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For The Home

Sang de Boeuf Porcelain

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: November, 2012, Page 54
Photos by David B. Moore

The bottle vase in the foreground has a hint of celadon on its slender neck. Behind it is a 15-inch vase with a curvy, feminine form often seen in Chinese porcelain. Both vases are from a private collection.

history, Highlights and helpful Hints

During its long, complex history, Imperial China saw its share of discord, uprisings and revolts. At the same time, it was a culture that valued the arts and cultivation of the mind. As such, the rest of the world can thank ancient China for silk, acupuncture, papermaking, the compass, tea ceremonies and lacquer, among other innovations. Porcelain is also considered a significant gift from China.

The earliest examples of porcelain were made during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) in the city of Jingdezhen, known to this day as China’s “capital of porcelain.” The city became such an important center for porcelain-making that during the early Song Dynasty (960–1279), a royal decree was issued for the city to produce porcelain for imperial use. Over the course of several subsequent dynasties, emperors sent officials to Jingdezhen to oversee the production of royal porcelain in specially designated imperial kilns. Glazes were used to wash the paper-thin porcelain in a variety of colors.

One standout is lang-yao, a monochrome red glaze believed to have been named for Lang Tingji, one of the imperial kiln supervisors. The glaze is variously described as resembling the floor of a slaughterhouse, crushed strawberries, apple peel or, as it is known in the West, sang de boeuf (French for “oxblood”). The glaze first appeared during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) but disappeared along with a slowdown in porcelain production during that period’s war-torn later years. When it resurfaced during the ensuing Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), use of the glaze was perfected and some of the finest pieces of sang de boeuf emerged. This was particularly so during the reign of K’ang-hsi (1654-1722), the fourth (and best, some say) emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Examples include vases, bowls, teapots, urns and other vessels.

“It’s sophisticated and refined, and it’s difficult to achieve,” says Tina McEown, an antiques dealer and collector in the Valley. “It’s fired with no oxygen, which can cause the color to change, and it’s fired many times. It’s not simple.”

Today, sang de boeuf porcelain pieces dating from Imperial China likely spend their days under glass at major museums. But Chinese porcelain is not the only option for fans of the rich, glossy glaze.

This lidded ginger jar dates from the early 1900s.
The Chinese often used such pieces to store spices, salt and, of course, ginger. According to collector Tina McEown, the base shown here did not come with this jar. But she often adds bases to her pieces to create varying elevations when displayed.
Renowned ceramic artists in other parts of the world have been inspired to try to duplicate the glaze, and some have succeeded. In Europe, Theodore Deck, the “father” of French ceramics and one-time director of manufacture for the country’s famous Sèvres porcelain factory, was well-known for his sang de boeuf. Likewise, his fellow countryman Ernest Chapel, who apprenticed at Sèvres when he was 12, devoted his later life to producing sang de boeuf. In England, Bernard Moore successfully re-created several Chinese glazes. And, of the many highly collectible pieces produced at Ruskin Pottery, those with sang de boeuf glazes are considered to be among the finest. William Howson Taylor, co-founder of Ruskin Pottery, is said to have fiercely guarded the production of such pieces and destroyed all of his glaze recipes before his death.

“It’s a fascinating subject, and sang de boeuf was reproduced by others because it’s dramatic and has a wonderful richness,” McEown says. “Some people collect it for the Chinese markings; others collect it for specific shapes or just because they love the look of that blood-red glaze.”

Paradise Valley, Arizona, resident Susan Magee falls into that last group. “I started collecting sang de boeuf porcelain about 25 years ago, when I was decorating a Shakespearean dining room we had in a Spanish Colonial house,” she says. “I’ve found pieces on my travels and by haunting local antiques stores. I’m drawn to the deep-red irregular finish that resembles apple skin. My favorites have a bit of celadon on the inside of the neck. Because I was buying for aesthetic value, I didn’t concern myself with marks, but I seem to have gotten lucky, as a few pieces in my collection are rare and valuable.”

Magee has since moved to a more Contemporary home, but she says her 27 sang de boeuf pieces have “transitioned beautifully” to their new surroundings. All of them are displayed on a long table just inside the home’s entry.

Measuring just 5 inches in height, this pair
of pomegranate pots from antiques dealer Tina McEown’s collection dates from the mid to late 1800s.
According to the ancient Chinese principles of feng shui, the entryway is an excellent place for red objects. “You need red on both sides of your front door—inside or out, or both—to bring energy to your front door and clear it as it comes in,” says Lisa Montgomery, owner of Feng Shui Arizona. Other good places for red items are in the wealth and relationship areas, which are in the back left and back right corners, respectively, of a house.

“Red is such an important color, it’s treasured. It energizes and clears and protects,” Montgomery says. “At the same time, if you have too much of it, or in the wrong place, it goes from energizing and clearing to generating anger.”

But, Montgomery notes, in the case of sang de boeuf, the refined nature of porcelain and the rounded, curvy shapes typical of such pieces temper the power of red, resulting in “a mild, useful red that can’t get you into a lot of trouble.”

A Chinese vase made into a lamp has a shape known as a “phoenix tail.” This shape is said to reflect a potter’s skill, as it requires exact proportions to remain balanced. This is one
of a pair of lamps at Scottsdale Marketplace.
Beware of chips and crackling. Chips lower the value of porcelain pieces, and crackling may be a sign that a piece was fired to look old. “Most Chinese pieces don’t have crackling,” says McEown. “If there is uniform, overall crackling, it’s probably intentional, and that’s a more contemporary process.”

Porcelain glazes in the close-but-not-quite category include Flambé, with blue peeking through the red, and Peach Bloom, a softer, mottled red tinged with green.

Scottsdale Marketplace;; The Brass Armadillo Antique Mall; estate sales; auctions.
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