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The history of humanity as told through one hundred objects from the British Museum in London is this week exploring the world at the time of European discovery - between 1450 and 1600. Today Neil MacGregor is with a pair of white elephants, the size of small dogs. They come from Japan, are made of fine porcelain and take Neil on a journey that connects Japan to Korea and China and to a growing trade network in Western Europe. How did the great skill of porcelain production spread across the Far East? Why elephants? And how did these objects become so desirable to the European elite? He discovers the specific technique of this porcelain style (and traces it to a Japanese potter called Kakiemon) and follows other examples of this same pottery to an English country house. Miranda Rock describes the Kakiemon collection at Burghley House, the present day Kakiemon potter discusses his work and the Korean porcelain expert Gina Ha-Gorian explains how the detailed technology for porcelain production spread.

Producer: Anthony Denselow.

Release date:

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15 minutes

Last on

Fri 24 Sep 2010 00:30

About this object

Location: Japan
Culture: East Asian
Period: Late 17th century
Material: Ceramic


Elephants are not native to Japan and these two examples would have been based on depictions in imported prints. For centuries only the Chinese knew how to make porcelain but by the 1300s the knowledge had also spread to the Korean peninsula. When Japan's powerful ruler, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, launched two attacks on Korea in the 1590s, his armies brought many Korean captives back to Japan. They shared their skills with local potters and helped to build a new porcelain industry in Japan.

How did these elephants arrive in Europe?

After the collapse of the Chinese Ming dynasty in 1644, Japan briefly became the world's largest global exporter of porcelain. Kakiemon-style porcelain, with its distinctive red enamel, was in great demand in Europe. These elephants would have been specifically made for the European market and transported from Japan by the Dutch East India Company - the world's first multinational company. After Japan tightened control of its borders in the late 1630s, the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to maintain direct contact through the port of Nagasaki.

Did you know?

  • Porcelain artists claiming descent from original Kakiemon maker, Sakaida Kizaemon (1596-1666), still work in Japan today.

All the rage in Europe

By Nicole Rousmaniere, Director, Sainsbury Institute for the study of Japanese arts and cultures


Japanese kilns only started producing porcelain for the first time in AD 1610, centuries after China and Korea. However, in a very short period of time porcelain potters in Arita on the southern island had mastered the basics of the technique.

The bright red, yellow, blue and green overglaze enamels, as seen on this proud pair of elephants, were first introduced to Japan in the 1640s most likely from China. In a surprisingly short amount of time, a mere few decades later, these masterful elephants were created. It tells us about the importance of international trade during this period and how it acted as a stimulus to nascent craft industries.

From the 1650s onwards, Japanese porcelain began to be exported first to Asia and then to Europe. Porcelain was exported abroad from Nagasaki, near the kilns of Arita brokered by Japanese merchants on either Chinese junks or Dutch (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – Dutch East India Company) ships. The international trade in porcelain was heavily regulated in Japan but, at least when it started, very lucrative.

Initially European markets desired Chinese style underglaze cobalt-blue wares from Japan, but within a relatively short period of time a new style of export ceramic with clean bright enamel colours on a cream white body became all the rage in parts of Europe. England in particular was much taken by this new Kakiemon style that lasted from 1660-1700.

Under the reign of King William and Queen Mary, which united Holland and Britain, Japanese Kakiemon style porcelain found its way into many grand houses and palaces. Queen Mary was known to be particularly fond of the style with its pleasing palate and patterns of birds and flowers. Fanciful animal ornaments accompanied more functional bowls and dishes. Birds, monkeys and beautiful woman were among some of the most popular figures in this ware.

Elephants both sitting and standing were more rare and most likely much more expensive.

Kakiemon style elephants are created with white bodies and sometimes enamelled all over in black. This triumphal and extremely rare pair is decorated with South Asian style textiles (sarasa) on their heads and backs adding to the exotic atmosphere that they must have exuded.

Perhaps they were meant to be a male and a female pair in spite of the presence of tusks denoting a male elephant on both animals. The potter who created them in a mould would certainly never have seen an actual elephant much less known about its physiognomy. Perhaps though neither would the person who purchased the works in Europe.  

What is kakiemon?

By Menno Fitshi, curator of East Asian art, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Kakiemon is specifically Japanese porcelain from the Kakiemon workshop in Arita where porcelain was made, with a very wide background and very crisp angular styles of painting in an over-glaze or under-glaze of colours, but the white body and the very precise painting are what makes it so special.

Over glazed decoration came into fashion in the 1670s, it started earlier in Japan, but around the 1660s and 1670s it really took off and it was of very good, high quality. Mainly individuals began ordering this for their private collections. It was new, it was exciting and it was something out of the ordinary. People were so used to having blue and white porcelain that this coloured on a background was very exciting.

What you see in the seventeenth century is the idea of porcelain cabinets: a huge display of literally hundreds and hundreds of pieces on brackets on the walls became fashionable, and this very much linked to the court of William and Mary. I think they gave content to the court style through porcelain, either through ceramics from delft or Japanese porcelain, specifically Kakiemon, so the elephant is very much part of that aspect of the whole thing.

I think it is a new view, I really think it is very obvious when you look at collections of Kakiemon porcelain which are from houses which are related to the court of William and Mary, so for instance Drayton House and Burghley House, Sherborne Castle and of course the William and Mary houses, which are Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and also in Germany, Ehrenberg Castle. These are all houses related to the Dutch royal family or the English court around William and Mary, and that’s not a coincidence, it must be related to the court style.

This is where the main collections of Kakiemon are, they are surprisingly little collections in Holland, it’s really across the channels that you get the big collections of Kakiemon. One of the exceptions in Holland is one house that we know was in correspondence to the courtiers in England so there you have a very specific location you have a large collection in Kakiemon. Otherwise it’s mainly in England, and later in France, and in Germany there was a great collection in August.

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