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A world in a bowl

A FINE example of the early Chinese export trade, this handsome bowl, mounted with silver gilt, is supposed to have been presented by Queen Elizabeth I of England to her godson Thomas Walsingham. It may have been part of the booty Sir Francis Drake took from a Spanish galleon in 1580. Beautiful porcelain was then so valued in Europe that it was sometimes enriched by metal mounts -- this bowl has a silver-gilt base, from which plain bands go up to support a silver-gilt band engraved with floral motives. The lobed dish is elaborately decorated in itself with landscapes, plants, birds, and pagodas, inside and out, and is of the blue and white which were so pleasing to the Mings.

Aside from its intrinsic charm, this bowl provides a glimpse of the world-wide possibilities of trade which the Elizabethans envisioned, and of the buyers who could afford such expensive pieces. One of the purchasers of Chinese and Japanese export pieces was Lord Burghley, and this example comes from Burghley House, via the Japan Society in New York, which has recently been exhibiting such wares.

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Burghley House in Cambridgeshire in its 20,000-acre estate is the largest and most splendid Elizabethan house in England, and has gone on for 400 years, in spite of remarks like that of William III, who said that ``it was too large for a subject.''

It was built by William Cecil between 1555 and 1587 on the site of an old monastery; he was one of Queen Elizabeth's ministers, who became her lord high treasurer and was created Baron Burgh-ley. His son was made an earl in 1605, and afterward the heirs became the marquesses of Exeter. Many of this family have been notable collectors, going abroad and gathering treasures to take back to Burghley; nothing was ever thrown away, century after century.

Today Burghley House is under a charitable trust, managed by Lady Victoria Leatham, who spent her childhood there -- it is her home. Her father, Lord Burghley, achieved international fame because of his athletic prowess; he won the 400-meter hurdles in the IX Olympiad in 1928. This feat was widely seen in a somewhat garbled form in the movie ``Chariots of Fire,'' where a race was run in a university quadrangle. Later Lord Burghley became head of the Olympic Games Committee of the United Kingdom. His interest in pictures was obviously less publicized, as was the fact that he took great care of those in Burghley House.

To preserve and to present to the public the treasures of Burghley House, with its vast collections of silver, glass, ceramics, pictures, furniture, fabrics, and the rest, while maintaining the structure of the ancient building, is a task that would daunt most of us, but Lady Leatham's deep affection for her home, her enthusiasm, and expertise are equal to these demands. Electric light was not installed there till 1956, and it did not reach the attics till 1982. What goes on today is often the work of discovery.

This labor has been greatly facilitated by the fact that two inventories were drawn up, listing the contents of the house. The inventories (though made in 1588 and 1600) are still extremely useful in dating the older articles and revealing what was there early in Burghley's history. The second of these, the Devonshire Inventory, was done to substantiate the bequest of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter, the wife of the fifth Earl of Exeter. He was an ardent collector, amassing so many valuable objects that he ran heavily into debt, and his mother-in-law wanted to be sure that her daughter would receive the furniture and other treasures she had willed to her.

It is only recently that the collection of early Japanese and Chinese wares here has been recognized as one of the most remarkable still in private hands, and one of the most intact. Late in the 16th century Lord Burghley admired and bought pieces which had been in the holds of Spanish and Portuguese ships, and when the Dutch and English East India companies were formed and the trade carried on directly between the Orient and Europe, the family continued to buy these ceramics. They came from the Japanese kilns of Arita and Kakiemon, and, in China, from the wonderful pottery town of Ching-te-chen.

The Japanese were latecomers in this field but soon acquired great expertise, displaying a talent for the medium that has been renowned ever since. The pieces shown at the Japan House Gallery included bowls and plates, vases, teapots, and figurines, all interesting and some very beautiful.

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There was even a pair of Sumi wrestlers which had been used unconcernedly as a doorstop at Burghley since time out of mind, without injury. Everything gave a hint of a complicated, often perilous history, a multiplicity of scenes and occasions long since passed away, of an elaborate style of living, which lingers to enrich the viewer's own experience.

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