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.