The David Vases
By Lily Hannah Spencer
In English-speaking countries “China” has two meanings. It is the country in East Asia with a population of 1.3 billion people and, according to the IMF, the largest economy in the world, but it is also a common name for porcelain. This material has come to symbolise Chinese culture more than any other material or object, and, of the many designs, colours and shapes of porcelain, large blue-and-white (青花) vases are the archetype. Most people associate this kind of porcelain with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) but its production can actually be traced to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), when China was under the rule of the Mongol Empire. After the Mongol invasion from the North, many potters fled to the South, resulting in the flourishing of the famous Jingdezhen dragon kilns. These enormous kilns were larger and more sophisticated than any on Earth, while the clay was so pure that demand for Chinese porcelain products stretched across the Mongol empire, into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The blue-and-white style, with its large shapes, thick rims and busy under-glazed designs, was a significant departure from the far more delicate and simple porcelain of the Song dynasty (960-1279).
The earliest-dated and most important examples of this famous style are the David Vases of 1351. They are named after Sir Percival David, the famous collector, whose vast collection of Chinese ceramics is now held and displayed by the British Museum in London. These were altar vases, made as a donation to a Daoist temple and are particularly remarkable, not only for their excellent state of preservation, but also for the long and detailed inscription that is included on the necks of the vases. These give, not only the precise date and location of manufacture, but also the name of the commissioner and the person to whom it was donated. It is unusual to be able to accurately date early artwork, even to the correct year, but here we are told the exact day.
These vases are the archetype of blue-and-white porcelain. They stand at almost two feet tall and are covered in well-defined illustrations in deep cobalt blue. They have bands of the traditional peony motif and the central body is decorated with dragons, phoenixes and clouds. The shape derives from ancient bronze altar jars - it was not uncommon for ancient bronze shapes to inspire those of later porcelain pieces – and the handle rings are in the shape of elephant heads.
While this style has come to be seen as quintessentially Chinese, these vases were in fact the product of pre-modern globalisation. The Mongol Empire stretched from the Eastern coast of China to Eastern Europe, enabling the growth of international trade along the Silk Road, facilitating the travels of explorers, merchants and diplomats, the most famous of whom was Marco Polo. Luxury goods, minerals and cultural practices were exchanged, resulting in a cross-fertilisation of imagery, materials, shapes and colours, all of which can be seen incorporated in the David Vases.
The vases are physically the combination of the pure white porcelain from China, China’s technical expertise and the mineral cobalt (used to make the characteristic blue that we so associate with China), which, in fact, was imported from mines in Kashan, Iran. In addition to this, it should be noted that elephants are not native to China, so their presence as a motif on the vases can only be the result of international influence. It is also difficult to ignore the resemblance between the plantain leaf arrangement in the top band of the vases and the capitals of ancient Egyptian and Persian columns. To the rest of the world, these wares signify Chinese culture, with the name of its material being synonymous with its origin, but they also signify and encompass the influence of foreign rule and international trade. It is this that makes blue-and-white porcelain so important and visually captivating.
In the twenty-first century, Chinese billionaires are frantically buying up all and any Chinese porcelain on the international market, inflating their prices, in an attempt to reclaim their culture from foreign collections and trap these artefacts within the confines of the Chinese government’s antiques mobility laws. While attempts to return significant cultural artefacts to their homelands is an understandable instinct, one must remember that these pieces, particularly blue-and-white porcelain, are the products of many cultures and were only made possible through international labour and trade. A large proportion of Chinese Yuan and Ming dynasty porcelain was originally made specifically for the international market; large dishes, incompatible with Chinese cuisine, decorated in geometric non-figurative designs, for example, were made for Islamic consumers. While the David Vases were definitely made for a Chinese individual, many historians have suggested that the blue-and-white palette itself was created to tap into a popular aesthetic in the Middle East. In a globalised art historical context, we must widen our view of art history to include the art of other cultures and to protect and respect these cultures. Part of this, however, is the retention of artwork within international collections to give as wide an audience as possible the opportunity to study and admire them.
Krahl, Regina and Jessica Harrison-Hall. Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir David Percival Collection. London: British Museum, 2009.
The British Museum website
The China Online Museum website
The Sotheby’s Auction House website
The Khan Academy website