Mastery in Monochrome

Mastery in Monochrome

Sang de Boeuf Porcelain from the Collection of Alfred Augustus Field

12 September 2022

Consigned to Sworders’ next Asian Art auction is a group of Chinese 18th-19th century sang de boeuf, from The Collection of Alfred Augustus Field (1898-1977). Field was a pharmacist working in Calcutta from around 1920 until the early 1950s. It was during his time in India that Field developed his love of ceramics and began collecting various pieces that interested him. His collection was later passed to his daughter and thence by descent in the 1980s.

Each of the pieces in his collection, including three vases, a censer and a brush washer, is applied with a thick glaze of rich oxblood-red colour thinning to white at the rim, typically characteristic for such wares.

The copper-red glaze has been one of the rarest and most difficult glazes to achieve in ceramic history. It requires a very strict combination of mixing copper oxide in the glaze and then firing at a high temperature of around 1280 degrees, within a 5-degree-difference range, in a reducing atmosphere without oxygen.



The colour first appeared in Jun wares in the Song dynasty (960-1279), possibly accidentally, and surprised craftsmen have been experimenting with the production of this ‘new’ discovery ever since. Because of the extremely precise production technique and high cost, very few pieces were successful and have survived. Most are small dishes or bowls that appear brownish in colour. The most famous examples are a wine jar with underglaze blue and red openwork design from the Yuan dynasty, 14th century, and a copper-red bowl from the Hongwu period (1368-1398) - see The British Museum, museum numbers PDF B661 and 1936,1012.107 (pic. 1 and 2). There are no examples of monochrome wares in this elusive red colour preceding this.

The experiment for monochrome copper-red porcelains continued, despite the expense, as emperors wished to use these rich red wares in their ritual ceremonies to worship the sun. The production was perfected during the Yongle and Xuande periods (1403-1435) but was neglected until the Kangxi emperor ordered it to be produced again. A poem by the Qianlong emperor, dated 1775 and recorded in the Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quan ji [Anthology of imperial poems], describes the joy when he saw and handled an example, translated as follows:

          Its glaze incandesces
          like the fiery red sky after the rain.
          Once out of the kiln,
          it has to return to the flickering flames.
          The world's vermilion
          simply does not compare,
          All the rubies of the West
          cannot rival its colour.
          Place flowers in it and they blush in shame,
          It is impossible to capture
          the richness of its glaze in a painting.

Fondness for the monochrome red glaze endured and the quality of the production was further established during the Qianlong period. Even potters from domestic kilns began to master the glaze colour, almost comparable with the official kilns. The quantity of red wares increased dramatically during this time but remained rare because of the cost and range of technical firing complications. The majority of monochrome red-glaze wares that exist on the market today are from the Qianlong period, and it is still considered to be one of the most difficult types of porcelain to produce.



Our next Asian Art auction will take place on Friday 4 November, for further information contact:

Yexue Li |




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