items in our collection TANG SANCAI WARE

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Sancai translated literally, means "three-color". Tang Sancai first appeared during the last quarter of the seventh century, and to all intents and purposes, disappears early within the second half of the eighth century due to the devastation of the country by the rebellion in 755AD of the Turkic general An Lushan.

Sancai is a lead-based glaze. Color is introduced by the inclusion of iron, which produces a range of hues from amber to brown and even black, the inclusion of copper, which produces greens and olives, and the inclusion of cobalt, which gives blue. As cobalt was imported from Persia and worth more than its weight in gold, blue is only found on pieces of the highest quality. White is produced by clear glaze over a white slip. Glaze is usually allowed to drip and run into each other, the areas of confluence producing a naturalistic melding of colors which is difficult to imitate. Areas of color can also be sharply delineated by incised lines, and decorative effects can be produced by the wax resist method. The glaze surface has a very fine crackle which is hardly visible to the naked eye, and dots of darker hue suffuse the field of color. There is some tendency to flaking of the glaze, especially in white areas, and suggestions of iridescence are sometimes present in areas of denaturation.

The commonest body is a white clay high in kaolin content; much more rarely, a red clay is used which has to be covered in a thick white slip in order for the colored glazes to show their brilliance. The bisque is fired at 1000’C before application of the glaze and refiring at 900’C.

The commonest wares are burial goods, which consist of vessels and figurines. Vessels include jars, bowls, vases, and water-droppers, but a notable group is that based on metal prototypes of Central Asian or Persian origin; these include animal-headed rhytons, tall griffin-headed ewers, pilgrim flasks, and lobed bowls. They generally have appliqued decoration in imitation of repousse metal-work, with motifs such as lotus, acanthus, and passion flower patterns that also speak of the heavy influence of Western cultures arriving in Tang dynasty China (618-907AD) via the Silk Road. Tomb figures most commonly depict horses, riders, camels with their grooms, court beauties, eunuchs, entertainers, civil and military officials, lokapalas, guardian beasts, and animals such as lions, dogs, chickens, ducks, goats, and oxen. Rarities in Sancai include polo players, figures from the Chinese Zodiac, and camels supporting troupes of entertainers. Sumptuary laws governed the composition of Sancai tomb-sets and the size of the pieces. However, these laws were often disregarded.

The second set of wares consist of Buddhist offertory articles and include incense burners, flat offering dishes on tripod feet, candelabra, lotus stem jars, and a tall-necked vase called the Jing Ping.

Finally, a small number of Sancai items for everyday use have also been excavated at urban sites.

Tang Sancai represents one of the more valuable of the ancient glazed wares, and their beauty and variety renders them extremely desirable among collectors.