The National Trust’s ceramics adviser, Patricia Ferguson, has just published a book entitled Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces featuring highlights from the ceramics collections of the National Trust. It is a rich compendium of the many different types of ceramics you might encounter in a country house, describing how they were made, collected and used.
One of the entries in the book is a pair of Chinese porcelain wucai covered jars, made between 1660 and 1690 and now at Belton House. As Patricia describes it, wucai refers to the polychrome decoration of these wares, literally meaning ‘five colours’.
The design was first sketched out in cobalt blue and the vessel was then glazed and fired, whereupon the other colours were added in overglaze enamel, including iron red, iron yellow, copper green and manganese purple.
These porcelains, with their vibrant colours, were in great demand in seventeenth-century Europe. They were grouped together on cabinets, chimneypieces and overdoors – something highlighted in the current display about garnitures at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which Patricia helped to curate.
The pair of jars at Belton shows scenes from the opera Chang Sheng Dian (‘Palace of Eternal Youth’), about the tragic love story of princess Yang Guifei and emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (618-907). On one vase she is depicted seated on a terrace awaiting the emperor’s return. On the other Xuanzong is seen fleeing after having sacrificed Yang Guifei to appease his rebellious soldiers.
Other wucai jars show similar scenes, many still to be reidentified. Prints and illustrated books probably served as the sources for these designs, showing the cross-fertilisation between the different arts in seventeenth and eighteenth-century China.