Chinese ceramics at British Museum gallery

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At the entrance of the British Museum’s new gallery of Chinese ceramics, from the Sir Percival David Collection, is a pair of Yuan-dynasty blue-and-white temple vases known as the David vases. These 63cm-tall vessels are often cited as the most important pieces of Chinese porcelain anywhere. Their significance lies in the inscription on their necks, which tells us a man called Zhang Wenjin presented them to a Daoist temple in 1351. Because of this unique dating, they have become a kind of Rosetta Stone for Chinese porcelain.

I felt conflicted. I have great respect for the scholarship of people like Sir Percival, but, as a vase-lover, I found these incredibly important pots, well, a bit ugly.

Don’t get me wrong: these are magnificent examples of ceramic art, made with a sophistication of technique that potters in Europe were unable to match for 350 years. But I can’t help thinking that maybe scholars rate them not because they are particularly beautiful, but because they are rare, very early, uniquely dated and reunited as a pair by this renowned connoisseur. I find their shape fussy and a bit lumpen. The painted decorations seem pedestrian and the elephant-head handles kitsch.

I mentioned my disquiet to the curator of the gallery, Jessica Harrison-Hall, and to my surprise she agreed: the David vases are not very beautiful. She said that’s why they are not included in one of the 12 central cases containing highlights of this exquisite collection. Pieces deemed beautiful enough include sublime Qing-dynasty serving dishes painted with peaches and prunus blossom, and a Ruware brush-washer, decorated with fish so delicately incised, they are almost lost under the minuscule crackle of the glaze. The Chinese were making ceramics of this refinement in the 11th century, when the English were eating off bits of wood...

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