The Errant Handle
The object I have chosen tells the story of an errant handle that questions the nature of originality. It is a small porcelain teapot and lid made at the end of the 17th century at Dehua near the coast of southern China. It can be seen in the new ceramics galleries of the Victoria and Albert museum, London to whom it was given as part of the Galland bequest in 1933.
The kilns in Dehua opened in the 14th century some 300 years after those of the Imperial Porcelain pottery at Jingdezhen and became renown for its figurative porcelain pieces and for maintaining tradition over the centuries. The porcelain clay itself, collected locally, has very little iron content, and thus, unlike the porcelain of Jingdezhen, could be fired without reduction and maintain a beautiful translucent off-white colour.
The teapot stands in a large glass cabinet amongst an assortment of larger pieces of the same era It can be held in the palm of the hand, measuring about 8 inches in total length, the body about 5 inches in diameter. However its unusual flattened and almost circular handle makes it strikingly noticeable and look very modern.
Hidden, inscribed in the porcelain, on the side of the pot, is a short poem by the renowned 12th century Chinese poet Shu Shi. It was common to write poems on teapots at this time especially if destined for the use of scholars and its size also suggests that it was designed for single use. Another poem by the same poet is particularly apt regarding the hidden nature of the one on this pot:
To what can our life on earth be likened?
To a flock of geese,
alighting on the snow.
Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.
This teapot is attractive on three counts: the exquisite quality of the porcelain, the shape of the bowl and its hidden poem, and the shape of the handle.
Of particular interest is the handle; how and why was it made in a shape of such distinction? Why did this shape not attract other makers and be copied and become widespread? Indeed why was such originality not recognised? In his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Thomas Kuhn argues that progress in scientific knowledge occurs by leaps he calls paradigm-shifts. To paraphrase Kuhn, it could be argued that ideas are held within a cultural environment – a paradigm – and that truly original thought will not only break from the old paradigm but also create a new one. This new paradigm itself becomes the common currency within which new (but not truly original) ideas are generated. Thus it could be argued that Cezanne created a paradigm-shift that laid the foundation for the Modern painters.
This thesis appears to be supported by this teapot. I would argue that its maker and those around him could not recognise its originality because they were constrained by the prevailing paradigm. It would take another 200 years before the design of its handle would resonate with its audience.
– The artful teapot p13-15 Garth Clark 2001 Thames and Hudson, London ISBN 0-500-51045-8
– http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O34996/teapot-and-lid accessed 08/12/2010
– Science and Civilisation in China Joseph Needham Vol 5 Part XII Ceramic Technology p 240-249: Rose Kerr &Nigel Wood 2004 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ISBN 0-521-83833-9
-The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas W. Kuhn 3rd edition 1996 The University of Chicago Press Ltd, London ISBN 0-226-45808-3