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Japanese pottery and the Tea Ceremony: 13th - 16th c.

Zen priests are linked with two very characteristic elements of Japanese culture: the exquisite simplicity of Japanese ceramics; and the polite formalities of the Tea Ceremony for which much of the pottery is designed.

In 1223 a Zen monk takes a Japanese potter, Kato Shirozaemon, to China to study the manufacture of ceramics. This is a period, in the Song dynasty, when the Chinese potters have achieved a perfection of simplicity. The Japanese, in the same vein, will evolve their own styles to rival this perfection.

The Japanese potter, returning home, establishes himself at Seto. This rapidly becomes a centre for the manufacture of pottery, with as many as 200 kilns in the district. Seto has retained ever since the status of the classical pottery region of Japan.

Much of the early Seto output is temmoku - stoneware cups and bowls with a black or iron-brown glaze, in direct imitation of the contemporary Chinese style. This becomes much in demand with the increasing popularity in the samurai class of the Tea Ceremony, in which a mood of rustic simplicity is required. But the most famous Japanese simplicity, that of raku, is the result of Korean rather than Chinese influence.


Tanaka Chojiro, one of a family of Korean potters living in Japan, is making bowls of a very recognizable kind. They are moulded by hand rather than thrown on a wheel, so their shape is uneven. They have a thick lead glaze, usually dark in tone but sometimes dappled or enlivened with a flash of colour. They seem primitive, but their apparently accidental beauty is of a kind to excite a connoisseur. They are perfect for the Tea Ceremony.

One such bowl is shown in 1588 to the influential Tea Master of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Tea Master awards its makers a gold seal inscribed with the single word raku ('felicity'). The bowls have found their name. And the Tea Ceremony has its best-known ware.

Kakiemon porcelain: 17th century

In the following century Japan makes another major contribution to the history of ceramics. In about 1644 Sakada Kakiemon, a member of a family of potters with kilns at Arita in northwest Kyushu, introduces to Japan the Chinese system of overglaze painting. In the 1670s his two sons, known as Kakiemon II and Kakiemon III, are producing exquisite wares of milky white porcelain, often square or hexagonal in shape, decorated with elegant and brightly coloured motifs of plants and birds. The decoration, covering relatively little of the surface, stands out with a special intensity against the white background.

This happens to be exactly the period when the Dutch are beginning to import Japanese wares to Europe, where the Kakiemon style becomes highly influential

Kakiemon plays an important part in the decorative style of the first European porcelain factories, just as Chinese blue and white determines the development of tin-glazed earthenware in Delft. In both cases the Dutch are the chief importers, and it is from the Netherlands that the fashion spreads. Meissen, leading in the quest for porcelain, is the first factory to make use of the Kakiemon style. But a craze for Kakiemon also travels early to England. When William and Mary arrive, in 1689, the queen brings with her an extensive collection. And Kakiemon motifs are much imitated by the earliest English porcelain factories, particularly Chelsea.

But this is three centuries after the arrival in Europe, also from the east, of tin-glazed earthenware.

Majolica, faience and delftware: 14th-17th century

Majolica, the first tin-glazed earthenware seen in Europe, reaches Italy in the 14th century when the painters of the region are moving into the heady excitements of the Renaissance. By about 1500 ceramic artists recognize the potential of large dishes decorated with vividly coloured scenes. This style, unprecedented in ceramics, becomes known as istoriato, meaning embellished with a story.

The scenes are of the kind which better-known artists of the time are painting in fresco or tempera. Indeed the designs of great artists often feature in majolica, copied from engravings. Such dishes are displayed in cabinets rather than used for a meal. They are an aspect of Italian Renaissance painting.

The earliest and most productive centre of the istoriato style is Faenza. Italian pottery of this kind reaching France becomes known as faience. When the French themselves begin to produce tin-glazed earthenware, the word enters general use. Potteries manufacturing faience are in business in Lyons (employing Italian potters) and in Rouen before the middle of the 16th century.

At much the same time Italian potters establish themselves in the Netherlands, the third great centre of European tin-glazed earthenware. There is a factory in Antwerp by 1525. But it is a little further north, in Holland, that a highly distinctive and popular style emerges.

In the early 17th century Delft becomes a centre of the developing ceramic industry. It is a period when the Dutch East India Company is beginning to import Chinese wares in large quantities, and when the potters of the Ming dynasty are producing beautiful ceramics with blue decoration on a white ground.

The popularity of this particular style of Chinese earthenware in Holland makes blue-and-white the natural style for the potters of Delft to imitate. Their products soon have great commercial success. And tin-glazed earthenware acquires its third and best-known European name, as delftware.

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