The pear-shaped body gradually narrows as it rises to a tall, slim neck terminating in a mouth with slightly thickened lip, the vessel supported on a wide foot surrounding the recessed base. With the exception of the flat foot rim where the impure, somewhat coarse off-white porcelain is visible, the vessel is glazed overall, inside and out, with a smooth, relatively thick, lustrous, café-au-lait colored glaze. The images of deep basins on front and back, each containing a colossal arrangement of three lush tree peony blossoms surrounded by a flurry of leaves and buds was produced in white porcelain slip applied over the glaze. An effective three-dimensional quality is achieved through the somewhat translucent quality of the slip, the nature of the brushwork, the varied depth of the slip that was scraped or scratched to produce details, and the three-dimensional painting of the basins. Four ruyi heads each suspending a single chained tassel are pendant on the neck.
An industry was established during the Ming dynasty in the borderland between southern Fujian and Guangdong provinces, predominantly in Pinghexian, Zhangzhou in Fujian. The wares are called either Zhangzhou wares or “Swatow,” an alternate pronunciation of Shantou, an important port in Guangdong.1 The name “Swatow” immediately brings to mind large, hefty dishes or platters, roughly finished with unglazed bases and gritty foot rims, covered with milky white glazes and decorated with boldly executed red, green, turquoise and black enamel designs, or the same with designs painted in underglaze cobalt. A variety of shapes was part of the mix. However, the real standouts were the monochromes, in either powder-blue or café-au-lait brown glazes, and their white-porcelain slip décor painted over the colored glazes, a slip which exhibits translucency and thus a gossamer-like effect when applied thinly. Large platters are the usual venue for this Swatow variant. The present bottle is a stunning example of a shape that appears to have been produced in much lesser quantity, an example from Indonesia illustrated here (fig. 1). The basin with floral arrangement design was a favorite especially on bottles with “garlic-bulb”-shaped mouths, which have survived in greater number than the straight-necked type as seen here and are well known from museum collections, three of which are shown here (figs. 2-4).
Excavations at Pinghexian in Fujian establish kilns there as a primary source, although not exclusive in the area, of the great variety of Swatow wares, including porcelain slip-decorated, brown-glazed ware (fig. 5). Materials salvaged from shipwrecks and examples in private and public collections indicate a very hearty export of Swatow wares especially to Southeast Asian countries. Although it is generally believed that such wares were exclusively for export, an inscribed piece in the British Museum proves otherwise. The lengthy inscription on the altar vase states that the donor of the vessel was from Pinghe country in Zhangzhou prefecture in Fujian: “The believer Hong Aiquan, from Hou Keng she, Sanjiaobao, Xin’an li, Pinghe county, Zhangzhou prefecture of the administrative district of Fujian, living in Wuweng Keng, happily donates a flower vase and prays for obtaining wealth, benefits and peace” (fig. 6).2 Although this contradicts the accepted view of the exclusive export status of the ware, that the immense majority was for export is not up for debate. Interestingly, a fragment of such a vase was published from the Pinghe kiln site excavation (fig. 7).
1. See Sumarah Adhyatman, Zhangzhou: Swatow Ceramics: Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries Found in Indonesia, Jakarta, 1999; Helen Espir, “The Discovery of Kilns Making ‘Swatow’ Type Wares at Pinghe in Fujian Province,” Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 60, 1995-96, London, 1997, pp. 37-46; John N. Miksic, Southeast Asian Ceramics: New Light on Old Pottery, 2009; and Zhangzhou yao, Fuzhou, 1997.
2. See Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 349. It should be noted that a garlic-bulb-shaped mouth bottle in the British Museum (fig 3) and one in the Rijksmuseum (fig. 4) have been attributed to Jingdezhen, in accord with the view of one major specialist of Swatow wares, given the relatively high technical quality of the brown-glazed wares.
Fig. 1: Brown-glazed bottle with straight neck and white-porcelain-slip décor of simple flora arrangement, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., after Sumarah Adhyatman, Zhangzhou: Swatow Ceramics: Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries Found in Indonesia, Jakarta, 1999, pl. 251, p. 182.
Fig. 2: Brown-glazed bottle with “garlic bulb”- shaped mouth and white-porcelain-slip décor of basin-and-floral arrangement, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., Seikado Museum, Tokyo, after Swatow Wares from the Seikado Collection, Tokyo, 1997, no. 63, p. 62.
Fig. 3: Brown-glazed bottle with “garlic bulb”- shaped mouth and white-porcelain-slip décor of basin-and-floral arrangement, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., British Museum, after Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 11:190 p. 348.
Fig. 4: Brown-glazed bottle with “garlic bulb”-shaped mouth and white-porcelain-slip décor of basin-and-floral arrangement, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, after Christiaan J.A. Jorg, Chinese Ceramics in the Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: The Ming and Qing Dynasties, Amsterdam, 1999, pl. 21, p. 43.
Fig. 5: Shards from a kiln in Pinghexian, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., after Zhangzhou yao, Fuzhou, 1997, pl. IX:1.
Fig. 6: Brown-glazed altar vase with white-porcelain-slip décor, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., British Museum, London, after Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 11:192, p. 349.
Fig. 7: Altar vase fragment from the Dongkou kiln site in Pinghexian, late Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., after Zhangzhou yao, Fuzhou, 1997, pl. XXXIV:4.