When I was a student on the Harrow pottery course, we went to the British Museum to examine several ceramic pieces at close quarters. In the picture above, taken ten years ago, Professor Nigel Wood and student Chris Sutherland are handling a white porcelain miniature garden, a plum tree in a rectangular bowl, made in Dehua, Fujian province, China, in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
It’s part of the British Museum’s collection donated by P. J .Donnelly, who amassed hundreds of pieces of Dehua porcelain, known in the West as blanc de Chine. The British Museum now has the largest collection of blanc de Chine in the UK.
These miniature gardens are called penjing (the Chinese version of bonsai) and the plum blossom in China is one of the “three friends of winter”, the others being pine and bamboo. They can still be found together in Chinese gardens.
The object is 23 cm high, 9 cm wide and 7 cm deep. It was made to be viewed from one side: it has a front and a back, the back with less detail than the front, and is quite flat in section. It appears to have been made as a unique piece, i.e. not cast or moulded. The twigs, blossoms and buds are very finely made and some of the ends of the twigs have broken off. Although a convincing representation of penjing, it has been cleverly made so that the almost-vertical branches don’t sag or deform in the kiln.
There’s a variation in colour on the surface of the object, some areas being darker than others. This may have been caused by kiln smoke or by a fire in Donnelly’s house, which destroyed part of his collection.
The penjing is exhibited in a case of objects from “the miniature world”, which includes small carved gourds, brush-stands, tiny cages for crickets and similar objects which may have been found on the scholar’s table, for use, contemplation and admiration. It’s a charming and delicate object, glowing white, worthy of contemplation. The explanatory card in the case quotes lines from the Tang poet Li Bai (701-962), replete with Taoist references.
The Chinese scholar class was a creation of the imperial administration, which recruited by competitive examination based on Chinese classical literature. The civil servant was likely to be posted far from home and to have wearisome duties for which his studies did not prepare him. He could turn from this uncongenial work to contemplate nature, collect beautiful objects and display his good taste. The relative cultural value of works of art was set out in manuals of taste, which were also consulted by uneducated merchants who might aspire to culture. The growing of penjing was a pastime that even scholars of limited means could pursue, to imagine places they were unable to visit and to raise their spirits.
The British Museum piece is dated between 1725 and 1775. Donnelly suggests that penjing from a later period were made for a more humble and less admiring market than that of the Chinese scholar gentleman. “The smaller trees,” he says, “(about 9 in. [23 cm.] high) in rectangular or round tubs are more familiar objects, and are much later. Between the wars they came to Europe in barrels of sawdust. You felt among the sawdust and drew them out, hoping to find one unscathed, which was the case surprisingly often, so effective was the protection offered by this packing.” (P. J. Donnelly, Blanc de Chine, Faber and Faber, 1969)
The Dehua kilns were very conservative, and in London’s Chinatown today you can buy, for under £100, modern Dehua guanyin figures virtually indistinguishable from those made in the 1700s. During the Cultural Revolution they were forced to adapt, and started making figures of Mao Tse-Tung. These are now thought to be kitsch, and you can buy them too.