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The Gate of Heroes

Reviews of the Special Interest Day
led by Lars Tharp
on November 16th 2019
Lars Tharp photo by Jonathan Cross

Session 1 – The Gate of Heroes

It was a pleasure to have Lars as our lecturer today, and I must say how enjoyable he made the day.  Although we know him from the Antiques Roadshow in particular, he explained that his special interest is in “Artefacts”.  Today he wanted to present the subject of ceramics, and particularly Chinese porcelain, which the Europeans tried to copy.  Pre 1710 ceramics were earthenware, whereas porcelain, with its body of clay mass, was white and translucent.

Lars showed us a piece held at the British Museum, dating from 1410 and valued at £20million.  Then he showed us a porcelain piece which was over 1,000 years old – plain white and translucent, the clay of which had been delicately carved.

example from Arts Society image gallery
Chinese porcelain picture

In the 1500’s, influenced by the likes of Bellini and Montagna, the Italians began to introduce colours into porcelain copies, gold and blue predominantly.  Francesco I Medici wanted copies of Chinese porcelain made in blue and white.  Trade with China had grown with the Portuguese and Spanish explorers establishing trade routes – Vasco da Gama was just one of these, and our own Francis Drake brought back bounty from foreign ships including porcelain from China.  A kudos attached to these porcelain pieces, due to their rarity and the journey time taken to reach Europe.

Lars described the process of the manufacture of porcelain in China.  Although Europeans were permitted to stay in Canton, they were not allowed to travel to Jingdezhen, the source of the production of porcelain.  Its body is 99% kaolin (China Clay), mixed with granite, which is broken up by hand, and transferred to mills where it is further processed to create powder.

It was interesting to hear that, prior to painting pots, sketches are made on the clay, and that cobalt is used which turns to blue on firing.  Men do most of the work, but women tend to do the painting.  Pots are fired in Dragon Kilns for between 3 and 5 days, and thereafter stored.

Then came the transport of finished goods to Canton.  This involved a tortuous journey over mountains, with innumerable steps as an aid to those transporting the goods.  This travel route was defined by an edifice at the summit of one mountain pass – The Gate of Heroes.  From there the journey was almost continuously downhill into Canton.  Many other trades used this route, e.g. spices, tea, silver, silk and wallpaper.  In the 18th Century as many as 2 million pieces arrived in London, courtesy of the Honourable East India Company.

During the course of his lecture, Lars described several of his visits to China, with interesting and sometimes amusing anecdotes of his travels there, with photographs of various aspects and his experiences.  In summary, a fascinating talk by a personable lecturer – with no notes!

Philip Akroyd

Session 2 - Harlots, Rakes and Crashing China

We returned fortified by scrumptious refreshments to hear Lars’ second lecture.  He had outlined in his first lecture the sheer physical labour involved in bringing porcelain from its source in Jingdezhen to Canton, over mountain passes, across rivers and to the Gate of Heroes.  He now moved on to the 18th century, a time when the English supplanted the Portugese as leaders in the transport of and trade in goods from China by the East India Company.  By this time 2 million pieces of Chinese porcelain were reaching London every year.

Lars has studied in depth the work of William Hogarth (1697-1764) who in his art captured every important English and Chinese ceramic tradition not just porcelain.  Lars used three of his works in particular to contextualise these traditions by looking at items to be found in The Harlot’s Progress (1731), A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) and Marriage A-la-Mode (1743-45).  These show the hierarchy of pottery and items range from the finest tea pot to the everyday stoneware chattels of those of loose morals who have fallen on hard times.

Lars gave us an insight into the hardship of Hogarth’s early life; the death of siblings, the debtors’ prison for his father and the importance of Hogarth finding and keeping employment from an early age, the drudgery of his apprenticeship to a silver engraver at 14 and his determination to set up on his own at around 20.  Though a very good engraver, Hogarth wished to develop as a painter and worked with James Thornhill (1676-1734) to that end.

Hogarth print
William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress,
Plate 2: Moll as mistress of a Jewish merchant hides her lover.
Cosmetics, a theatre mask, and salacious paintings adorn her apartment.

Unusually Hogarth painted and engraved his own paintings, became financially successful and thus was able to choose his subjects.  He chose moral subjects and wanted to make statements about English society, to challenge the traditional view of this time that the rich lived virtuous lives.  He wanted his work to be read as a combination of the entertaining and a moral commentary, to combine satire and realism, to poke fun at the world of the nouveau riche.  Lars showed how certain themes begin to recur in his portraits and narrative series.  There are the urns, flowers that will die, references to mortality and the inclusion of a point of action to heighten anticipation in the viewer, the crashing tea tray, the precariously placed crockery, all hinting at the fragility of life.  Lars showed how Hogarth was obsessional about detail and achieved extraordinary levels of reality in his work, be it depicting the raw body of a chipped slipware dish, the stoneware beer bottles at the feet of the vicar and the harlot or the white stoneware made by English potters in an effort to compete with the Chinese.

porcelain bowl decorated with Hogarth print
Meissen porcelain bowl decorated with a print of
Hogarth's A Midnight Modern Conversation

European potters responded in different ways to all the Chinese porcelain coming into the west.  The Dutch focused on the production of blue and white Delph ware.  Another trend was for cream coloured lead glazed earthenware which could be stained with other colours.  By 1751 the Worcester porcelain factory was in production and there followed for decades a period in which, with no regard for copyright, Hogarth’s work was the subject of transfers used in the process, rubbed onto a glazed surface.  His work was sought after by royal collectors of copper plate printing, Meissen plates were produced with images taken from The Harlot’s Progress.  Wealthy English buyers commissioned porcelain from China requesting it be decorated with corruptions of Hogarth’s work.  Images from his Midnight Conversation found their way onto porcelain or brown stoneware punch bowls.  Even a hundred years later, images from his work were the subject of Staffordshire pottery models.  Whether it be earthenware, brown stoneware, white stoneware or porcelain, Lars found it for us in his scrutiny of Hogarth’s works.

Afternoon Session – Handling

The members responded to the offer by Lars to discuss any ceramics they brought in and so, after a hearty lunch, we returned to find two trestle tables set out to display a range of artefacts.  Before taking up the first item, Lars shared with us some behind-the-scenes titbits about life on the road with the Antiques Roadshow, how long people are prepared to wait to be seen, how many experts are involved and most importantly how little of rarity or value is found in the midst of all the items examined.  In his estimation of the 15,000 items appraised for each show, they are lucky if 40 are worthy of a place in the final transmission.  As we listened to him quizzing the owners of various pots, bowls and platters, it was possible to pick up tips about valuing ceramics.  For example:

  • Age and value do not go hand in hand - the most expensive porcelain is 18th century, not that made 500 years ago
  • Weight is a helpful feature - if a Canton bowl was a genuine 18th century artefact it would be light and not transfer printed
  • Marks on Chinese ceramics indicate quality not date and not having a mark is not a problem
  • A pair of objects will often be mirror images
  • Japanese porcelain has gone down in value in the last 15 years and Chinese export ware has not yet gained the interest of collectors who prefer imperial ware
  • Just because something is rare does not mean it will be valuable
  • Experts might date a piece of porcelain by looking at, for example, the colour of a rose, not available till introduced by Jesuits around 1740
  • You can test to see if a piece has been restored by taking a pin and sliding it over the surface.  It will dig in where a piece has been sprayed in its restoration.  And always check the bits that stick out like a nose or tail as they are most prone to breakage and get restored
  • Go to Room 95 in the British Museum to see the finest collection of porcelain.

Viv King

Related link

Lars Tharp's website