British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: Cloisonné decorated jar

Cloisonne jar with dragonJessica Harrison-Hall, British Museum

Cloisonne jar with dragon

Cloisonné decorated jar

Philanthropic Londoners are supporting the Evening Standard’s campaigns to encourage London primary school children to read more and to find young adults work through apprenticeship schemes. This culture of selfless giving is a vital part of London life. Visitors to the British Museum have benefited greatly from this generosity, which manifests itself in new buildings, refurbished galleries and acquisitions of new objects.

Jimmy Riesco (1877-1964) from Croydon was one such benefactor. He collected Chinese art and bequeathed his collection of Chinese ceramics to his home town, where it is now on display in the Riesco Gallery in the Museum of Croydon. This magnificent cloisonné jar, a testimony to the quality of Chinese craftsmanship, was once in his collection. It is decorated with powerful dragons with snake-like bodies and horns flying through the clouds.

Cloisonné is a method of decorating metal objects with a network of wire cells. Cloisonné wares are particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make. Craftsmen sketch a design onto a metal jar using a brush and black ink. Wires are cut out of sheet copper and fixed to the body of the jar, forming cells. The cells are filled with multicoloured opaque glass, which produces a brightly coloured surface. The jar is then fired in a kiln at about 600 degrees centigrade. After firing, the jar cools and the glass shrinks. Any gaps in the design are filled in and the jar is refired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally the jar is polished and the metal wires gilded.

From two inscriptions around the rim of this jar, we know who commissioned it and where it was made. Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435), the Ming Emperor from 1426 to 1435, commissioned it and eunuchs in the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing supervised its manufacture. Ming Emperors ordered such brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. The magnificent dragons were symbolic of the emperor. As you can see from walking around Chinatown today, dragons continue to be a powerful symbol of good luck.

There is only one other jar like this one in the world. It is in Switzerland in the Reitburg Museum, on loan from a private collection. Originally the two jars would probably have been displayed together in the Forbidden City Palace. The British Museum plans to reunite the jars in an exhibition beginning in September 2014, which will show the splendour of early Ming courts and the extraordinary connections that Ming China established with the rest of the world. [Note: This was not in fact possible, and the two jars are not displayed together in the exhibition. 22 September 2014]

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 11 October 2012.

The Cloisonné decorated jar is on display in Room 33: Asia

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