One of the pleasures of visiting my sister in Oxford is getting to wander around the Ashmolean Museum. Even better, they have a policy of allowing photography, as long as you don’t use a flash or use the photographs for commercial purposes. Since I now have a phone with a pretty good camera on it, I decided to document the pieces of their ceramics collection that interested me.
Although I’ve always known how important ceramics are to archeology and the history of art, today’s visit to the Ashmolean really hammered it home. Unlike many museums, like the Victoria and Albert (which I hope to visit later this week), or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the British Museum, it has both an eclectic collection and is organized solely by geography and chronology. As I wandered through galleries on Nubia and Ancient Egypt, various dynasties of China, Islamic Art, Europe through the ages, I realised that every single room had at least a few pots in it. And the older the civilisation, the more likely that the sole remaining artifacts are made of clay. Pottery is probably the most durable art form mankind makes. I can look at a Nubian pot from 3000 B.C., and see it pretty much exactly as those ancient Nubians saw it. No other art form, except perhaps stone monuments, comes close. Clay is a fantastically unique material. Even now, with all our high tech plastics and other materials, it is still the only material that can be molded by the hand, at room temperature, leaving imprints of the artists fingers, and yet be simply and irreversibly fired into an impervious object. It is also remarkable just how much pottery was and is, used in our everyday lives. Even now, I would guess that every house has a number of objects made of clay – even if it is only for a mug of coffee and a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Even only a hundred years ago ceramic objects were perhaps the most important and ubiquitous objects in someone’s house. While none of this was a revelation to me, the fact that every exhibit had such a significant amount of pottery in it somehow made it visually more real.
As a potter, this is both inspiring, and somewhat intimidating. Everything that I make could at some point be found and wondered at by humans or other intelligent creatures in some distant future. And, even as reassembled sherds, it will look pretty much like it did the day it came out of the kiln. Of course I’m not going to let this intimidate me into minutely examining everything I fire, but hopefully it will make me think twice before biscuiting a pot that I know is just not quite right, even if it is a teapot that has taken a fair bit of work to throw and assemble.
Here are some of the more interesting pots that caught my attention.
Most of these pictures are from the “China from 800 AD” galleries.