Found in the world ceramics room of the V&A museum, this eighteenth century figurine is a little behind the sartorial times. The delicate blush which is barely visible on her eerily white face might deepen to a rosier hue, were she to know that her outfit was nearly a century out of fashion. She seems unperturbed however, staring directly out at the viewer in a challenging manner. Her face is wide and almost lunar-esque, with all of its features a little too centralized to be naturalistic. Whilst her posture is upright and firm, the corner of her cape and the ceramic folds of her skirts are brought to life by an imaginary gust of wind, bringing a sense of movement to the otherwise static design.
Standing at 75 cm tall, made from porcelain and decorated with coloured enamels, this figure originates from Jingdezhen in China and was made between 1735-45. Located on the south of the Yangtze river and in close proximity to the Gaoling Mountain where the raw materials of clay and white stone needed to make pure porcelain were in ample supply, the city of Jingdezhen was for centuries the most prolific and specialized centre of porcelain production in the world. From the eleventh century craftsmen in the city were producing wares not only for the imperial court and the domestic market, but also for global trade. It is believed that this figurine belonged to this latter category of export goods.
Whilst regional details of her costume have led to suggestions that the figurine was intended as a depiction of a woman from either the Netherlands or a member of the Swabian peasantry from south Germany, it seems somewhat futile to attach too concrete a label. In reality the design of this figurine was brought largely from the imagination of a Chinese craftsman who, it is most likely, might never have come in to contact with a European woman. Although made in the first half of the eighteenth century, particular details of the figurine’s outfit – the ruff for example – had long gone out of fashion in Europe, fuelling the idea that the craftsman who made this piece, and others like it, could have been working from earlier European prints as a point of reference. With this in mind, when looking in closer detail at the intricate brushwork which has been used to pick out the patterns on the fabrics, the multiple folds which bring three dimensionality to the ruff collar which she wears around her neck, and the cross-hatching on the bodice, it is possible to see the influence of the lines created by printmakers tools.
Whilst she stands alone in the display case, her design was not unique – she would have been made in a mould before being decorated by hand prior to firing. In addition to this the suggestion has been made that the figurine might have been part of a pair, perhaps with a male figure, and this would certainly make sense were the piece intended for display on a mantle piece or bracket. Indeed, the relatively large size of this figurine, in comparison to others of its kind, would suggest the intention that it would be displayed in some position of prominence within the European home as a much valued luxury object. Both a symbol of wealth and status, this figurine would have held the same cultural acumen as serving the best imported tea, although in a far more elite and expensive fashion.
Even today to the untrained European eye such as my own, there is something quite wonderfully weird about this figurine which is somehow both familiar and unfamiliar in equal measure – something which no doubt would have made it such an unusual and fascinating object to the European customer base. The exotic nature of her origins and material would surely have been of greater appeal than the recognizably western features of her dress.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about this object is how it embodies simultaneously the connections which existed across the globe during this period, and how great the physical and cultural space between these two cultures remained. The fact that printed images were probably used as a source of inspiration in the design of this object, where a living subject was absent, demonstrates something extraordinary about the monumental significance of the development of printing technology and the dissemination of information across vast geographies. However the finished product with her slightly odd attire and facial features results in, as the V&A database informs us, ‘an image as arresting and unrealistic as many European representations of Chinese people made at about this date.’
On the side of the European consumer, the knowledge of the country in which the figurine originated and the technological culture of which it was a product would probably have been equally absent. As curator Luisa E. Mengoni states, in the publication produced to accompany the V&A’s 2012 exhibition Porcelain City, outside of China keen collectors of Chinese porcelain had never heard of the city of Jingdezhen, despite its phenomenal output and the wide global diaspora of its wares. It was not until the twentieth century that factories began to use their own names and individual skilled porcelain painters would sign their work as artists in their own right.
With this widespread lack of knowledge therefore the individual who purchased this figurine, intrigued by the fashionable glamour of the exotic, would perhaps of been unaware of the technological advancements in the complex art of porcelain making which this particular figurine represents – an art which European producers had fought tirelessly to imitate. Whilst ceramic centres all over the world struggled to master the basics, during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the craftsman of Jingdezhen were refining their well honed skills. In addition to adding a greater percentage of china clay (kaolin), pink and white were added to the painting palette whilst the refinement in the firing process of the glazes allowed craftsmen to create the most delicate of hues.
So unbeknown to the European household on whose mantelpiece she might have proudly stood, whilst her ruff might have been a century out of vogue, the palest of pink blushes on this particular figurines cheeks demonstrates that in fact, in many ways, she was right on the cutting edge.
Hannah Lee –
Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.
© Hannah Lee, 2014. All Rights Reserved.