases from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The largest is by Bernard Moore, 1905

These small Chinese, French and English vases grouped together at the Victoria and Albert Museum show how influential the deep red glaze was on European ceramists like the English potter Bernard Moore, who created the largest vase shown here.

One of the most widely recognized Western uses of sang de boeuf was by English architect Leslie Green, who designed many of London’s underground stations in the early 1900’s. Green’s signature stations featured oxblood-glazed terracotta tiles.

These flamboyant flambé glazes serve as the inspiration for an aptly named Oxblood Lamp in the Bunny Williams Home collection. It wears a hand-applied ombre glaze that fades from warm white to a rich, deep red.

Our annual observation of Earth Day took on an especially poignant tone this week, as we reflected on all that is happening in the world that feels beyond our control. But we find solace in the fact that we see so many people trying to improve conditions in their communities. During this challenging time we look to nature and see hope with each unfurling green bud of spring and, yes, in the occasionally unexpected reaction that occurs within the kiln. Nature’s unexpected moments of beauty serve as valuable reminders that things will be alright in the end. 

We send you our very best wishes and look forward to continuing to stay in touch via our blog.

Posted to Collection on April 23, 2020

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