The Story of Chigusa

I was very intrigued when I first learned of the book Chigusa and the Art of Tea edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky as I am myself, off and on, working on a biography of a pot. It turns out this book is quite different from my project (whew!), but it is indeed the biography of a pot. I found it fascinating.

The pot, a stoneware storage jar with four lugs placed just below the neck, has a name: Chigusa. Made by potters in southern China during the Sung or Yuan Dynasties (mid 13th – mid 14th centuries), it measures 41.6 centimeters (16.37 inches) high and holds 25 liters (6.6 gallons). The lower portion was made by coiling and throwing. The upper portion was paddled. A lovely brown glaze of wood ash and iron-bearing clay covers 80 percent of the exterior. It was standard workshop fare.

“The process that produced the jar,” Court writes, “resulted from well-honed efforts to make a usable product quickly and efficiently. In local markets the chief concerns were intact condition and price. By chance, however, the jar that became Chigusa was selected to be shipped to Japan.”

In Japan, the jar became a revered and highly collectible object for the tea ceremony and was used to hold tea leaves.  It had a succession of owners each of whom honored the pot with accessories including a silk mouth cover, three boxes, one inside the other, to hold it, cords and documents.

During the sixteenth century, tea men, often rich merchants, kept “tea diaries” and Chigusa is mentioned or described in a number of these. In one such account, written in 1587, Kamiya Sötan writes, after describing may other objects and implements used in the ceremony he attended that day, “The tsubo Chigusa: the clay is coarse and red, the lower part swells, on the bottom are blisters…The glaze is thick, and there are many downward flows. Below that, the glaze appears to divide.”

The custom of naming revered objects was common in Japan from ancient times but in the 16th century, when Chigusa became known as Chigusa it was rare to name a tea object. Watsky speculates that the name was inspired by poetry, as “chigusa appears as a nature image in five poems.” There were, we are told, 21 other jars with names.

Chigusa stayed within a few families– the Hisada, Omotensnke, and Fujita, for generations. The book traces the jar’s whereabouts and values. In 1929 the Fujitas sold it at auction for what would have been $1000.00, a surprisingly low price. There followed a series of owners including, in the eighties, the owner of an IT company who paid the equivalent of $1.5 million dollars. “Then, on the morning of September 17, 2009, the Freer Gallery of Art placed the winning bid of $662,500 for the jar at Christie’s New York sale of Japanese and Korean Art. That would be the last stop on the jar’s long journey from southern China.”

I am giving only the briefest outline here. There is much about the tea ceremony itself, and, through the jar, the history of tea in Japan. But most of all, Chigusa is a delightful biography of a seven hundred year old stoneware storage jar.

On Early American Pottery

Thomas Chandler Jar

I love the Ceramics in America series. Ostensibly a journal, published annually by the Chipstone Foundation, each volume is, in fact, a lavishly illustrated book. The 2013 edition, which came out late this winter, covers topics such as African-American face vessels, medieval English money boxes, and 19th century stoneware in South Carolina and Virginia. There is a lot of archaeology here, as well as historical research.

Robert Hunter, the editor for 2013 writes, “What is astonishing…is the magnitude of the new discoveries and reinterpretations of even well-known ceramic traditions. Most American ceramics research and collecting is regional if not local. Collectors hoard information as well as pots, and the competition for either can be ferocious. Clay-based feuds among collectors frequently result in resistance to publishing new research, in an arguably counterproductive belief it will protect one’s interests. With the advent of the internet, it is auction houses that disseminate regional information, some of which is decades out of date.”

Ceramics in America sets out to rectify this situation.

In one chapter Philip Wingard investigates the life of the great stoneware potter, Thomas Chandler, Jr. and discovers that he likely trained in Baltimore, then a pottery hub, as a teenager. His father kept a chair shop in close proximity to four stoneware and two earthenware potteries where the young Chandler would have been able to learn the craft. Wingard belives that later, while AWOL from the army in Georgia, Chandler worked with the potter Cyrus Cogburn and was exposed to southern traditions. Sometime in the mid-1830’s Chandler made his first appearance in Edgefield, South Carolina working at various shops. Here he married a potter’s daughter. Chandler’s pots are beautifully thrown and skillfully decorated. Wingard gives us a good look at his life, his  influences, the impact he had on other potters and the methods he employed.

Later in the book, Jacqui Pearce contemplates 15th and 16th century English money boxes. Though the journal focuses on American ceramic history, contributing scholars are free to study antecedents. “When Noël Hume first emailed me about pinholes in money boxes from London,” he writes, “I had to confess I had never noticed any, but the next day I went to see what I could find in the Museum of London’s Ceramic and Glass Collection. A quick examination brought to light six money boxes in Surrey-Hampshire Border Ware with the tiny telltale hole, still perfectly visible, just as Noël had said.” Pearce is immediately intrigued and goes on to explore the reason for these pinholes and the purpose of the boxes themselves.

The new edition Ceramics in America is stellar. The research is strong, the writing is clear, and the photos are, for a potter, inspirational and for a collector, lust inducing.

Note: Photo above is of a 10-gallon storage jug attributed to Thomas Chandler. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. 1841-1845.