Serving Tray in Leaf Form
This tray was made in the kilns at the great Chinese porcelain centre of Jingdezhen. Fashioned in porcelain, it was moulded to take the form of a leaf. The porcelain blank (plain, white, glazed but undecorated vessel) was sent down to Guangzhou (Canton), where it was decorated over the glaze in enamels, and then gilded. Thus the first firing took place in the high-temperature kilns of Jingdezhen, and its decoration was carried out at enamellers’ workshops in Guangzhou. A multitude of small, private firms operated throughout Guangzhou, purchasing fired porcelain blanks of all qualities, decorating and re-firing them in small muffle kilns. The muffle kilns used for this second firing were simple, round brick structures, about one metre high and three-quarters of a metre across, fitted inside with an iron wheel-like shelf that could be lifted in and out of the kiln using an iron hook. The shelf was densely packed with artefacts, carefully placed so that the objects did not touch one another during firing or they would be spoiled. Large items were put at the base, covered with clay lids made of the refractory material used to line kilns and make saggers, and smaller items were put on top of the lids. The process could be repeated to form several tiers, but obviously great care needed to be taken when unloading the kilns of this rather precarious load. The muffle kiln was lit around the sides using charcoal, and items on the iron wheel were turned using the iron hook, so that firing was uniform.1 Kiln operators protected themselves from the fierce heat with hand-held circular shields. Such a simple operation could be carried out in a very limited space, and required relatively little capital outlay, and thus could be run by small family concerns.
The decoration on this tray catered to Middle Eastern taste, for dense bands of flower scrolls are interspersed with bands of deep blue, and with cartouches containing inscriptions in both Hebrew and Arabic. The design was then embellished with lavish gilding. In the centre is an inscription in Persian/Arabic: “He! Year 1268 (1851-52). 116 6 waw. Wholesomely and with pleasure!” The significance of the numbers 116 and 6 and the letter waw in the middle have not been established. Beneath the rim are two inscriptions in Hebrew, saying “Drink thy wine with a merry heart!” (Ecclesiastes 9:7) and “Healing and life.”
It is interesting to consider whether the tray was made for a Jewish, Arab or Persian client. Both Arab and Jewish merchants were involved in the trade with China, while porcelain was also valued in Iran.2 A clue to possible customers comes from a cup and saucer in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that have the same inscription in Hebrew (Accession Numbers: 2013.1011.1 and 2013.1011.3a-b). They originally came from the Jewish Sassoon family, who had links with India, China and England.3
1. Firing was generally achieved at relatively low temperatures of about 700-800°C.
2. Chinese porcelain for the Middle Eastern market, especially Iran, was made in some quantity in the mid-19th century. A typical example is a Chinese famille rose plate inscribed with the date AH 1269 (AD 1853) in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Accession Number: 552-1878) that was acquired in Iran in the mid-19th century.
3. For more information on the Sassoon family see Rose Kerr, Phillip Allen & Shih Ching-Fei. 2016. Chinese Ivory Carvings: The Sir Victor Sassoon Collection. London: Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers.