Chinese Ming Blue-and-White Porcelain: The Drs. A.M. Sengers Collection

Fig. 1: Square vase with long, flared neck, Jiajing, ca. 1560. H. 7 1/4″. Courtesy of S. Marchant & Son; photography by Paul Freeman.

Connoisseurs have long collected Dutch blue-and-white tin-glazed earthenware, and therefore it is of little surprise that the original inspiration for its design—Chinese porcelain—is still appreciated in Holland today. Around 1965, Drs. A. M. Sengers1 of Vught, Holland, purchased his first piece of Ming blue-and-white (Fig. 1). This initial acquisition led to the formation of an extraordinary collection. After his entry into the field, Drs. Sengers decided to focus on what he considered to be a fascinating period of Chinese art: the eighty years between 1565 and 1645, a period to which little study had been devoted.

The export wares known as kraak are the highlight of the collection. This Dutch term derives from the word carrack, the name of the Portuguese wooden vessels that first transported these blue-and-white porcelain wares from China to Europe in the sixteenth century. Introduced to this new material, the nobility and wealthy families were a ready market, cherishing some examples to the extent of mounting them in silver.2

Fig. 2: Kraak “klapmuts” (bowl) painted with a frog on rockwork, egret mark on base, Wanli, ca. 1595–1605. D. 8 5/8″ Courtesy of S. Marchant & Son; photography by Paul Freeman.

Most kraakwares were made in the years of the last great Ming Emperor Wanli, who ascended the throne in 1573.

While there are various definitions for what comprises kraak wares, there is one essential factor: They must have a paneled border (Fig. 2), usually filled with images of birds and flowers, fruits, and/or precious objects. Kraak wares vary considerably in quality, depending on the skill of the artist and the original intended market. Among the finest kraak pieces are those with the “egret” mark on the underside, dating to the last quarter of the sixteenth century (Fig. 3). There is speculation that this group was specifically made for the Dutch market, as the egret is the symbol of The Hague. New forms, such as the crane in Figure 4, were made either in response to broad markets or as special orders. This figure of a crane is reputedly from the home of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), where a bird ornament is mentioned in the inventory. No exact counterpart is known to exist, although another crane, accompanied by a deer, is in the Victoria & Albert Museum.3

Fig. 3: Detail of an egret mark. Courtesy of S. Marchant & Son; photography by Paul Freeman.

By the end of Emperor Wanli’s reign in 1619, his political power had diminished and the palace coffers were almost bare. As a result, there was little or no production of Imperial porcelain during the reign of his son, the Emperor Tianqi (1620–1627). Fortunately for potters and artists, the local market was thriving. Japanese traders visiting China, for example, took advantage of the high quality of ceramic production there. Since their own kilns had not perfected production methods, the Japanese presented a large market for the Chinese ko-sometsuke (old blue-and-white) wares, used for the tea ceremony and the meal afterward. The Japanese placed orders, but with specific requirements: Objects had to be strongly potted, bold, naturalistically painted (Fig. 5), and very sober, with a preference for a pale cobalt blue.

The new shapes and requirements specified by the Japanese presented unprecedented problems for the Chinese potters. The thick rims and the need for the glaze to cover all rounded relief work were technically challenging. To further complicate production, the glaze did not adhere properly during firing and even fritted from the rim and rounded surfaces. This “flaw” was eventually admired by the users and collectors and was given the name mushikui by the Japanese, which roughly translates into “insect-” or “moth-eaten,” and thus the problem became a virtue.

Fig. 4: Figure of a standing crane, Wanli/Tianqi, 1600–1625. H. 7 1/4″. Reputedly from the collection of Rembrandt van Rijn (1609–1669). Courtesy of S. Marchant & Son; photography by Paul Freeman.

The political unsettlement toward the end of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) freed the kilns from many of the formal design restraints favored by the Chinese Imperial Court, and an exciting new wave emerged, culminating in one of the most inspired periods since the Yuan dynasty of the fourteenth century. The “high-transitional,” or Chongzheng, period (1628–1644) was the pinnacle of the independent, free style. A fine example of porcelain from this era is the brushpot in Figure 6, painted with a classical Chongzheng motif of an elegant lady and boys playing in a flowering garden; the base decorated with an anhua (hidden design).

Fig. 6: Brushpot, Chongzheng (1628–1644). H. 8 5/8″, D. 7 3/4″. It is possible that the lady depicted is the moon goddess, Chang Er, who selects which pupils shall pass their examinations. Courtesy of S. Marchant & Son; photography by Paul Freeman.

It is important to mention at this point some of the great collectors of the past and present who have led the way as beacons in the field of Chinese porcelain, such as the late Gerald Reitlinger, an author, historian, and writer whose collection can now be seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The late Dr. Carew-Shaw, who followed Reitlinger and formed a meaningful collection (now dispersed), had a love for the subject that was contagious to everyone who knew him. The late Richard Kilburn, whose study of blue-and-white porcelain was inspirational, produced a catalogue in 1981—Transitional Wares and Their Forerunners—that was a first in the field. The baton has been passed to John and Julia Curtis in the United States, whose work on the narrative themes of this period has vastly advanced the understanding of the motifs.4 Then, of course, there is Sir Michael Butler, who is now considered to be the leading expert on seventeenth-century Chinese porcelain and has formed an extensive family collection relating to the period.5

Fig. 5: Saucer dish painted with two shrimp and a poem, Tianqi/Chongzheng, 1620–1644. D. 7 7/8″. Courtesy of S. Marchant & Son; photography by Paul Freeman.

Forming his collection over a period of thirty-five years, Drs. Sengers enjoyed meeting collectors and dealers to exchange opinions and, in some cases, pieces. His relationships with top dealers benefitted his collection, as dealers knew and understood his taste and therefore his interests. Because he kept detailed records, the source of every piece in the collection is known. Seventy-three pieces came from leading dealers, while only four came from auctions.

S. Marchant & Son will exhibit the collection in Ming Blue-and-White Porcelain: The Drs. A. M. Sengers Collection, from November 8–23. A fully illustrated, hardback catalogue with a foreword by John Ayers will be available in October.

Richard P. Marchant is a London-based dealer and partner of S. Marchant & Son and the Chairman of the Oriental Committee at the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair. He was voted leading British dealer in Oriental art by BACA and Miller’s Price Guide in 2000.

Anna Westin is Gallery Manager of the firm. S. Marchant & Son was founded by Samuel Sydney Marchant in 1925 and is a third-generation family business.

1 “Drs.” is a designation for a Master of Economy in Holland.

2 See Soame Jenyns, Ming Pottery and Porcelain, pl. 96a, for a silver-mounted kraak ewer in the German State Museum, Berlin, made in Erfurt and dated 1579.

3 Victoria & Albert Museum, London, collection no. C133-1928.

4 See Julia B. Curtis, Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century, China Institute Gallery (China Institute: New York, 1995).

5 See Sir Michael Butler, Seventeenth-Century Chinese Porcelain from the Butler Family Collection (Virginia Art Services, International, 1990).