The most striking aspect of this flask is its unctuous glaze that varies in tone from a pale white to a brownish hue and displays a dazzling pattern of irregular crackles that evokes textures found in nature such as opaque jade which was popular for producing archaistic carvings. Inspired by the celebrated ge wares of the Song and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, its precise origins are still a matter of debate. Its name derives from the term gege, literally ‘elder brother’, in reference to an anecdote that circulated in the Jiajing period (1522-1566) about a family of potters who lived in Zhu prefecture, Zhejiang province. The elder brother, Zhang Shengyi, supposedly owned a kiln in the Longquan area during the Southern Song period (1127-1279), where crackled wares were made. The precise place of manufacture of these wares has however remained a mystery. Archaeological excavations have unearthed fragments of crackled wares resembling descriptions of ge in classical texts at the Laohudong kilns, Hangzhou, while further crackled wares were discovered at kilns in Longquan.
These understated wares mask the extremely complicated process through which they were made. Their thinly potted body was covered in multiple layers of glaze and successive firings, and their distinctive crackles were created during a meticulously controlled cooling process that allowed the glaze to contract more than the body. Attempts at reproducing the crackled glaze of geyao at kilns in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, began already in the early 15th century, and examples of wares covered in ge-type glaze are known with Xuande reign (1426-1435) marks. The crackles of these ge-type wares were often stained to enhance their prominence and where the white porcelain body was visible at the foot a dark-brown slip was applied to recreate the so-called ‘iron foot’, characteristic of the prototypes.
Crackled wares of the Song dynasty feature in Ming texts, including Cao Zhao’s Gegu Yaolun [Essential criteria of antiquities], from 1388, the most influential guidebook on the connoisseurship of artefacts. The serendipitous character of the crackled glaze evoked nature and its unpredictability and thus became a favourite among scholar officials. It is in the Ming dynasty that poetic remarks about this glaze began to appear. These include baijisui (hundred crackles), jinsi tiexian (golden threads and iron wires), alluding to the overlaying of smaller and larger crackles of different colour, ‘accumulated foam and stringed beads’, referring to the tiny bubbles in the glaze, and ‘purple mouth and iron foot’. These describe characteristics that were expected to be found also on reproductions of Song geyao, such as this piece.
The crackled ge glaze is seldom found on vessels of this shape and indeed this piece appears to be unique, making its attribution difficult. In The Alan Chuang Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Hong Kong, 2009, p. 100, Julian Thompson discusses the dating of this piece, noting that it’s roughly-cut foot, together with its combination of a well-known early 15th century shape and the much-admired ge crackled glaze, suggest an attribution to the latter part of the Ming dynasty.
The form of this piece was well-known in the early 15th century and was inspired by Middle Eastern prototypes in metal or pottery. Two Yongle period (1403-1424) flasks of this form, covered in a white glaze are illustrated in Imperial Porcelains from the Hongwu and Yongle Reigns in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, pls 71 and 72, the first in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the second unearthed at Jingdezhen, together with three blue and white examples, pls 68-70.
This flask was once in the collection of the Rt. Hon. Rolf, 2nd Baron Cunliffe of Headley (1899-1963), or Lord Cunliffe, one of the most important collectors of Chinese art in England and a prominent member of the Oriental Ceramic Society. He began collecting in the 1940s and over the years amassed a vast collection of ceramics of all periods as well as archaic bronzes, jades and snuff bottles. Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek in Provenance. Collectors, Dealers and Scholars: Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America, Great Haseley, 2011, pp. 132-133, recall his playful and informal approach to displaying his collection.
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