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Met curator Ellenor Alcorn on the creative moment in Ewer, a work of Chinese porcelain with English mounts, 1573–1620; mounts c. 1585.

In the sixteenth century Chinese porcelain was occasionally brought to England, sometimes by way of the Levant, sometimes by sea around the Cape of Good Hope. As it was very rare and considered a special treasure, the most accomplished English silversmiths were often commissioned to make mounts for it. Pieces such as these were regarded as suitable for royal gifts or for the furnishing of princely houses. The ewer shown here is one of a group of Chinese porcelains of the Wan Li period (1575–1619) with silver-gilt mounts made by an unidentified English silversmith about 1585. They were all acquired by the Museum from the estate of J.P. Morgan.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Video transcript

There are some works of art that just jump into your arms, that are instantly communicative. This object, it’s more subtle, it’s mysterious. We do have the possibility that it was a gift from Elizabeth I to William Cecil, who was Elizabeth I’s lord treasurer. So that’s a sort of intellectual avenue in, that frankly only got me so far. I admired it, but I was stumped aesthetically by the very classical ornament on the mounts. I mean what’s with these little roses, or the winged heads, and the engraved arabesque ornament that’s around the little shoulder of the bottle? And fussiest of all, there’s this meticulous punched ornament on the foot rim that’s a miniature interpretation of architectural ornament from ancient Rome. So, what’s that doing on a Chinese porcelain bottle? We think that the maker of the mounts was an anonymous specialist who would have come to London from Antwerp, or possibly from Germany. What helped me connect with that moment of creation was seeing the bottle without its mounts, which the goldsmith would have done. It is a little shocking to see that naked bottle. I was able to imagine the consternation of the goldsmith. It’s a total UFO. It’s from China, about which so little was known in the sixteenth century. Porcelain itself was a technology that wasn’t understood in Western Europe until the early eighteenth century, so it was admired and loved for this gorgeous brilliance of its blue painted decoration, of the translucency of the body itself. The goal was for this piece to become a courtly object in Western Europe. The silversmith was really engaging with the porcelain. He fashioned these intricate straps that echo the rhythm of the molded flutes on the bottle, and they make a sort of a cage or a frame, embracing China with antiquity. The whole world is encapsulated in one piece. For me to appreciate the finished object, I needed to reach all the way back to the initial creative moment. That let me feel that I was in conversation with a work of art.