Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Blue and White ceramics - Iran part 2

Blue on White ceramics: the reciprocal influence of Chinese porcelain on European and Middle Eastern ceramics - Iran - Part 2

Other essays on the history of BoW in IraqEgyptearly Iran, JapanChina, Turkey, Spain, The Netherlands, Italy and England.
I'm going to take this opportunity to note that most of my research has been done in the opposite direction of the standard approach. I have collected a large number of reference items, 627 to date. I've then sorted them spatially and made comments about the clusters, with a focus on the Chinese influence on the design elements. The main problem with this method is it utilises the dates and cultures ascribed to the items by museums and professional researchers. These dates are typically found through petrographical analysis (chemical analysis of the clay or glazes), recovery relationships, or through the designs and workshop marks on the items. Often the dates and locations ascribed to an item are quite broad and the method of arriving at these dates is rarely noted. As a result, this is a circular, self-referencing research project. If I wanted to do this scientifically, I could make my statements about the clusters and isolate the items that are anomalous. I could then read all the research papers regarding the regional pottery, geology and social impacts on the production. I could then determine if the anomalous items were appropriately assigned or should be assigned to a different culture/location/year. Unfortunately, I have neither the time, nor access to the appropriate resources. As this is arm-chair research, I'm going to have to be comfortable with circular referencing in the knowledge that some of my items have been incorrectly assigned. If I focus on the general trends rather than single items I should be pretty safe making sweeping generalizations as much as they irk me.

The extent of the Timurid Dynasty (1370-1506) courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Timurids & 14th/15th century Iranian ceramics

At the peak of it's power the Timurid Dynasty controlled Iran, Afghanistan, most of Central Asia as well as Pakistan, Syria and some of India. The capitol was based in Samarkland, Uzbekistan. In 1400, the Spanish ambassador, de Carvijo, noted that Tamur had forcibly relocated potters, weavers, armours, bow-makers and glass makers to the new capitol after the sacking of Demascus, Syria. The crafters were later released in 1411 by an edict from Ulugh Beg. This gathering of potters and their subsequent diaspora would have fostered the development of a more uniform style across the Timurid empire. The Tamurid dynasty also experienced a greater Asian influence than previously seen in Iran. This was in part due to the location of their capitol and partly due to greater trade along the silk road routes. Items collected from this period and not specifically labeled as being produced in Iran have been filed in the Pinterest collection under Uzbekistan.


A majority of the identified pieces from this time are tiles. Tiles from local monuments can be dated with reasonable accuracy and in all likelihood, are produced in the local region. Plates on the other hand are harder to identify without workshop markings or extant examples in a clearly datable deposit.

As discussed in an earlier essay, Kashan Iran was a major production hub of tiles in the 13th and 14th centuries. While a majority of these tiles were lustreware, some featured a blue border (1) and occasional blue highlights (2). Tiles produced in the 14th century started to sport a mix of turquoise and cobalt with white and red (3, 4, 5). The patterns on the polychrome tiles (6) closely resembles that lustreware tiles produced almost 100 years earlier (7). The colours are very reminiscent of Iznik (Turkish) items.

Item 4: Tile, Iran, 1420. British Museum item:1908,0804.5

Late Timurid items

Late Timurid BoW work displays a mish-mash of influences with Iranian/Iraqi inscriptions (8),  geometic Persian patterns (9, 10) and Chinese motifs (11). This indicates the ceramic production had settled down and was deriving it's influence from the east and the west. Dish 12 was created in 1475 and shows both double scroll and wave, and crest motifs popular in Yuan porcelain combined with fleshy peonies from the Ming dynasty. Plate 8 from a similar time frame (1450-1500) combines a central lotus flower with a distinctly middle eastern inscription. Other items display the classic Mingware cloud rim (13). Though there are few extant items specifically dated to the Timurid -> Safavid transition, it's clear the potters of Iran continued to copy antique patterns from Chinese items such as the decorative elements of dish 14.

Item 14: Dish, Iran, 1500-1550, Fritware decorated in underglaze cobalt. V&A item: 562-1905

Safavid Dynasty & 16th/17th century Iranian ceramics

The 16th century saw the rise of the Safavid dynasty which held much of Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Armania, Georgia, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan as well as parts of Caucasus, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the early 16th century, the capital was Tabriz, Iran, later moving to Qazvin, Iran for the late 16th century and then Isfahan, Iran for the 17th-18th centuries. As the capitol of the Safavid Dynsasty was based in Iran it strongly influenced the local cultural identity and provided secure trade routes and new technologies to the local industries. I will concentrate on the Iranian BoW traditions here and discuss other Safavid production hubs, namely Turkey, in a different post. Research note: Blue on White items from this time period are often called Kubachi after a town where many examples survived to the current day.


Though there is no documented evidence of ceramic production in Tabriz, some dishes (15) have shown a chemical similarity with tiles produced in Tabriz at the time. Interestingly, dish 15 sports a honeycomb design from late 15th century Mingware indicating the Tabriz artists were gathering their artistic influences from the East. Generally items produced in Iran during the Safavid Dynasty haven't been linked to a specific region or workshop. They do however display a distinct grouping of motifs. Though some scholars may disagree, I've gathered them into loose categories based on the majority of their design elements; Persian (16, 17), Iznik (18), Mid-Chinese (19, 20), Late Chinese (21, 22, 23) and Spanish (24). The range of Chinese motifs utilised is quite varied, and designs from the Yuan and Ming periods will often be displayed together. 

Item 18: Safavid dish, Iran, 17th century. Christies, Sale 8652, Lot 152

Stylistic reinterpretation

The influence of Chinese porcelain and the reciprocal influence of the middle eastern and European ceramics is the main focus of this group of essays. The high production levels of local potters in the 17th century and an opening in the market for BoW ceramics resulted in a plethora of extant items available for analysis. Many examples have already been presented of BoW ceramics featuring Chinese motifs such as lotus, dragons or even Buddhist symbols. The best examples of the copying of Chinese designs come from group of bowls and dishes created in China in 1600-1620 (25). The Chinese bowls feature Buddhist motifs and lotus flowers as well as the European touches. These items were produced specifically for the European market and featured Latin inscriptions such as SAPIENTI NIHIL NOVUM (to the wise man, nothing is new).  Bowl 26 is an Iranian replica, of the Chinese imitation of European styles. As such, the inscription is illegible. 27 is another example of pseudo-writing executed by Iranian potters when copying Chinese items.


During the 17th century, lustreware returns as a strong feature in the glaziers pallet. In addition to lustre over white slip (28), Iranian potters produced stoneware with white slip, cobalt underglaze and lustre  in a variety of forms, ewers (29, 30),  bottles (31), and flasks (32, 33). These items display uniquely Iranian motifs and though cobalt is utalised, doesn't feature any Chinese motifs. The return of the lustreware was perhaps sparked by a push for stronger cultural identity  to boost the empire in the waning years of the Safavid Dynasty. No central hub has been identified as the origin of the rebirth of lustreware however it seems to coincide with the establishment of the Iranian capitol at Isfashan in the mid-late 17th century.

Item 30: Stonepaste ewer, Iran, 1650-1750. British Museum, Item: 1913,1220.108



An examination of work produced in the mid to late 17th century reveals a production center in Kirman producing lovely BoW items.  At this time access to Chinese porcelain was restricted due to turmoil in China. This increased the market available to the BoW earthenware trade, resulting in the mass export of items from Iran into Europe which is likely the reason for the success of the Kirman potters.

The Kirman potters utilised Chinese motifs (34) but created an Iranian twist by displaying them in an various middle eastern formats. Jar 35is a perfect example of this, where the Chinese lotus has been painted in a lattice arrangement. Few 'pure' BoW items are available as the Kirman potters included reds and other colours to highlight design elements (36). In item 37, the BoW component is distinctly asian with free flowing designs while the red section shows the more rigid patterns associated with the Persian tradition. Many items display the geometrical influence of the Persian tradition combined with the the softer flowing blue on white designs (38, 39, 40, 41, 42).

The Kerman potters produced items for a broad export marketing including items combining Chinese designs, caligraphy and buddist symbology (43, 44). An elephant shaped kendi (Chinese drinking vessel) indicates that they also produced crude copies of Chinese forms (45). The crudeness may be the result of the different strength of the mediums earthenware vs porcelain and the ease in which they can be molded.

Kirman potters were also experimenting with cobalt glazes and slip to create negative design features . The stonepaste item would be dipped in slip before being coated in a thick layer of cobalt glaze. The glaze would then be scratched away to reveal the slip underneath or slip would be added over the glaze to create raised white decorations. While I've discussed this technique before, typically the potters utalised the slip as the main colour by scratching it away to reveal the earthenware beneath then adding highlights with glaze. This revival and alteration of the old form indicates the Iranian potters have managed to develop cobalt glazing techniques that are unlikely to ruin the design by running/bleeding into the white slip. The items created featured both Chinese floral designs (46, 47) and the geometric influence of the Persian style (48).

Golombek, L. Mason, R.B. Bailey, A. 1996 Tamerlane's tableware: A new approach to the chinoiserie ceramics of fifteenth-sixteenth century Iran. Mazda Publishers  ISBN 10: 1568590431

Golombek, L. Mason, R.B. Bailey, A. 2013 Persian pottery in the first global age: The sizteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Brill. ISBN 10: 9004260927

Milwright, M. 1999. Pottery in the written sources of the Ayyubid-Mamluk period (c. 567-923 / 1171-1517). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Vol 62, No 3. pp 504-518.

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