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overwhelmingly beautiful, finely potted with shallow rounded sides rising from a wide flat base raised on a slightly splayed foot, the thin walls divided into six evenly spaced lobes by small pinched notches each extending to a vertical groove, fully enveloped in a luscious caesious coloured glaze, a tactile delight, suffused with a latent crackle now and then accented with darker veins of cracklure, the glaze thinning at the extremities and along the lobes to a purplish colour and, at times, pulling gently to reveal the dark body beneath, conjuring the occasional beauty spot, the underside heightened with three delicate 'sesame-seed' spur marks, two Japanese paulownia wood boxes
Pride of Emperors, Desire of Connoisseurs, Model for Potters
Ru guanyao, the Ru kilns' 'official ware', plays a role quite extraordinary in the history of China and her art. Hardly any other artefacts have elicited feelings as fervent as the small and deceptively modest Ru ceramics. Of outstanding rarity, historically connected to patriotic sentiments of a grand era, conceptually to philosophical ideals of life in tune with nature, and aesthetically to a sophisticated taste for artlessness and excellence, they have obtained an almost mythical aura.
The Northern Song court (960-1127) is recorded to have been unhappy about the white ceramics it received from the Ding kilns, apparently on account of the unglazed rims then characteristic of Ding wares. Thus it commissioned the kilns at Ruzhou, south of the capital, Kaifeng in Henan province, to produce celadons. The potters were ambitious, as they aimed to hide all evidence of the somewhat rough ceramic body by covering it all-over with luminous, mostly crackled glazes in various tones of a subtle blue-green. Fully enveloped in this glossy green coating the pieces almost looked as if carved from jade. To achieve this, they had to be precariously balanced in the kiln on pointed stilts. This technique of firing fully glazed vessels on small spurs rather than making them stand on an unglazed footring, was not invented by the Ru potters; it had been practised already at other manufactories before. The Ru kilns, however, perfected it by making the marks on the underside as tiny and tidy as possible and by reducing their number to the absolute minimum of three, thereby creating a distinctive characteristic for their wares. Already in 1591 Gao Lian flatteringly referred to the typical spur marks on Ru vessels as 'sesame-seed' markings.
Ceramics, as a non-precious material made valuable through craftsmanship perfectly accorded with the ideals of China's elite at the time, of simplicity, modesty and naturalism. With their demanding criteria for judging proportion, glaze structure, tonal range and tactility, Song connoisseurs in many ways anticipated modern design movements, and Song ceramics still provide models of style and craftsmanship today. Although this taste was originally borne by the class of China's educated scholar-officials, its sophistication did not remain unnoticed for long and the court soon fully embraced it. Ru official ware with its superficially simple aspect, whose focus is the overwhelming beauty of its glaze subtly set in scene by elegant, finely potted forms, embodies the quintessence of this taste.
Although the exact time of the production of Ru ware is still under debate, all scholars agree that it was made for an extremely short period only. Generally a space of some twenty years is proposed, from 1086 to 1106, although some scholars have argued for a slightly longer period. In any case, it was supplied to the court during only two reigns, those of the Emperors Zhezong (r. 1086-1100) and Huizong (r. 1101-25). We do not know yet in how far these emperors had any personal influence on its production. Zhezong ascended the throne as an infant and until 1093 power was de facto in the hands of the Empress Dowager Gao, neither of them known for a particular interest in fine works of art; Huizong on the other hand has gone down in history as one of China's greatest imperial connoisseurs, patrons and collectors. This was the first time that the court had expressly ordered ceramics to be made for its own use – rather than picking the best of those supplied in tribute.
When in 1127 the Song lost the northern part of their glorious empire to the Jurchen and were forced to relocate the court to south China, they no longer had access to the official manufactory, which quickly declined to the level of a popular kiln. This lack of fine ceramics in the new capital, Hangzhou, must have served as a poignant reminder of this painful loss of territory and hegemony. As a quick return to the north became more and more unlikely, Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127-62), the first to rule out of Hangzhou in the south, in 1151 received a well-publicized gift of sixteen pieces of Ru ware from a high official, Zhang Jun – a symbolic patriotic gesture that clearly few individuals would have been able to match. Zhou Hui, writing on Ru ware in 1192 already said "... today it is very difficult to obtain", Cao Zhao, writing in 1388, reported the same, "... examples are very difficult to obtain...". In order to remedy this permanent shortage of wares of Ru quality, the Emperor set up new official kilns in Hangzhou to make ceramics especially for the court modelled on this coveted ware from the north that was reminiscent of happier days.
By the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Ru official ware was deemed completely 'unobtainable' or 'to have ceased to exist'. Indeed its fame appears to have been based more on hearsay than on knowledge of actual items, with literary passages copying each other and by doing so, increasing the aura of this fabled product of the past. Its colour was said 'to approach the blue of the sky after rain', and agate was reputed to be mixed in the glaze. Although in the Song only selected pieces are supposed to have ended up at the court, whereas pieces rejected by the court were allowed to be sold, examples do not seem to have been available even to copy. In spite of its towering fame that surpassed that of the fabled guan and ge wares of the south, no copies of Ru were made in the Ming dynasty by the Jingdezhen porcelain kilns, which imitated anything of earlier periods that was deemed worthwhile, and certainly guan and ge.
It remained for the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35) in the Qing dynasty to revive the Ru style. An inventory of the seventh year of Yongzheng (1729) lists thirty-one Ru wares carefully kept in lacquer boxes, probably imported from Japan, all of them brush washers of various shapes and with various inscriptions (Lin Baiting, 2006, p. 25). Although we do not know for certain whether they had all been correctly identified, many of them are described as having inscriptions and can thus be matched to pieces extant in Taipei today. And these were not the only Ru vessels held in the palace storerooms. The Emperor sent originals of various types from the palace in Beijing to the porcelain kilns in south China to have them copied, or else to hold them up as standards of quality and stimulants for inspiration. In a list of different porcelains ordered to be made for the Emperor, preserved in the Jiangxi tongzhi [Annals of Jiangxi] of 1732, two types of Ru ware are recorded to be copied at Jingdezhen from Song originals: 'Uncrackled Ru glaze with copper-coloured paste, copied from the colour of the glaze of two pieces of the Song dynasty', and 'Ru glaze with fish-roe crackle of copper-coloured paste, copied from the colours of the glaze of a piece of the Song dynasty sent from the imperial palace' (Bushell, Oriental Ceramic Art: Illustrated by Examples from the Collection of W.T. Walters, New York, 1896; reprint London, 1981, pp. 194f.). Not only Ru copies were produced, however, but a whole range of vessels with various greenish glazes was inspired by Ru.
The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95) contributed to the fame of the ware by composing poems on Ru and having them engraved on pieces from the imperial storerooms. At least twenty extant Ru pieces bear his inscriptions, although he did not always correctly identify them. Of eighteen different poems composed for Ru pieces, only two actually mention Ru ware. One of the Yongzheng Emperor's copies even seems to have fooled his son, as the Qianlong Emperor had a lengthy poem inscribed on it, taking it for a Song original (China. The Three Emperors 1662 – 1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 197). Yet the Song original sent by his father to Jingdezhen to be copied (fig. 1) must have been one of his favourites, too, since he had a special wooden stand made for it provided with a small drawer to hold a miniature album of his own paintings, calligraphies and seals.
In the West, the identity of Ru ware was long unknown. In 1915, when R.L. Hobson wrote his seminal work Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, he still stated (p. 52) "Though no authenticated example of Ju [Ru] ware is known in Europe, it is impossible to ignore a factory whose productions were unanimously acclaimed by Chinese writers as the cream of the Sung [Song] wares." It was the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1935/6, which brought some enlightenment about this unknown ware as the Chinese Government had lent ten examples identified as Ru.
In China many attempts had been made to locate the kiln site, but it was only in 1986 that kilns considered to be the official Ru manufactories were identified at Qingliangsi, Baofeng, Henan province. A large number of sherds belonging to typical Ru official ware vessels were recovered. Remnants from the Baofeng kilns show that the potters also made ordinary, non-official wares, and that they were more ambitious than the extant items let one to believe. Whereas virtually all extant pieces of Ru official ware are small and plain, experiments were made with many complicated sculptural forms, openwork designs, and detailed engraved decoration, of which no complete examples may, however, ever have left the kilns. Although other more recently excavated kiln sites are now sometimes mentioned in this context as the possible official kilns of the Northern Song period, in particular the Zhanggongxiang kilns located nearby, at Ruzhou, also in Henan province, finds from those sites do not match extant pieces of what traditionally is called Ru ware.
Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Clark's Ru Guanyao Brush Washer
The present flower-shaped bowl is – arguably – the most desirable piece of Ru official ware still in private hands. Among extant pieces of Ru ware, it is remarkable in three respects: first for its glaze, perhaps the most attractive colour, structure and texture available; second for its rare shape, with its six delicate, sharp points subtly accentuating the glaze colour; and third for its illustrious provenance, the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Clark being one of the most noteworthy ever assembled in the West.
The greatest asset of any piece of Ru ware is obviously its glaze. Small glazed test pieces discovered at the kiln sites and equally forming part of the Sir Percival David Collection attest to the high degree of care taken in the firing of Ru wares. It was the glaze that got ravishing reviews from connoisseurs of former dynasties, giving rise to poetic descriptions such as 'approaching the blue of the sky after rain'. In this respect, the present piece can stand up to the highest expectations. Yet Ru glazes vary widely, probably more so than those of any other Song green-glazed stonewares. Textual records since the times of Cao Zhao, who wrote the Ge gu yao lun [Essential Criteria of Antiquities] in 1388, made a clear distinction between pieces with and without crackle (often referred to as 'crab's claw markings') and invariably ranked the non-crackled variety much higher ("... those without markings are better still."). In the list of thirty-one Ru wares in the imperial palace, drawn up in the Yongzheng period, only one circular washer is singled out as being without crackle.
Since crackled Ru ware is much more common, a crackled glaze is often thought to be characteristic. In fact virtually all Ru glazes show some form of crazing; but whereas this becomes a prominent feature in a translucent glaze, it remains subliminal in an opaque glaze. It is this rare even, monochrome appearance of opaque Ru ware that Chinese connoisseurs, imperial or otherwise, unanimously preferred. Only one piece in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is said to fit this description and is rated as "unique in the world" (fig. 1): it is the narcissus bowl that was specially selected by the Yongzheng Emperor to be copied at Jingdezhen, and by the Qianlong Emperor to be associated with a booklet of his own paintings and writings. Because of its extraordinary even glaze, Sir Percival David reputedly found it difficult to accept this piece as a Song original rather than a Qing copy, when it was sent to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, for the 1935/6 exhibition (Lin Baiting, 2006, p. 24 and cat. no. 7). The bluish-green glaze of our present washer, with its even milky appearance clearly falls into this category of the most highly ranked 'un-crackled' Ru glazes.
In literary sources, even down to the Qianlong Emperor's poems, there is frequent reference to agate having been used in the composition of the glaze. This statement is still not fully explained, other than by giving the ware extra cachet by making it particularly precious. Agate was in fact mined nearby and is still unearthed in that area; yet according to Rose Kerr and Nigel Wood its inclusion in the glaze would have given "no real technical advantage but did no harm either" (Science and Civilisation in China, vol.5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part XII: Ceramic Technology, Cambridge, 2004, p.606).
This finely potted six-petalled flower-shaped bowl, probably intended for washing brushes after writing, is reminiscent first and foremost of contemporary lacquer forms, but similar shapes were also produced by other northern kilns. It is particularly rare among Ru wares, where only one other companion piece is recorded, formerly the pair to the present piece and now in the collection of the British Museum, London (fig. 2). It would seem to be the most desirable shape among Ru pieces still in private hands, all others being plain circular dishes or washers. Even at the kiln site sherds of related 'melon-lobed' shape are said to have been exceedingly rare, and only one slightly smaller example, reconstructed from fragments but only partially preserved, has been published (Fang & Xin, 2008, p. 83, fig. 54: 8 and col. pl. 96, figs. 1 and 3).
Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Clark of Fulmer in Berkshire formed their fabled collection mainly between the 1920s and 1940s, before Alfred Clark's death in 1950. He was an active supporter of the Oriental Ceramic Society and directly involved in the preparation of the 1935/6 exhibition in London to which he lent five dozen pieces. Asked whose collection Sir Percival David considered most highly, Lady David in an interview in 1992 replied "I think the Clark's", "The collection, I would say, was one of the finest. It was small, formed by two people with extremely good taste.... They... had a little room upstairs in which they kept their Song pieces in showcases around the walls ..."(Anthony Lin Hua-Tien, 'An Interview with Lady David', Orientations, April 1992, pp. 56-63).
This washer was one of a pair owned by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Clark. While the companion piece (fig. 2) was donated by the couple to the British Museum in 1936, Mrs. Clark, who survived her husband until 1976, seems to have held on to the present one until old age. It came to Japan sometime in the 1970s, where it has been kept with due respect ever since in paulownia wood double boxes.
The Worldwide Patrimony of Ru Official Wares
Today the worldwide patrimony of heirloom pieces of Ru official ware that can still be traced comprises only seventy-nine items. Virtually all of them are in Museum collections. Only six vessels are remaining in private hands besides the present piece: three of them plain circular washers, and three shallow dishes of which one is reduced in size (figs. 3-8). In addition, discarded specimens have been excavated from the kiln site, but mostly in fragmentary state.
In 1958 G. St. G. M. Gompertz compiled a list of thirty-one pieces of Ru ware outside of China, in addition to the ten sent by the Chinese Government to the London exhibition 1935/6; in 1987 Wang Qingzheng et al. published a list of sixty-five heirloom pieces of Ru official ware worldwide, which was updated to sixty-nine in a revised publication in 1991. Both lists, however, included pieces which today would no longer qualify as such. In a recent exhibition catalogue Degawa Tetsuro compiled a list of seventy pieces and published each one with information about its whereabouts, size and one or two images (Degawa, 2009, pp. 279-87). To this invaluable and reliable inventory, the largest ever published, can be added:
Two further small dishes in the National Palace Museum, Taipei;
one further small dish in the British Museum, London;
one further brush washer in the Röhsska Museum, Gothenburg (one of a pair in the Museum);
one brush washer from the Barlow Collection, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford;
one brush washer in the Meiyintang collection;
one brush washer from the Chang Foundation, Taipei;
one dish from Stephen Junkunc III, now in the Au Bak Ling collection;
one cut-down dish, also from the Junkunc III collection.
Two further pieces had been recorded in earlier publications (1923 and 1942), but are unaccounted for since and may no longer be extant.
Of these seventy-nine recorded items, twenty-one are in the National Palace Museum, Taipei; seventeen in the British Museum, London; fifteen in the Palace Museum, Beijing, eight in the Shanghai Museum, a pair in the Röhsska Museum, Gothenburg, Sweden, and single items in the National Museum of China, Beijing; the Tianjin Municipal Art Museum; the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka; the Hong Kong Museum of Art; the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the St. Louis Art Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Only six pieces of Ru official ware were ever sold at auction:
The bottle from the Eumorfopoulos collection, now in the Sir Percival David collection in the British Museum, London, was sold in our London rooms, 28th May 1940, lot 135.
The narcissus bowl with metal rim, later in the Ataka collection and now in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, was sold in our London rooms, 17th March 1959, lot 26, and again 24th February 1970, lot 1.
The circular brush washer from the K.S. Lo Foundation in the Hong Kong Museum of Art was sold in our London rooms 15th April 1980, lot 140.
The circular brush washer later in the Chang Foundation, Taipei, now in a private collection, was sold in our London rooms 15th June 1982, lot 252.
The dish from the Stephen Junkunc III collection, now in the collection of Au Bak Ling was sold at Christie's New York, 3rd December 1992, lot 276 (included in the exhibition 100 Masterpieces of Imperial Chinese Ceramics from the Au Bak Ling Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998, no. 1).
A fire-damaged dish with its rim cut down, also from the Stephen Junkunc III collection, was sold at Christie's New York, 29th March 2006, lot 401.
"...It remains to this day the supreme expression of the art of the Chinese potter..."
(James C.Y. Watt in Wen C. Fong & James C.Y. Watt, Possessing the Past, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996, p. 238).
Selected Bibliography on Ru Official Ware
Ju and Kuan Wares. Imperial Wares of the Sung Dynasty, Related Wares and Derivatives of Later Date, The Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1952
G. St. G. M. Gompertz, Chinese Celadon Wares, London, 1958
Wang Qingzheng, Fan Dongqing and Zhou Lili, Ruyao de faxian / The Discovery of Ru Kiln, Shanghai, 1987, revised English edition, Hong Kong, 1991
Ye Zhemin and Ye Peilan, eds, Ruyao juzhen / Collection of Porcelain Treasures of the Ru Kiln, Beijing, 2001
Zhao Qingyun, ed., Songdai Ruyao [Ru ware of the Song dynasty], Zhengzhou, 2003
Lin Baiting, ed., Da guan. Bei Song Ruyao tezhan / Grand View: Special Exhibition of Ju Ware from the Northern Sung Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2006
Fang Yanming & Xin Ge, eds, Baofeng Qingliangsi Ruyao / Ru Yao at Qingliangsi in Baofeng, Zhengzhou, 2008
Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, ed., Ruyao yu Zhanggongxiangyao chutu ciqi / Ceramic Art Unearthed from the Ru Kiln Site and Zhanggongxiang Kiln Site, Beijing, 2008
Sun Xinmin & Wang Guangyao, Henan xin chu Song Jin ming yao ciqi tezhan [Special exhibition of ceramics from famous Song and Jin kilns recently excavated in Henan], Poly Art Museum, Beijing, 2009
Degawa Tetsuro, Hokusō Joyō seiji: Kōko hakkutsu seika ten / Northern Song Ru Ware. Recent Archaeological Findings, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 2009