Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
The Art of Japanese Porcelain
The story of Japanese porcelain begins in the town of Arita in Saga Prefecture, southwest Japan.
Following the failed Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), lords (daimyō) and military nobles (samurai) returned with captive Korean potters. In 1616, these potters discovered porcelain stone in the hills above Arita. Their skills led to the success of Japan’s porcelain industry.
In the late 1640s, famine and civil war in China disrupted the world’s primary source of porcelain. For the next 40 years, Japan overtook China as the world’s supplier, making wares for European, North American, and Southeast Asian markets.
How was porcelain made?
With technology from China and knowledge from captive Korean potters brought back from Japan’s failed invasions of Korea in 1592-1598, Japan developed a method of making porcelain in the 1610s.
Because of its high value, the method of making porcelain was kept secret. The craft was divided into specialisms and was strictly regulated.
This dish shows the main porcelain workshop in the town of Arita during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It illustrates craftsmen engaged in different stages of production.
Stages of production
Mining porcelain stone
Arita porcelain was made from decayed granite quarried at Izumiyama in the hills above the town. The stone is a blend of smectite, illite, kaoline, feldspars and quartz that can be powdered and mixed with water to make clay.
So much porcelain was made over 200 years that the mountain was mined to the point of disappearing.
Making the clay
The porcelain stone was left to dry in the sun and broken down into fist-sized chunks. The stone was pounded into powder with water-powered drop-hammers called karausu that operated like a seesaw. The sound of the thudding hammers would have echoed through the town.
Cleaning and mixing
The crushed stone powder was sifted and mixed with water in a process called elutriation. This was repeated several times over the course of a month.
Maturing the clay
The processed mixture was left to mature for several years in a pit until it turned into a clay.
The clay was kneaded to soften it and remove air bubbles. It was thrown on a ‘kick-wheel’, a potter’s wheel turned with the foot, to form the desired shapes.
One worker illustrated here uses a spatula to shape bowls and the other forms gourd-shaped bottles.
For making uniform sets of ceramics or adding impressed decoration, a thrown vessel is pressed onto a mould. The moulds are made of porous biscuit-fired clay or wood.
The formed ceramics were left to air-dry before being biscuit-fired at around 900˚C. Biscuit firing strengthened the clay and burned off impurities, giving the surface a uniform colour. It also helped to reduce the overall shrinkage which prevented the glaze from separating from the body.
Underglaze decoration was applied to biscuit wares using a large brush called a dami fude. The surface would have been very porous so the longer the pigment was in contact with the body, the more colour would be absorbed and the darker the result. There were two specialisms in underglaze decorating: drawing lines (sengaki) and infilling (dami).
To make the porcelain shiny and waterproof, glaze was applied by pouring or dipping. The amount of glaze had to be controlled as too much glaze would run when melted.
The glaze was opaque when first applied but became transparent when high-fired at temperatures of 1,200-1,300˚C.
The main firing took place in a climbing kiln. These kilns were built on a hillside and could have up to 20 chambers. The chambers were fired sequentially uphill until the heat inside reached the desired temperature of 1,280˚C.
The time needed to fire a kiln depended on its size. It could take several days or weeks and required round-the-clock monitoring and fuelling.
Firing a kiln required a large quantity of wood for fuel. When porcelain production was booming, demand for wood was high. Deforestation of the local mountain forests caused devastating landslides and floods. In 1637, local administrators prosecuted 826 potters, and closed 11 kilns, to prevent the overcutting of trees.
The finished ceramics were inspected for defects and the approved wares were bundled in straw. Porters carried the ceramics 6 miles north to Imari port, where they were sold to merchants and shipped around Japan.
Wares bound for Europe and South-East Asia travelled south to Nagasaki Harbour, where designated Chinese and Dutch trading posts were based.
The Irene Finch Collection
Most of the porcelain in this exhibition comes from the Irene Finch Collection of Japanese ceramics.
The collector, Miss Irene Finch (1918-2019), was a retired science teacher with a deep passion for Japanese porcelain. For over thirty years she researched and published on the subject.
The collection at Bristol Museums reflects Miss Finch’s interest in the Japanese ceramics made between 1720 and 1820, a time when Japan was not widely exporting porcelain. Many wares were not made for export and instead reflect the tastes of Japanese customers.
This collection was given by Irene Finch to Bristol Museums in 2012. A two-year project followed to research, catalogue, and exhibit the collection, generously funded by a large donation, as well as a grant from Bristol Museums Development Trust.
If you would be interested in learning more about how you can support our museums please get in touch with Bristol Museums Development Trust.
With grateful thanks to the Kyushu Ceramic Museum, Japan for sharing their expertise.