Every now and then I find a piece—a mystery—that is quite unlike anything else I've collected in the past. I'm certain that the piece "has age." I perceive that it has quality. And I know that I like it aesthetically. But the questions remain: who made it, where and when? In time, I've learned to trust my intuition and make the leap. Only rarely have I come to regret such a purchase.
This vase, which I found in America, is the second such piece I've uncovered in 30 years. The first, purchased 25 years ago, is identical except for its matte chocolate brown glaze, a bit crazed (and it's safely ensconced in my private collection—alongside the other chocolate brown ceramics I love so dearly). When I found this piece, I did not question whether I should buy it (I did). But I did question who made it, where and when.
This piece wears a classic sang de boeuf glaze—known as "oxblood" to us English speakers. Such glazes were first developed in China in the late 1600's. By the 1700's, Europeans had gone c-r-a-z-y for this rare, exotic and very difficult-to-produce coloration. China was not giving away her secret! But she was happy to produce, sell and ship the works to a hungry Western consumer. Trade with Europe was novel, profitable and increasing (that is, until the Opium Wars and other Nineteenth Century conflicts disrupted free and easy trade).
In the West, in the Eighteenth Century, a collection of precious Chinese ceramics (including oxblood) represented the height of taste, refinement and financial wherewithal. Try as they might, Western ceramicists could not figure-out how to duplicate the glaze ingredients (which includes copper oxide) and the firing (a complex "reduction" process in an oxygen-free kiln). Any red glaze was highly temperamental; one small change in the glaze ingredients, temperature or firing time (not to mention the multi-step processes) could easily change a red from nice to ugly. What makes the Chinese achievement even more impressive is considering the relatively primitive kiln technology of the late 1600's: brick or mud kilns, wood for fuel, unsophisticated temperature gauges, and little flaps or windows which could be opened or closed to regulate the heat.
Eventually, by the time this piece was made, Western potters had access to more reliable and easier-to-use oxblood glazes. But the exoticism and allure of the color has remained strong ever since. And the sang de boeuf color remains associated with the earliest Chinese ceramics imports.
As you see, I did purchase this second mystery vase. And, after vacillating, I decided to offer it for sale in my shop (though it would look good with my growing collection of oxblood ceramics!). The corseted form is decorated with a series of "terra-cotta" sunflower stems. It has a strong Art Nouveau sensibility—with a foreshadowing of the Art Deco movement to come. Click on the photo above to learn more about it.
Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well! Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (www.LEOdesignNYC.com).
We also can be found in Pittsburgh's historic "Strip District" at Mahla & Co. Antiques (www.mahlaantiques.com) or in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania at The Antique Center of Strabane (www.antiquecenterofstrabane.com).
Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only). 917-446-4248