My passion: Song ceramics

Robert D. Mowry, Senior Consultant at Christie’s in New York, explains why these four Song dynasty Chinese vessels from the Linyushanren Collection are ‘the ultimate achievement in their techniques’

‘Ceramics are among the most complicated, most involved works of art,’ says Robert D. Mowry, Senior Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant at Christie’s in New York. ‘There are the clays, the glazes, the different decorative types; then there are the kilns and the firing temperatures. So many things have to be exactly right to achieve perfection.’ 

Song dynasty (960-1279) ceramics have straightforward shapes and, says Mowry, are mostly ‘characterised by light-coloured, subtly-hued glazes’. Though kilns often produced various types of wares, in general each was known for producing a specific type of ware. The Ding kilns, which are best known for their creamy white porcelains, also produced the short, conical Ding ware bowl (shown below), which with its black glaze over a white porcelain body, is ‘the rarest of the rare’. It features particularly fine partridge feather mottles — brown flecks which are splashed on to the surface of the glaze. Gaps in the glaze on the bowl’s foot-ring indicate where the potter gripped it with his fingers.

A highly important ding russet-splashed black-glazed conical bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). 7½ in (19 cm) diam, Japanese double wood box. Sold for: $4,212,500 on 22 March 2018 at Christie’s in New York

The Yaozhou kilns are best known for their celadon wares. The principal decorative motifs in Song dynasty ceramics with clear glazes are floral — lotus, peony or, in the piece the specialist examines, hibiscus. ‘Once the piece has been shaped, the potter will incise or carve the decoration, let it dry and then coat it with a glaze,’ says Mowry. ‘Once that’s dried it’s ready for firing.’ 

Cizhou pieces are more complex. As Mowry explains, one potter achieved a porcelain effect on a grey stoneware bowl by covering it in white slip, a mixture of finely ground clay and water. An outline of the floral pattern was then incised, and the excess was shaved away with a scalpel to reveal the floral decoration in light relief. 

As Cizhou ware progresses, this labour-intensive process is eventually replaced by painting. Shown below, this Song dynasty vase was first covered with a creamy white slip and then painted in black slip to depict fish swimming among aquatic plants. Details such as the fish scales were then incised with a pointed tool.

A very rare and important painted Cizhou 'fish' truncated Meiping, Northern Song-jin dynasty (960-1234). 9⅞ in (25.1 cm) high, Japanese double wood box. Sold for: $1,752,500 on 22 March 2018 at Christie’s in New York

These vessels were probably used for storing liquids such as wine, soy sauce and vinegar, but it is their subtle glazes, simple shapes and delicate patterns that make them special for Mowry. ‘These are the ultimate achievement in their techniques, and they still serve as inspiration for potters today,’ he says. 

These and other exceptional Song dynasty ceramics are offered as part of the The Classic Age of Chinese Ceramics — The Linyushanren Collection, Part III  on 22 March 2018 at Christie’s New York.

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