Last Tuesday members of the Oriental Ceramic Society gathered at the Royal Academy in London for the Annual General Meeting. Founded in 1921, members of the society represent some of the cream of the Asian art world and include collectors, curators, scholars and dealers of Asian art and ceramics.
After settling into a hushed, oak panelled room at Burlington House we were treated to the “latest hot off the shelf material” on Japanese Nabeshima ware in a lecture by Professor Dr. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere. Titled ‘Japanese Porcelain Not for Sale: Nabeshima Ware and Other Presentation Ceramics’, Rousmaniere’s lecture guided us through the fascinating history of Japan’s 400 year old porcelain tradition.
Japan first started producing porcelain in 1616; with China producing porcelain for an estimated 2000 years, Japan was a relatively late starter. As evidenced by the excellence of Nabeshima ware however, Japan had a natural flair for creating porcelain of outstanding craftsmanship and beauty.
Between 1603 and 1868 Japan had an Emperor but was in reality ruled over by a feudal military government called the Tokugawa Shogunate. Known as the Edo period, this is when production of Nabeshima ware began. Nabeshima ware is named after the Nabeshima family who first oversaw it’s production. In the 1600’s the Nabeshima family offended the Tokugawa Shogunate and as an apology they presented the Shogun with gifts of Chinese porcelain. Chinese ceramics had long been popular in Japan and the Nabeshima family continued to placate the Shogunate with annual presentations of high quality Chinese porcelain.
In the 1650’s the availability of Chinese porcelain in Japan waned, so the Nabeshima family began to present the Shogun with Japanese porcelain instead. The first Nabeshima ware was presented to the Emperor for approval in 1651; according to Rousmaniere this instance was recorded for posterity as after giving his approval, the Emperor died the very next day.
This presentation of high quality porcelain became a standing tradition with the peak of presentation goods occurring between 1690 and 1720. The distribution of Nabeshima ware was “strictly controlled” and these pieces were never available outside of court circles until the 1800’s.
Rousmaniere explained that in “ceramics in Japan are intricately related to textiles” and this is reflected in the “fantastic” patterns on Nabeshima ware that closely resemble textile designs. Nabeshima wares typically have a limited colour palette, make great use of cobalt blue imported from China and have characteristically even shading. They are admired for the exceptionally high quality with which they were executed and “pieces that were not perfect were destroyed”.
By the late 1800’s the Nabeshima family stopped funding the kilns that made these wares, yet production managed to survive and Nabeshima wares are still made in Japan today by the descendents of the original craftspeople. The Imaemon workshop in Kyushu is one such example where the technique of making Nabeshima porcelains has been passed down through the generations. This fantastic art form has not only survived but it has thrived, with craftspeople today producing innovative artworks that continue to delight and enthral.
To learn more about Japanese Nabeshim Wares visit the British Museum
Images by the British Museum