Song Ceramics: Still taking the world by storm

When first exhibited in the UK in the early 20th century, Song dynasty ceramics caused a sensation in artistic circles and sparked a revolution in studio ceramics. With their delicate glazes and pure forms, Song wares lay in stark contrast to the bright, fussy designs of Ming and Qing wares that had previously been coveted by collectors.

In the latest Asia House lecture ‘Bring Me a Glaze Like the Sky After Rain: Imperial Ceramics of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties’, Professor Stacey Pierson talked us through the National Palace Museum in Taipei’s sumptuous collection of Song ceramics. “I’m a big fan of the National Palace Museum” proclaimed Pierson “there are several pieces in the collection I would gladly steal!”

The title of the talk refers to the beautiful coloured glazes of the rarest imperial Song ceramic type. Legend has it that a Song emperor commissioned a ceramic with a glaze “the colour of sky after rain” and the result was the soft, blue-grey glaze of Ru ware.

The Song dynasty ruled China for some three hundred years, from the 10th to the 13th centuries AD. A period of innovation, many of the great Chinese inventions emerged in the Song, including the first paper money, gunpowder, the compass and some of the most accomplished ceramics the world has ever seen.

The Northern Song controlled most of inner China and its capital, as the name suggests, was based in the north. In her lecture, Pierson identified three types of imperial ware from the Northern Song; Ding, Ru and Yazhou. Categorising imperial ceramics, says Pierson, is “so complicated”, but can be loosely defined as wares made on commission for courtly use.

Ding stoneware has a characteristically a “lovely off-white” colour; the high magnesium content makes the surface very smooth and oxidation in the kiln produces an ivory tone to the glaze. Pierson explained that the clay used is ideal for sculpting as it holds its shape and doesn’t distort when fired, qualities which make it ideal for creating pieces such as this child-shaped pillow.

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Another famous ceramic of the Northern Song is the enduringly desirable Ru ware. Popular with 18th century Chinese connoisseurs, initial production was very restricted and consequently Ru wares are now incredibly rare. Ru wares are “beautifully potted” says Pierson, the design is fairly conservative with little decoration. The focus is on simplicity and delicacy, as can be seen from this lotus-shaped bowl.

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In 1127 the dynasty lost its northern territory and retreated south of the Yangtze, establishing a new capital in modern-day Hangzhou. The loss of northern kiln sites meant the Song court had to look elsewhere for their ceramics. A typical Southern Song ceramic is Guan ware; made in Hangzhou itself, Guan was an imitation of Ru ware. The glaze was deliberately crackled allowing the “chocolate brown” body to show through.

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Complex, rare and almost impossible to replicate, the imperial wares of the Northern and Southern Song are the stuff connoisseur’s dreams are made of. The seemingly omnipresent Qianlong Emperor zealously collected Song wares and later, British collector Sir Percival David selected the choicest pieces for his impressive collection – now on display at the British Museum.

Despite their age, the pared down aesthetic of Song ceramics makes them seem astoundingly modern. They are just as popular now as in the days of the great Qianlong Emperor or the roaring twenties, with pieces selling in the tens of millions. When questioned about the problems of forgery, Pierson stated that she’s “yet to see a convincing Ru ware”. The clays used by Song kilns have long since run out and the lustrous glaze that defines this ware has “so far eluded the forgers”.

Anyone confronted with these pieces in a museum can only agree with Pierson that there is something very special about imperial Song ceramics – “ceramic has no value, it is what you do with it that counts”.

Images courtesy of Asia House.

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