A selection of ceramics through the ages (5 second delay) Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology The Collections:
PotWeb: Ceramics online
@ the Ashmolean Museum
Early Europe & Near East
Classical to Medieval
Europe from 1500
Oriental & Islamic
Prospectus -- Ceramics in the Ashmolean
Japanese Ceramics in the Ashmolean

A potter's workshop attributed to Kawahara Keiga

The part of the collection of Japanese ceramics for which the Ashmolean is best known is the collection of Export porcelain, covering the period from the beginning of the trade with the Dutch in the 1650s to the end of that trade in about 1740. This collection, now published (Impey, 2002) is one of the most extensive in the west.

Prehistory (before about 500 AD) and the early historical periods
A small selection of middle Jomon pots, vigorously modelled in apparently abstract designs, and decorated with rope-twist (jomon) patterns is supported by a small collection of provenanced potsherds. The great earthenware grave-sculptures, Haniwa are represented by a caparisoned horse's head, and by a figure of a goose; these, formed on the basis of tubes of clay, stood outside the key-hole shaped tombs of the early historic period.

Medieval ceramics and the early modern period
From earthenware, Japan turned to stoneware under the influence of Korea, Chinese influence came in waves at different times, and stoneware imitations of Chinese porcelain became fashionable. In fourteenth century Seto, these imitations were not even made on the wheel, though the Japanese had used the wheel for centuries, but were hand built. Stoneware is still a strong tradition in Japanese ceramics, in spite of the introduction of porcelain techniques at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Mino; the first painted ceramics of Japan
Ceramics decorated in metal oxides under a transparent glaze began in Mino (near present day Nagoya) in the late sixteenth century, and at Karatsu in Kyushu very shortly afterwards. Many of these were made specially for the Tea Ceremony, but equally, many were almost mass-produced with minimal but strong decoration.
Painted Shino dish from Mino, c. 1580 AD
The origins of porcelain in Japan
The techniques of porcelain differ little from those of high-fired stoneware, and the first Japanese porcelains were made in Karatsu kilns in the very early seventeenth century. These shoki-Imari (early Imari) wares developed rapidly in sophistication, provoking competition from China (the so-called Tianqi wares). In the mid century, the Dutch East India Company started to buy and then order Japanese enamelled porcelains for shipment to Europe.
The Museum has a large collection of provenanced kiln-site potsherds of this and the later period

The export trade, c. 1650- c. 1740
This is the great period of the porcelains made for the Dutch, for export either to South-East Asia and the Near East, or to Europe. These are the Arita, Imari and Kakiemon wares so familiar from their presence in so many great European houses, and from the innumerable imitations and pastiches produced in factories all over Europe. This is the strong point of the Ashmolean's collection.

       •To the Japanese export porcelain pages

Imari bottle-vase for the export market c. 1670 AD

Domestic market porcelain
The most sophisticated of the porcelains for Japanese use, that is, not for the export market, are the Nabeshima porcelains, supposedly made for the Lord of the Arita area, Lord Nabeshima. These are of astonishing variety and of the highest quality. Other wares include the decorated Kyoto wares and the white Hirado wares. A great proliferation of small local kilns making cheap and cheerful blue and white makes classification of these folk-wares extremely difficult.

Nabeshima dish, rhododendrums probably early 18th century AD

The new export trade; the Meiji period
The opening up of Japan to outside trade caused a major revolution in the ceramic industry and new factories attempted to cater to European taste with varying degrees of success. Prominent among individual factories were the Kinkozan factory of Kyoto, and the Kozan factory at Ota, the one developing the Kyoto tradition, the other making every conceivable style, always of high quality, as fashion demanded. Today, Japanese artist potters are among the finest anywhere.

Dish in Nabeshima style by Imaemon XIII c. 1970 AD

What PotWeb can achieve

The Japanese collections include 700 complete vessels and some 4,000 potsherds from 60 kiln sites collected by the curator of the collection, Dr Oliver Impey. A web-based teaching course on the history of Japanese ceramics is envisaged and PotWeb will make available an interactive display for visitors to the collection in the museum, educational packages will place the pottery into its historical, social and economic context.

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last updated: jcm/23-sep-2004