Review by Christiaan J.A. Jörg
The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History

Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 440 pp.; 24 color illus., maps, bibliography, index. $36.95 (hardcover).

Ceramics from China can be regarded as one of the earliest examples of the true globalization of material culture. Exports started early, and in the Tang dynasty (618–907) ships with porcelain cargo sailed the Asian seas. Caravans traveling the Silk Road distributed fewer quantities of ceramics but were able to reach trade centers in Mongolia, India, Central Asia, and Iran. Chinese wares dating from the ninth century and later were found in the waste heaps of Fustat in Egypt, while excavations in Indonesia and the Philippines have yielded many examples of Longquan celadons from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). The varied contents of the Sinan Wreck (ca. 1323) were destined for Japan, and sherds of early blue-and-white Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) porcelain were embedded in the walls of houses in Mombasa (in present-day Kenya) on the east coast of Africa.

Porcelain spread farther west when the Portuguese entered the Asian scene in the early sixteenth century and shipped limited quantities to Lisbon. Trade in Chinese porcelain received an enormous boost in the early seventeenth century when the Dutch East India Company became involved, flooding the northwest European market with tens of thousands of pieces each year. When the Dutch were joined later by the English and the French, Europe became a primary customer for Chinese manufacturers. Spanish ships operating from the Philippines supplied South and Central America, and California Indian tribes are known to have used arrowheads made from late-sixteenth-century porcelain sherds. North America, initially dependent on supply from Europe, started its own porcelain trade with Canton at the end of the eighteenth century. It can be stated that China held a monopoly on porcelain, especially until the first half of the seventeenth century, and supplied a global market. The strong points of its porcelain were obvious: hard-fired, thin and light, easy to clean, and available in many different shapes. The exotic decorations in contrasting underglaze blue on a white ground enhanced its appeal.

After an interlude of Japanese porcelain from Arita because of civil wars in China during the second half of the seventeenth century, competition began in earnest in the early eighteenth century, when European porcelain factories started producing their own wares, Meissen in Saxony taking the lead. Later in the century hard-fired earthenwares, such as the fashionable products from Staffordshire in England, became less expensive alternatives for European porcelain.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, porcelain from China was widely regarded in the West as too traditional and unfashionable. It was banished to attics and cellars or simply thrown away until collectors became interested in the arts and crafts of the past during the mid-nineteenth century. Chinese and Japanese export porcelains, especially grand and lavish pieces, became collectible items in their own right. Collectors often bequeathed their treasures to the museums that were being founded at that time all over Europe, thus establishing the great and extensive collections of Oriental porcelain that can now be admired in Europe and the United States.

This condensed survey of the triumphal journey of Chinese porcelain across the world may serve as an introduction to a fascinating book by Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. This truly is a tour-de-force cultural history of a single manufactured product. The perspectives provided by the author are highly interesting, but the details are sometimes baffling.

Usually a prospective buyer of a book such as this scans the contents, reads parts of the introduction and/or conclusion, browses, and then decides. Much will be missed if The Pilgrim Art is approached in this way because Finlay, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, uses porcelain as the starting point for an enormous variety of mini-essays on closely and loosely related subjects. The porcelain he deals with is mainly Chinese; other Asian porcelain producers (in Japan, Korea, Vietnam) are mentioned as relevant within the Chinese context, as is Thai stoneware. European porcelain (mainly Meissen) is mentioned in a similar way, and so is English Wedgwood. Almost no attention is given to traditional art-historical themes such as stylistic developments; instead, one reads about Chinese geology and clay deposits, about the appreciation of jade, the history of Confucianism, and the importation of horses. Finlay also deals with the politics of the Japanese shoguns, barter trade by the East India Companies in Asia, and the Jesuit missions in China. To my delight, he extensively discusses eating and drinking habits in Europe since the Middle Ages. But there is so much more, and within all these various subjects he tackles other aspects, shifting from one theme or period to another in a single paragraph. Finlay connects facts and quotations in surprising ways, bedazzling the reader with his many mental turns. For me, the wealth of much minute but interesting historical data was overwhelming, stimulating, and sometimes irritating: Why did I not know this?! The continuously shifting perspectives and the inclusion of so many details also make this a quite complex book in which one easily can lose one’s way. But then, how rewarding it was for me to discover the first Western description of tea drinking by Luis de Almeida (1525–1583) on page 193.

Although Finlay’s discussion of porcelain includes other ceramics and general trade aspects, throughout the book is the meandering line of how porcelain from China influenced material culture all over the world. Trade was the medium for ceramic interactions, and if I may make a point of criticism here, I really missed a discussion of the shipments of porcelain in the 1620s–50s from China to Japan (the ko-sometsuke wares) by the Dutch and particularly by the Zheng family, the Ming “pirates” who controlled the China Sea and facilitated so many new porcelain shapes and decorations.

Something has to be said about the first part of the title of the book, The Pilgrim Art, which I think is distracting. It is duly but not convincingly explained (p. 4) as referring to the journey of porcelain in general by using as an example a late Ming bottle shaped after an Islamic metal model and said by Finlay to be made to order for King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556–98). The bottle is decorated with an armorial crest copying the obverse of a Spanish silver eight-reales coin (cover and fig. 1). In my opinion, porcelain distribution had nothing to do with pilgrimage, but was serious business, and its journey was no spiritual quest. The bottle itself, with its long and fragile neck, was not practical for travelers or pilgrims; more likely it was used to serve wine at home. Nor was the bottle made as a memento for the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1581, as stated by the author, because it is now generally dated to circa 1600 or later.[1]

The notes and bibliography are a treasure trove, and I have already ordered books I had never heard of in my own specialist field. How Finlay ever found the time to read all these titles escapes me. However, it is strange that not a single website is mentioned—researchers today cannot work without the internet, and the websites containing information that was used in the text should have been referenced. The index is extensive but imperfect. Because this book has a confusing structure, the ability to retrace all the names, places, and subjects, even if mentioned only once, would be very helpful.

Finlay warns us that historians and art historians are different types of scholars who write different types of books (p. 11). Although there are exceptions to this observation, I tend to agree. The difference, and contrast, is usually revealed in the emphasis placed on illustrations: for the art historian they are intrinsic to writing, documenting arguments, whereas the historian often uses them simply to embellish the text. Perhaps Finlay (or the publisher?) should have heeded his own warning: the twenty-four illustrations of ceramics in the book have been haphazardly selected, do not add to our understanding in a structured way, show too many European pieces compared to the emphasis given to Chinese wares in the text, and are huddled together in one section in an old-fashioned way.[2] In fact, they could have been omitted altogether.

This history of intercultural influences is in itself a bridge between the worlds of the economic historian, the art historian, and all those who suffer from la maladie de porcelaine. Highly recommended!

Professor Emeritus Christiaan J.A. Jörg
Leiden University, The Netherlands

Ceramics in America 2012

  • [1]

    This specific type of eight-reales coin was struck in Segovia during the reigns of Philip II (1556–98) and Philip III (1598–1621) of Spain. It shows their arms, Castille and Leon, quarterly. The other side of the bottle shows a scholar in a landscape and a servant carrying a book. Other examples of this type of bottle, apart from those mentioned by Finlay, are in museums in Dublin, Tokyo, and Lisbon; see Jessica Harrison-Hall, Catalogue of Late Yuan and Ming Ceramics in the British Museum (London: British Museum Press, 2001), p. 282, in which she dates the London bottle to 1590–1620. I would like to draw attention to the border of tulip-like flowers encircling the coin image, heralding the transitional designs of such flowers in the 1630s and 1640s.

  • [2]

    The pieces illustrated are mostly from the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. In the exhibition “Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe,” the history of ceramic interactions was presented in an excellent, art-historical way; see the accompanying catalog by Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates, Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 2000).