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We Call It Satsuma
Author: Ray and Lee Grover
(Article originally published January, 1961)
SATSUMA is probably the most familiar name to Western ears of all the names associated with Japanese potteries, and there seems to be general agreement that the old Satsuma takes foremost rank in its field. The princedom of Satsuma is in the southern part of the island of Kuishu, one of the larger isles of Japan. In the last decade of the sixteenth century, the Japanese warlord, Hideyoshi, having secured control of all Japan, conceived the ambition of conquering China, and, as a beginning, laid waste the kingdom of Corea. Here in Corea, a feudal prince of Satsuma became interested in the Corean potteries and decided to bring back to Japan, and his province, a number of skilled Corean potters.
Until this time, the potteries of Japan were of little account, but Shimazu Yoshihiro, the prince, settled his Corean potters in two places, one at Chosa, and the other at Sasshui, and here this art began, and flourished. The Chosa potters at first copied Corean methods, making ware of fine paste, brownish, or reddish-brown, with a translucent glaze, some parti-colored, or flambe. The most noted potter of this group was Hochui.
Perhaps influenced by the collection of Chinese wares owned by Prince Shimazi, Hochui instigated a new and different approach which resulted in many unusual glazes. Some of these were very homely. In fact, W. B. Honey, in his book "Ceramic Art of China," calls them "pseudoprimitive horrors such as the revolting Drag-on Skin glaze," while R. L. Hobson, on the opposite side, in "Chinese Pottery and Porcelain," seems to feel this ware is most valuable. He also mentions many other types such as Iron Rust with Flambe splashes, black with gold specks, tea green over russet brown, and tortoise-shell. These early glazes have a modern feeling, and distinct appeal to many collectors.
The Prince of Sasshui, by name Mitsuhisa, set up a kiln on his palace grounds and here Satsuma with inlaid decorations and enamels was produced by workmen who were furnished with designs by a noted painter-possibly Tangen. These particular specimens would be recognized by Japanese collectors and some, indeed, were enameled by the painter himself. At a later period, another Prince, at the end of the eighteenth century, reopened these same kilns which had fallen into disrepair, and again the manufacture of hard Satsuma was begun. The ware was decorated with diapers, floral subjects, and landscapes. The mythological ho-ho birds, the shi-shi lion, the dragon and the kivin, a kind of unicorn, were common subjects. Nishikide, or brocade-printed Satsuma, as the ware decorated with gold and overglazed colors, is called, was never made in large quantities. It was too expensive to make for general use, and was in fact a luxury item given as a gift by the Prince to the Shoguns, Daimos, or to friends.
Old Satsuma generally has a yellowish coloring from age, exposure to sun, and general use - a rich patina from loving care and handling. The pate of the old is much denser and finer than in the modern ware which is more coarse, and of a whiter, chalkier appearance. Decoration on the older Satsuma is sparser and more delicate, and does not cover up the object-but may consist of a few sprays or flowers in colors and gold. Another decorative style consisted of panels of gilt telling a story, but again not covering the wares completely. The early pieces were generally small in size-bowls, incense burners, scent-boxes, and clove boilers. Small teapots and water bottles, little pots and covered jars for sweets, as well as figurines, particularly well modeled, were also made in these kilns.
The early crackle, ivory white Satsuma faience, has been avidly collected for many, many years in Japan by the people themselves, and relatively few pieces have left the country. By the end of the nineteenth century, the enameled designs became more elaborate, and most of the pieces exported for the European market were over-decorated, and poorly executed. This later ware is easily recognized, much of it coming from Tokyo, rather than Kyota, and the collector can readily distinguish the difference.
Kyota, and Awata ware is classed today as Satsuma. Ninsei, an early potter of Kyoto, introduced a crackle that was circular, and very fine, which can best be described as "fish roe crackle." In Awata, a clever workman of the eighteenth century, Kinkozan, produced wares with a creamy, lustrous glaze, with grass-green, ultramarine, and red enamels. Old pieces may be judged firstly by the closegrained, and hard paste, secondly, the glaze had a lustre, and thirdly, the enamel colors are carefully painted, and are very bright and clear.
Following are some of the marks which most commonly appear:
The experts agree that the collector cannot depend, or stick to the marks not only apropos of Japanese pottery, but extended very often to cover all varieties of ceramic art. Satsuma was produced in many sections of the province. It may be referred to by its place of manufacture, by province, by the family name of the potter, or by his artname, or that of his studio (which may have been changed many tunes), or by mark of commendation, or dedication stamped upon it. And to continue-by the name of a Tea 'Waster, who may have ordered or designed the piece, or that of a princely patron, under whose protection it was made. The ware also tnay be known by the name of the port from which is was shipped. In addition, the difficulties encountered in translating the language of Japan for the average person, preclude a positiveness in identification. Thus a multitude of names fill the books, giving the collector at times an obscure and baffling feeling. This definitely should not turn him from the delight he can experience in collecting a ware of astounding beauty, in which dexterity of hand, and great technical skill are most important. Japanese pottery, as a whole, shows a highly developed sensibility, not only to certain aspects of nature, but to the same elements in works of art. Maturity in brush work, and balance in design are inherent features of fine Satsuma.
The earth, from which the white faience is made, is found in the vicinity of volcanic hot springs. It is composed of white clay, felspar, and wood ashes. Today's potters believe that the supply of superior clay has been exhausted, and they cannot produce, minutely, the crackle ware of their predecessors. The Corean practice of turning the potter's wheel with the left foot, so that the thread marks under the base are from left to right, in concentric lines, is typical of Satsuma in the early development. The tools of the artist were a magnifying glass, and a brush with one hair on its tip. The hours spent to painstakingly produce this ware cannot now be given in our day of mass production.
Some mention must be made here of the importance of the Tea Ceremony in Japan, and of the Tea Master, and his influence on all Japanese potters. The aim of the potter was the aim of the whole Tea Company-to achieve by means of the most sophisticated artifice the ideal of refined poverty. To describe the importance on all Japanese life and thinking of the Tea Ceremony has absorbed the labors of many authors and many experts. Satsuma was admired by the Tea Masters, who were the inspiration for many powerfully made tea bowls, and ceremonial vessels.
From about 1825 to 1860, authentic and choice pieces were exported, tastefully decorated, although with some elaboration of detail. - Subsequent to 1860, mass produced pieces, not comparable in quality and workmanship, were exported to Europe and the United States. These pieces of Satsuma have oftentimes a bizarre, and overdone feeling, which turned experts against it. Most books on pottery and porcelain did not mention Satsutna, and it is only within the last fifty years that some books carry its description. The varied detail, and fine work, which was ignored, is today much in demand, and has many admirers throughout the country. Some museums are now displaying this ware. It requires perseverance and patience to unearth the finer pieces, and collectors will not part with them.
Our hope in this short article is to clarify the subject of Satsuma pottery for some, and to stimulate interest among others. The artist Kinkozan, famous for many years of the eighteenth century, for his detailed and superb workmanship, is the eye-rewarding answer to every artistic and discriminating collector of the Japanese ware "We Call Satsuma."