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THE ALEXANDER DING BOWLRosemary ScottSenior International Academic Consultant Asian ArtThis magnificent Ding ware bowl has a most prestigious provenance. It was previously in the collection of William Cleverly Alexander (1840-1916)(fig. 1), who was a wealthy banker and keen connoisseur and collector of Chinese and Japanese art. He was also an early patron of James McNeill Whistler, who painted portraits of Alexander’s daughters and devised decorative schemes for both his London home and his country house in Sussex. In his obituary for William Alexander in 1916 the British artist and critic Roger Fry noted the remarkable good taste which guided Alexander’s acquisition of the pieces in his collection. William Alexander collected Chinese ceramics and jades, was a member of the London Burlington Arts Club, and loaned items from his collection to a number of important exhibitions – including the exhibition held at the Burlington Arts Club in 1895. He loaned the current basin to the ground-breaking exhibition of Chinese Applied Art held at the City of Manchester Art Gallery in 1913 (see Catalogue of an exhibition of Chinese applied art: bronzes, pottery, porcelains, jades, embroideries, carpets, enamels, lacquers, etc., City of Manchester Art Gallery, 1913, cat. no. 774). Following his death, Alexander’s daughters bequeathed paintings from his collection to the National Gallery in London. In May 1931 his daughters sold Alexander’s Asian art at Sotheby’s London in a two-day sale – including the current bowl, which was sold as lot 48 and bought by the respected London dealers Bluett & Sons. Such was the quality of Alexander’s Chinese pieces that a significant portion of the collection was bought by the revered British collector Sir Percival David. This impressive Ding ware bowl is not only beautiful, but also a remarkable achievement on the part of the Northern Song potter who created it. Open-ware vessels of this unusually large size are rare amongst Ding wares, and posed a particular challenge to the potters and kiln masters. Ding wares were fired in kilns known either as mantou kilns (饅頭窯 bread bun kilns) or horse-shoe shaped kilns. These kilns were typical of north China in the Song dynasty and were cross-draught kilns capable of achieving the high temperatures - in the region of 1300oC - needed to fire the high alumina Ding ware clay successfully. The disadvantage of the mantou kilns was that they had a relatively small firing chamber, while the refined Ding white vessels needed to be protected from kiln debris by being placed in saggars (fire clay boxes), which took up additional space within the kiln. In order to allow the firing of more than one vessel within a single saggar, without leaving a disfiguring mark on either vessel, stepped setters and ‘L’-shaped ring setters were developed. The Ding wares could then be fired using the fushao覆焼 upside-down method, in which the mouth rim of the vessel was wiped clean of glaze and it was fired upside-down, standing on its mouth rim. Thus, pieces of ascending size could be fired on a stepped setter, while dishes of the same size could be fired in the ‘L’-shaped ring setters. The upside-down firing of a bowl of this size would, however, have been real test of the skill of both the potter and of the kiln master, since there would have been a significant risk of warping and/or cracking during firing. Given that, in addition to the attendant risks, the cost of fuel for firing the kilns was very high, and only a few large pieces could be fired at a time, the cost of manufacture for a vessel the size of the current bowl would have been considerable. It would not have been undertaken lightly, and would almost certainly have been in response to a specific order from an important patron. Consequently, Ding open-ware vessels of this large size are very rare.The interior decoration on extant examples of these large bowls is predominantly either fish or lotus, while the exteriors can be plain, decorated with lotus scrolls, or, as in the case of the current bowl, carved with bands of low-relief over-lapping petals. It is likely that very few of these large bowls were ever successfully fired, and thus few extant examples have survived into the present day. An example with lotus on the interior and low-relief over-lapping petals on the exterior is in the National Museum of China, Beijing (see A similarly decorated bowl (fig. 2) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei is illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain, Taipei, 1987, no. 32, while a bowl with lotus on the interior, but a plain exterior is illustrated in the same publication, no. 30. A large Ding ware bowl with lotus on the interior and lotus scroll on the exterior is in the collection of the Fujian Provincial Museum (illustrated in中國文物精華大全 – 陶瓷卷 Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 270, no. 334). A further example with lotus on the interior and low-relief over-lapping petals on the exterior is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum. San Francisco, object number: B60P1491. Interestingly, a slightly smaller bowl with lotus on the interior but undecorated on the exterior was unearthed from a Korean, Koryo dynasty tomb dated AD 1152, at Kaesong, and is now in the Tokyo National Museum (see定窯白磁Teiyo hakuji (White Porcelain of Ding Yao), 根津美術館Nezu Bijutsukan, Tokyo, 1983, no. 121).Lotuses were an enduringly popular motif in all areas of the Chinese arts due to their links with Buddhism, purity, harmony and beauty. The best known of all the Chinese literary references to this flower is the work entitled On the Love of the Lotus (Ai lian shou愛蓮說) by the Song dynasty literatus Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤1017-1073), who also expressed the Confucian idea that the lotus represented the ‘gentleman’ or ‘superior man’, junzi君子. In classical paintings all parts of the lotus – the flower buds, the flowers and their seed pods, and the leaves – are often all depicted. The fact that the lotus displays buds, flowers and seed pods at the same time is felt to represent the three stages of existence – past, present, and future. Such depictions are very rare on Song dynasty ceramics, and most Ding wares are decorated with lotus scrolls, or relatively simple flowers and leaves. The current bowl is especially rare in following the painting tradition and clearly showing the lotus seed pod as well as the flowers and leaves. THE PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED LADY


12. 3/8 in. (31.5 cm.) diam.
From the collection of William Cleverley Alexander (1840-1916), and later the Misses Alexander
Sold at Sotheby’s London, 6 May 1931, lot 48 (for £150)
Bought through Bluett & Sons, London (for £175)
R.L. Hobson and A.L. Hetherington, The Art of the Chinese Potter, London, 1923, pl. XLIV
Manchester City Art Gallery, 1913, no. 774


Priscilla Kong
Priscilla Kong




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