Pottery has long roots in the ancient world and remains a historical marker of all events since history began; especially along the Silk Road where one can still witness the vast exchange of trade and ideas that flowed along it throughout the centuries. It was with this purpose of tracking the route of the Silk Road that we travelled out to Iran and down the ancient highways to the city of Bam. Whilst it remains somewhat inaccessible, it is one of the most important staging posts in the ceramic journey and essential to visit to fully understand the myriad of influences on Persian ceramics. Of particular note was the trade from the stable governance of the T’ang Dynasty (AD618-906) in China and the arrival of porcelain, closed forms and variance in decoration.
The development of lustreware in Persia and the exquisite use of texts, often using the Kufic script known as ‘rose thorn’, is a subject in itself. To see just one piece of ancient lustre painted onto a frit (stone paste) body, in Kashan, transports you back to the 13th Century.
A haven for those fascinated by the dawn of ceramic production has to be the National Museum of Iran in central Tehran. Surrounded by snowy peaks and billows of icy air from the mountains, this is a real jewel. Opened in 1937 and designed by Andre Godard and Maxime Siroux, its design was inspired by the Sassanian vaults (Sassanian Period 224 to 651 AD) and in particular, the Taq Kasra at Ctesiphon (situated 22 miles East of the River Tigris and now in current day Iraq). The brick building and vast archway is reminiscent of this magnificent period of architecture and design.
The Museum retains an uncluttered and simple air where one can appreciate some of the finest examples of clay forms from the Neolithic Age. Clay formation pieces were produced for ceremonial purposes, cooking, carrying water and for eating and drinking. Despite the focus on utility ware, the decorative motifs and shapes had already been developed. Particularly notable are the conical, earthenware vessels and those carrying illustrations of dancing goats. The brush work is so adept that an animated quality is transmitted with such illumination that the goats appear to be moving. There is a rare example in the Ashmolean Museum of a dancing goat on earthenware, should this magnificent museum not yet be on your travel agenda.
Kerman and Bam
Travel due south for nearly 1000 kilometres from Tehran to Kerman and one can discover some stunning craftsmanship in the caravanserai and ancient bath house. Built by Ganj ali Khan, the governor of Kerman from 1596 to 1621 under Safavid Shah Abbas, this beautiful building in the Isfahani style has weathered the heat and desert winds. Careful use and curatorship has preserved the original, handmade tiles from the 17th Century. Complex, geometric designs are created from cobalt, turquoise, black and white glazing. In contrast to the mass produced mimicry of the 21st Century, these tiles were made and decorated by hand. Each minute variance gives a shimmering depth to the vast walls which is both relaxing and mesmeric. It is an example of the vast difference between the factory-made reproductions of today and the supreme talent and dedication of the Persian potters in the 17th Century.
Moving back in time and yet only 100 miles west, one finds the magnificent ‘Arg-e-Bam’ which dates from the Achaemenid period (6th – 4th Centuries BC) on the ancient trading route of the Silk Road. During the 7th to 11th centuries it was known for its production of silk and cotton garments and it was an important trading station. Earthenware utilityware was produced within Bam for the fortress known as the Bam Citadel. In 2003, a vast earthquake hit the region and the citadel was virtually destroyed. The buildings were comprised of non-baked clay bricks (adobes) and, at the time, was the largest adobe structure in the world.
We were shown the painstaking reconstruction of this UNESCO World Heritage site by the former mayor of Bam, Mr Reza. The construction industry remains the largest user of clay (in its most unrefined form) and the reconstruction of the citadel makes use of local clay and straw This work was carried out in the searing heat and the scale of the work, many years later, is impressive. Not only that, but vast agricultural projects of cross pollination of citrus fruits take place in the region; notable the Bam Lemon which looks like a large, sour lemon but tastes like a sweet tangerine.
Shiraz is the ceramic lovers’ paradise. The Pars Museum lies within the beautiful Nazar Garden, designed and constructed during the Safavid rule (1501 – 1722). During the Zand Dynasty (1750 – 1794) Karim Khan built the octagonal building which serves as the museum today (created in 1936). Here, there are many handwritten and exquisitely illustrated Qurans, dating from 14th Century and one can see the artistic literacy that translates into the scripts adorning many of the ceramics in the museum. Of particular note are the rich glazes used on the stoneware; fresh, deep turquoises and green overglazes, all handmade from minerals mined within Persia. One naturally wonders where the inspiration came from to produce these rich colours, perhaps from wares seen in the caravanserai where the deep celadons of the Northern, coal-fired kilns of China were making their inaugural visit or maybe from the temples and natural scenery.
Near Shiraz, the ancient city of Bishapur presents itself in two halves as it is now divided by a new road (where road signs are totally irrelevant). On the left-hand side, the spring-fed Sharpur River runs along the encased valley. Small, silver trout swim over a veil of green and turquoise water that matches the glazes in the Pars Museum. Nomadic ladies wash their carpets, undisturbed by the thunderous waves of rocks, carved with six stunning rock reliefs depicting scenes of Roman and Persian soldiers. Carved by master Roman artists, who were apparently ‘free’ men with their leader Valarian, these reliefs were commissioned by Shapur (241 – 272), the Sassanid king.
On the right hand side of the road there is the Anahita water temple of worship; 18 steps below the ground where qanats, or underground water channels, surround the depressed courtyard. This magnificent irrigation system creates the sense of being under a vast volume of water or even under the sea. Bishapur was founded in 266 AD by Shapur and was clearly a production site for early Persian ceramics. Although no evidence of kilns have been found during the excavations, there are thousands of sherds over the whole site and complete vessels have been excavated; examples of incised wares, probably used for storage of oil and water. Despite the emptiness and vast bolts of silken skies, Bishapur seems lived in and alive, perhaps due to the remnants of ceramic vessels accumulated over the centuries.
East of Shiraz one discovers the ancient and ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BC), Persepolis. The urban sprawl of Shiraz gives way to verdant pastures and the pretty orchards of Fars province. The Gate of All Nations, can be seen rising from the plain, from a distance. On the approach, the remains of the rusting tent posts from the late Shah’s last party in the 1970s lie derelict in a copse of fir trees; apparently snake infested and unsafe. However, this does not deter from the sheer splendour of this ancient city. Discovered by Cyrus the Great and then built by Darius I, this great city lies on the brown plains with the blue sky and sense of eternity.
On a more domestic level, the fresh and detailed stone reliefs depict many scenes from court life and of particular interest were the beautifully depicted ceramic bowls being carried in as ceremonial gifts alongside stallions, bales of cloth, a Bactrian camel and a humped bull amongst other exotic ware – ceramics being highly prized during this period.
Travelling across the dusty plains outside Yazd, there are structures from the 17th Century that could easily be mistaken for kilns. They are, in fact, ice houses and one of the best examples is the Meybod Ice House; made from adobe and mud and constructed during the Qajar Era, it rises out of the earth like an enormous beehive. Inside, however, one travels down a series of steps to where the ice would have been collected in sheets from the mountains and then stored inside the structure. The engineering is impressive and has stood the test of time.
And finally, at the end of our vast circular journey around this extraordinary country we returned to Tehran and The Islamic Art Museum, the home to thousands of exquisitely curated pieces of Persian ceramics. There are some of the finest example of lustreware, black and turquoise glazing, underglaze, Kufic script and vast vessels. Whilst remaining part of the National Museum of Iran, the Islamic art is housed separately. It was recurated in 2014 and yet retains the quality of a bygone era. The museum was virtually empty and silent and the exhibits were arranged in such a way that they could speak for themselves; voices from the past, undimmed by interactive sound and light shows. It was a truly memorable experience.
A journey through Iran is richly rewarding. Those that make the effort will be inspired by the combination of natural beauty and cultural counterflows that has inspired such unique and wonderful ceramics for thousands of years. As Vita Sackville-West said of her time in ‘the merciless space of Persia’: “All old habits of mind have left me, so that it is possible to approach the old ideas with a new eye. The heart is renewed, and winds have blown away the cobwebs.”
Persian Ceramics from 9th to the 14th Century edited by Giovanni Curatola and thanks to the Thomas J. Watson Library
Ceramics from Islamic Lands by Oliver Watson – Kuwait National Museum. Published by Thames & Hudson
Room 19 of the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford
With many thanks to Jill Norman (www.jillnorman.com), author and publisher, who was the both the instigator of this unforgettable tour and the finest companion.
Inspiration must be an inherently human trait and one that joins us across cultural, social and economic divides. Listening to a friend being interviewed on the radio, I was fascinated to hear about the “book that inspired him” as a young man. I was compelled to read it, as if some sort of cultural provenance or secret source of his energy would be revealed (the book being The Power of Thinking Big).
It is a lifetime’s task to reveal exactly what influenced and inspired the potters from the past and for which complex reasons their work was displayed. However, whilst attending the third, annual Sir Percival David lecture at Bonhams last year, entitled “Tales of a Tea Jar: Chinese Ceramics and Tea in Japan” by Louise Cort*, many reasons were revealed.
This enthralling lecture was based around the story of a Chinese, ceramic storage jar and its rise to fame. Tea drinking became widely popular during the 14th century for health reasons. The tea would be stored, the leaves broken and then whipped. Tea bowls became collectable and 14th century tea drinking was a group activity. Occasionally, sake and food would be consumed and poetry read. The tea would be served in an anonymous way; scoops of tea distributed, water poured in and then whisked. Many bowls would be used for this purpose and a display room allowed the guests to see the tea making utensils.
The situation changed in the late 15th century when the merchant class of Japan joined in the social rituals. Chinese ceramics were being used by port administrators as the warrior class let go of their Chinese ceramics. The particular tea storage jar, that was the centre piece of the lecture, was even given its own name” Chigusa”. It was deemed worthy of its own luxurious silk accessories and played a central role in the tea ceremony. The jar was owned by merchants living in Socai. An imaginary world was constructed in Japan, centred around small, tea drinking houses in the garden. The new form of tea drinking had less formality and was more frequent; a simple break from the commercial activities of the day. There would be perhaps 3 or 4 guests present and the host would make the tea individually.
A brief word must be said about the actual tea plant. The new tea leaves were picked in Japan and jars would be sent to the plantation owners and documents would record the tea packed within the jar. The owner would sign authentication and press a seal so the contents would not be contaminated. The jars of tea would return in late spring and by November the tea would have mellowed. Intimate friends would attend the formal opening of the jar, the seal would be cut and the powder poured out. “Thick Tea” would be the tea that was ground. The guests would enjoy a special moment in the cycle of tea. The best utensils would be used whilst the tea room would be the focal point of connoisseurship. Through this process, proud new owners would display not only their tea purchases, but their tea utensils and their knowledge of the tea ceremony.
I am sure that there was a small element of display behaviour, but the all-pervading atmosphere would have been one of conviviality, refreshment not only physically but mentally and sharing of artistic and cultural patterns from other countries. I feel that there was a generosity within the ceremony and a sense of calm, whilst observing and appreciating new crafts from faraway places. Imagine crossing the sea between China and Japan before the advent of the aeroplane or sturdy sea vessels. There must been the faraway breeze of the East China Sea about those teabowls when the Japanese merchants drank from them; a moment’s reverie in the garden tea house.
In conclusion, it has been the records of practical uses, the social ceremonies that sprung up around the ceramics and tea drinking, the appreciation not only of beauty, but of other cultures and their practices, the interest and welcome they received, whilst prompting friends to share these new commodities. All this information has inspired me to share my work which has been developed through the passionate study of The Silk Road and the ceramics that travelled along it. I have even forced myself to throw large “statement pieces” in stoneware and to paint or glaze them in imitation of the mighty porcelain. I only work in porcelain, but I felt I had to get in touch with the potters during the Abbasid period as they sought to find the secret of porcelain. That is a story for another time.
*Louise Allison Cort, Curator of Ceramics at The Freer Sackler, The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art
Porcelain and Pen, an exhibition of Silk Road porcelain, is showing at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street St James’s, London SW1, from 24th-26th May 2016, 10am-6pm.
Once one leaves the Western gate of Europe, there is an inherent search to find common bonds of communication with other cultures. A shared language, spoken or written, is a steady and well-walked bridge between nations; an interest in food, dendrology or astronomy will tie people together from different cultures. Whilst travelling up to Bahla, an ancient pottery town in the A’Dakhiliyah region of Oman (200 kilometres north of Muscat), I was keen to speak to the local potters about their production of clay body from their clay pits, their output and their firing techniques.
Outside the tourist routes, Oman remains a traditional society and initially it was difficult to speak directly to the potter without an intermediary. However, once the subject of temperatures and firing was raised, we potters spoke directly, in Arabic, as our translator was unable to keep up as we interrogated each other. The ‘walk in’ kilns in Bahla can reach temperatures over 1100ºC, using wood gathered from the desert and, in this particular case, a modern addition of massive gas canister at the back, with an Exocet missile of flame throwing to boost the heat. It looked impressive, but rather dangerous. I fire mostly at 1240ºC, but within the safe confines of my electric kiln, so I felt that we were not exactly on a level playing field. However, the Arabic number of 1240 produced a smile on my fellow potter’s face. A bridge was formed between our cultures by the mutual obsession with firing temperatures.
The heat in the kiln and the weather outside cause variations in the texture of the glaze in addition to the colour: particularly when using reduction firing techniques. I confess to being at the foothills of reduction firing, but already I am beginning to notice close colour bonds between nature and the glazes. None more so than the natural shell colours of our rare breed chicken eggs. I have spent the last few years hatching and breeding our own flock; sometimes buying in fertilised eggs from specialist breeders, to keep the gene pool wide and also to cross over the colours with varying dominant genes.
We produced some excellent Marans from South of England Show stock and they produce an incredibly dark brown egg; the colour of early Georgian mahogany. Once this is crossed with a hen from strong Araucana stock (which carries the blue gene), one is likely to find what is known as an ‘Easter Egg’ layer, in your next batch of hens. The colour is often referred to as ‘olive’ and is certainly despised by the purists in the chicken world. However the ceramic enthusiast will recognise this hue from early Chinese stoneware and porcelain. Some excellent examples are to be found in The Sir Percival David Collection at The British Museum. There is a fine Yue ware dish decorated with a pair of phoenix and the character yong (eternal) engraved on the base. The dish originated from the Yue kilns, Shanglihu, northern Zhejiang province during the Tang Dynasty; probably around the late 9th or early 10th century. The celadon glaze is the perfect match to the ‘olive egg’.
Moving into the Northern Song dynasty, about AD 1086 – 1125 there is a fabulous bottle with a copper rim mount (Ru ware), within the same collection. It hales from Qingliangsi, Baofeng County, Henan province. The translucent blue is caused by iron oxide with low levels of titanium dioxide. The titanium provides a green tone to the blue. Although coal firing was prevalent at the time in this region, it seems that the Ru ware potters used wood-fired kilns. The alchemy of temperature, technique and materials has given birth to a colour that resembles an Araucana chicken’s egg. Can this be a coincidence or were the Chinese potters inspired by their own livestock and the rhythms of their domestic lives? There is a pleasure that is difficult to surpass, when one opens up the chickens at dawn. Sometimes a warm egg will be nestled in the hay, in the early morning light and the colour can be arresting. There are a pair of sisters that consistently lay eggs the colour of a qingbai glaze. When one sees these beauties, it is difficult to believe that the glaze colours and the egg shells are not directly connected.
I have always been inspired to produce shades and tones in the glazes that are reminiscent of my prize eggs. Imagine my delight when I found the Sir Percival David Collection (then housed at SOAS, now at the British Museum – http://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/galleries/asia/room_95_chinese_ceramics.aspx ) for the first time. Some stunning pieces shared the characteristics in colour and texture of my hens’ eggs.
I have provided some photographs of the eggs. My suggestion is to visit this breath-taking collection at The British Museum. If time does not allow, one could view some of the plates in one of the BM’s collection of publications, “Chinese Ceramics, Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection” by Regina Krahl and Jessica Harrison-Hall, from the comfort of one’s own armchair as winter draws in. Another excellent publication is The Percival Foundation of Chinese Art: A Guide to the Collection by Stacey Pierson.
Early Spring marked the advent of travel to the far-flung post of the Silk Road, Japan. A wonderful friend, Alix Divine, invited me to join a small group from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, specialising in Asian art. My immediate interest was, of course, the Six Old Kilns of Japan; Bizen, Tamba, Shigaraki, Seto, Echizen and Tokoname; of which we were to visit two.
Bizen ware is known as some of the oldest pottery in Japan and began with the production of earthenware vessels during the Kofun Period (300 AD). The primary characteristics of Bizen ware are that it is burnt for many days, unglazed, while the ashes of pine wood fly throughout the kiln causing ‘gomma’ or ‘sesame seed’ marks. Rice straw, wrapped around or resting on the pots, determines the colour and appearance of the body and produces a bright and attractive rust marking.
Whether you are familiar with Bizen or not, I highly recommend a visit to the Bizen Pottery Traditional and Contemporary Art Museum, prior to your kiln visit in order to fully understand the complex variations in the firing techniques.
The pots were fired in tunnel kilns that were built half submerged in the ground and many potters came together to fire communally at the great 30 to 50 metre long kilns. One cannot help thinking of the sheer scale of these firings and the massive kilns; the size of which would consume our own garden, along with the chickens and asparagus! These communal kilns produced until the end of the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The potters were protected and Bizen ware was found throughout Japan and was particularly prized for the tea ceremony.
The highlight of our visit was meeting the 17th generation of Bizen potters who were kind enough to show us their kilns, beautiful stacks of pinewood for firings and their exquisitely organised studios; a lesson in ergonomics for us all.
Whilst fashionable tastes wax and wane for these unglazed, natural pots, one phrase from the museum returns to my mind and that is: “The beauty of Bizen pottery is born from the becoming one of nature and man”. Having travelled so far, as a porcelain potter, that one phrase illuminated the point of Bizen ware. It satisfies a yearning in man to be at one with the earth and nature and one can only respect that.
Further East and near Kyoto, Shigaraki presented a wealth of dragon kilns, climbing up the hillside with numerous chambers and a full firing taking place; apparently for several weeks under constant supervision. So I left Japan in awe of their ceramics, meticulous cloud pruning, curatorship of historical material and had also experienced some culinary peaks.
Inspired on my return, I set about developing a new and subtle glaze, which would allow the texts to be appreciated without distraction. I was full of intrepidation when I opened the kiln as I had mixed the batch late at night and found I was short of quartz. I ran the firing anyway. It was still slightly warm when I opened the kiln and the light was warm and golden as the studio faces East. The glaze had worked. I was transported back to a happy afternoon in Damascus, being introduced to fine pastries stuffed with ‘Kashta’, a type of delicious clotted cream flavoured with rose or orange water. So, this glaze is for Anissa Helou, the Culinary Queen who was responsible for that happy day. If you would like the recipe and firing details, I would be more than happy to share my luck with you.
If you would like to read more about Japanese ceramics, you can visit
Anissa Helou’s website is at
With thanks also to Dr Nicole Rousmaniere, Professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the University of East Anglia.
‘Sussex Pottery’ conjures up the image of that particular type of earthenware or ‘brownware’ as it is affectionately known by some, produced in the county from the late 18th century up until the 20th. Indeed, pottery has been made in the county since medieval times, serving the rural communities with deeply functional items such as flagons, flasks, hot water bottles, butter churns and even roof tiles; humble and beautiful, in their own right, to the farming villages which they served.
I learned this type of pottery at school under the expert tuition of a devoted potter, using clay from Stoke, St Thomas’ body. Handbuilding, coiling, throwing and rolling were the order of the day; yet I had a yearning for something else. I wanted to make a different type of vessel that would combine functionality with beauty. We experimented with glazes, but none of the colours spoke of the tranquillity and serenity that I sought. I knew about porcelain, but the cost was prohibitive. What I didn’t know, until decades later, was that a white body was needed to carry the celadon hues that I imagined.
Moving on several decades, I now have a quiet studio where I work mainly in porcelain. All the bowls are hand thrown on the wheel, the glazes made up to adapted recipes and then fired at around 1200 degrees centigrade in an electric kiln. In addition to learning to throw in porcelain, I study classical Arabic so that I can read and write out the texts onto the porcelain. Historically, the writing materials would consist of colbalt brushwork under the glaze or lustres painted on the surface. I use both, in addition to a specially adapted ceramic pen to write more extensive texts, between the first and the second firing. It’s a time consuming business, but one that gives me the greatest pleasure. Due to the exchange of artistry between the East and the West, along the Silk Road, Arabic texts were found on ceremonial bowls in the Imperial Court during the Tang Dynasty and the highly prized material of porcelain made its way out of China in an Easterly direction. It is this particular exchange of ideas that fascinates me; the influence of one culture upon another. Whilst my work does not fit in the mould of what is viewed as ‘Sussex Pottery’ (I don’t allow brown glazes in the studio) I hope that the intrigue of the studio will unfold on these pages and the images will provide some of the tranquillity, in form and colour, that I sought.
On a less esoteric journey, I will unfold my first foray into using a reduction kiln where the oxygen is leached out of the kiln, causing the fine and subtle array of celadons that were developed in China, Japan and Korea. This will be the real alchemy of ceramics and I look forward to sharing it with you.