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Episode 79 - Kakiemon elephants

Kakiemon elephants (made second half of the seventeenth century). Porcelain; from Japan

They were owned by monarchs of south-east Asia. The Buddha's mother dreamed of one before giving birth to him. For a large part of the world, white elephants have always been signs of power and portent. They were also a mixed blessing - as a gift from a king, they couldn't honourably be put to work, and so they were horribly expensive to keep. And, in modern English, a white elephant is simply a useless extravagance!

We have got two almost white elephants in the British Museum. They too are from Asia, they're perfectly useless, and they were very expensive - they would have cost tens of thousands of pounds in today's terms. But they are exceedingly jolly to look at, and they tell an unexpected story of the triangular power struggles between China, Japan and Korea in the seventeenth century, and of the birth of the modern multinational trading company.

"People had not really seen things like this before, certainly from the Far East. It was something new and exciting and probably very modern. Although they are trying to be European, perhaps in taste you don't ever lose that Japanese style." (Miranda Rock)

The objects this week are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans set sail around the world, and much of the rest of the world first discovered Europe. Our porcelain elephants were shipped into Europe from Japan sometime between 1660 and 1700. Elephants were, of course, a rare sight in a European drawing room then, but so, until recently, was porcelain. Oddly, both the elephant and the porcelain were also relatively new to their Japanese maker.

The elephants in the British Museum are about the size of Yorkshire terriers, and you know they're elephants because they've got a trunk, and tusks, but otherwise they are pretty startling. The body is of white porcelain - a beautiful milky-white - and over that, painted in enamel, is broad decoration. Patches of red on the legs, blue patterning over the backs, and on the heads, the ears - which are clearly the ears of an Indian south Asian elephant. The insides are painted a primrose yellow, edged in red. And then the eyes, quite clearly, are Japanese eyes. There's no doubt, looking at these, that the artist who made them is imagining an elephant that he has never seen, and there's no doubt at all that this artist is Japanese.

These high-spirited porcelain elephants are the immediate consequence of Japan's complex relations with her neighbours, China and Korea. And they also show the impact of the direct trading links between Asia and western Europe, established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ever since this direct contact began, Europe has periodically been seized by a passion for the arts and crafts of Japan.

It all started in the seventeenth century, with a craze for Kakiemon-style porcelain, a specific technique said to have been devised by an entrepreneur named Kakiemon, and which became a traditional Japanese craft technique, passing through generations of potters. Our elephants are Kakiemon-style elephants, and they and other Kakiemon creatures rampaged decoratively over furniture and mantelpieces in the great houses of seventeenth-century Europe. One of the finest and earliest collections of these Japanese porcelain animals is at Burghley House in Lincolnshire. Miranda Rock is a direct descendant of the Lord Exeter who at the end of the seventeenth century collected the porcelain:

" . . . 'China over ye chimney: two large elephants, two large hindes, one large rabbit, browne'. Anyway . . . here we are today, standing in front of a very impressive display of porcelain, stepped above a mantelpiece, and there indeed, are the elephants listed in the inventory, still both beautifully intact and surrounded by other exquisite pieces of Kakiemon porcelain.

"This porcelain is really the success of our great collector John, the fifth Earl of Exeter, and his wife, Anne Cavendish, who were very enthusiastic Grand Tourists. We know the Japanese porcelain was here in 1688, because it is mentioned in the inventory, but we have to assume that there was a very astute dealer who John had close contact with, because there is an enormous amount of it here at Burghley, and it was very much in vogue at the time."

Not only do we have in Miranda Rock the descendant of Lord Exeter, but, by great good luck, we've also been able to track down the potter Kakiemon the 14th, who claims descent from the technique's creators, and is today himself a Japanese "Living National Treasure". He may indeed be the direct descendant of the very craftsman who decorated Lord Exeter's menagerie around four hundred years ago. He lives and works in Arita, the birthplace of Japanese porcelain, where his family has been potters for centuries. Here he is:

"The Kakiemon family has been making coloured porcelain in the Kakiemon style for nearly four hundred years. It normally takes around 30 to 40 years to master the technique and acquire the skill, and training the next generation is always a big challenge. The glaze applied to the elephants' skin is called 'nigoshide'. It's not a pure white but a warm, milky white. I can say that it's the starting point of the Kakiemon-style porcelain in the Edo period. I use traditional tools. This is true of many Japanese craftsmen, and keeps the traditional techniques alive. People may think that I am only following the old path, but I think my work is contemporary, with traditional elements incorporated. We consider the British Museum elephants very unique. I myself own one small elephant at home."

The colourful porcelain animals made by Kakiemon's ancestor are exuberantly beautiful. They also mix modern and traditional elements, and they're the products of bitter wars in east Asia and cut-throat international trade. China is, as we all know, the source of porcelain. By the sixteenth century, Europe was in the grip of porcelain mania, with a particular hunger for the famous Chinese blue-and-white. The appetite of the European rich for this material was insatiable, and the market struggled to keep up with demand.

"Now there remain to us nothing but the leavings, for here they deal with porcelain as a hungry man with a plate of figs, who begins with the ripest, and then feels the others with his fingers, and chooses one after another of the least firm until none are left"

The frustration of an Italian merchant who, in 1583, was trying without success to buy good porcelain for his European clients!. But new suppliers were about to enter this burgeoning market. By the fifteenth century, Korea had acquired from the Chinese the skill and the knowledge to make porcelain.

It was war that spread the secrets to Japan. In the late sixteenth century, Japan was united under a single military leader of massive ambition and, in the 1590s, he launched two attacks on Korea. He saw these as mere preliminaries to taking over China from the Ming Dynasty. The take-overs of China failed, but in the process Japan picked up potting skills - and, indeed, some of the potters who practised them - from the Korean Peninsula. The Korean scholar Gina Ha-Gorlan talks about the long dynamic between the three cultures:

"Korea, China and Japan have kept close relationships since prehistoric times. In cultural exchanges, China often developed advanced skills and techniques first, Korea adopted it, then introduced it to Japan. It is believed to be the case that the Japanese learned white porcelain-making techniques from Korea, whereas the decorative skills of over-glazed polychrome enamel are from China. It's one of the highly regarded Chinese decorative skills. Then by the mid-seventeenth century the potter Kakiemon achieved the polychrome over-glazed enamel technique, which was also highly demanded in European trading markets. So this Kakiemon elephant statue is a combination of Korean manufacturing technique, Chinese decorative skills and Japanese taste."

Japanese ceramics had two great strokes of luck. Firstly there was the great boost, both in manpower and technology, given to the ceramic industry as a result of the Korean wars of the 1590s. Then, in 1644, the Ming Dynasty was overthrown, and in the ensuing political chaos Chinese production of porcelain collapsed, leaving the market wide open.

It was the perfect opportunity for the Japanese, who stepped in to take China's place in the porcelain export business and, for a brief period, dominated the European market. Kakiemon-style production expanded swiftly to respond to European demand and to European taste, creating new shapes, sizes, designs, and above all new colours, adding brilliant reds and yellows to the traditional Chinese blue-and-white. Europeans bought them in large quantities and, eventually, they began to copy them. By the eighteenth century, Germany, England and France had all started to produce their own, home-grown 'Kakiemon'. And so, in one of those bizarre and unpredictable twists of history, the first porcelain to be imitated by Europeans came not from China, but from Japan.

The agent for all this, driving innovation both in Europe and in Japan, was the world's first multinational, the Dutch East India Company, with its unparalleled concentration of resources, contacts and experience. From their magnificent new headquarters in Amsterdam, the merchants and administrators of the company operated an ocean-spanning trading operation which, for nearly a century, dominated the commerce of the whole world, and which had the exclusive right among Europeans to trade with Japan.

Japan, at this point, was being run by the Shogun who, to achieve complete control of the country, in 1639 closed off contact with the outside world. They kept open just a few carefully controlled "gateways", especially the port of Nagasaki, and there they allowed only a few privileged states to conduct business. These states included the nearest neighbours Korea and China, and just one European partner, the Dutch East India Company.

The East India Company transported porcelain to Europe in very large quantities. Single shipments from Japan to Holland amounted sometimes to as many as 65,000 items. And it's in one of these Dutch East India Company ships that our elephants would have travelled from Japan to Europe.

These two Kakiemon-style elephants tell a story of the whole world in the seventeenth century. Japanese craftsmen, although cut off from the outside world, were using techniques borrowed from China and Korea to make images of animals from India, to suit the tastes of purchasers in England. All this mediated by the Dutch, through the first trading company with a truly global reach.

This week, we've been seeing how the continents of the world were, for the first time, linked together by ships and by trade. This new world needed a functioning means of exchange, an international currency, and tomorrow we look at what underpinned those early years of world-wide commercial activity . . . silver, mined in South America, minted into Spanish pieces of eight, and then exported to the world - the first global money.

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