Wanli shipwreck: Peony Dish (ca. 1625)


Peony Dish
Recovered from the Wanli shipwreck (ca. 1625) by Sten Sjostrand
21.5 cm (8.5 in.) in diameter
Provenance: Nanhai Marine Archeology (Sjostrand Collection) W-2162
Coppola Collection

In the year 1625, a Portuguese vessel set off from China on a voyage to the Straits of Melaka. Onboard were tons of chinaware and pottery that would bring lucrative profits for the Portuguese.

However, the ship now named “Wanli” never reached the Portuguese fort of Melaka as she sank half way sailing through the South China Sea. The wreckage was discovered buried deep in the ocean off the coast of Terengganu, together with her precious cargo, six miles off the east coast of Malaysia after pottery appeared in fishermen’s nets in 1998.

This is a very rare peony decorated dish, painted in “reserve” (where the background, rather than the motif, is painted in blue).

The peony is the symbol for value and nobility and considered to be one of the most exquisite flowers. The peony design was popular already in the Tang Dynasties and became known as the “king of flowers” because it was often seen in palaces. Being a symbol of spring, the peony is also used as a metaphor for female beauty and fertility. When shown in full bloom, as on this dish, it symbolizes peace. The dish is totally intact and shows good contrast in its well-rendered decorations.

There are some short sections of “tender edges” on the rim (or as the Japanese more graphically described it, ‘moth-eaten’ edges). These are a technical fault in early 17th century porcelain. The effect is seen when the glaze breaks off in patches along sharp edges in a rather irregular manner and particularly common on the rims of bowls, dishes and plates. The cause is complex, but is mainly due to the physical properties of the raw materials and the varying surface tensions of the ingredients of the body and glaze. The fault was overcome in the later part of the 17th century when the potters adjusted the proportions of raw materials.

Tender edges are a commonly acceptable factor for authenticity and are not mended, as a principle,  as it adds to the provenance of the ware. The ‘faking’ of ‘tender edges’ is not possible as the edges of the broken off pieces cannot be made as sharp at the original.

According to Sten, this is one of the best peony dishes from the shipwreck. The glaze is in excellent condition. The painting is crispy blue and well executed.

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