Bowls, anyone?

In his 1973 lecture to the Oriental Ceramic Society, 'The Development of Taste in Chinese Art in the West 1872 to 1972' [1], Basil Grey, the eminent scholar of Chinese ceramics, quoted the reactions of the British artist, critic and sometimes potter Roger Fry to the T'ang and Sung Dynasty Chinese ceramics that were being exhibited and collected in England in the early years of the twentieth century. This restrained and beautiful pottery was proving a revelation to Western connoisseurs, and Fry's enthusiasm was evident when in 1919 he wrote:

“‘Suppose we are looking at a Sung bowl; we apprehend gradually the shape of the outside contour, the perfect sequence of the curves, and the subtle modifications of a certain type of curve which it shows; we also feel the relation of the concave curves of the inside to the outside contour; we realise that the precise thickness of the wall is consistent with the particular kind of matter of which it is made, its appearance of density and resistance, and finally we recognise perhaps how satisfactory for the display of all their plastic qualities are the colour and the dull lustre of the glaze ...’ [2]”

This deceptively simple object, the bowl, has many cultural associations that might inform our understanding of contemporary ceramic practice. The English potter, Bernard Leach, posited Japan as being the society where hand-made ceramics were appreciated as nowhere else in the modern world. It is a direct result of Leach's interlocutions that a contemporary Australian potter would make a bowl designed for the consumption of powdered green tea, in a society that neither drinks this bitter brew or prepares it within the context of an arcane ritual which has never been successfully transferred beyond its originating culture. That there is a direct lineage, established through Leach via Japan, between a thousand year old Chinese Sung Dynasty Jian ware tea bowl [3] and the early twenty-first century production of a Australian potter is a testament to the enduring nature of this particular type of bowl. It vividly demonstrates the ongoing process of cultural transfer that has marked the history of ceramics.

Together with the plate and the cylinder, the bowl is one of the basic elements of the potter's vocabulary. These three basic forms might be combined, distorted or disguised, but the curved profile of the bowl represents one facet of the throwers art, the making of which can become an obsession, a meditation and a joy. In apprehension, the bowl falls between the extremes of shape represented by the plate and the vase. Viewed from a low angle, the emphasis is on the formal qualities of the curve and the relationship of foot to rim. Seen from above it is a disc, a ready surface for displaying the qualities of glaze or the skill of the decorator.

In use a bowl contains and proffers food, or houses the miscellany of objects which accompany everyday life; shells collected from the beach, car keys, a box of matches, letters or coins. The bowl invites the hand and the eye and alters its aspect with each new disposition. Octavio Paz, in his essay Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship [4] writes of the hand-made pot:

“‘In its perpetual movement back and forth between beauty and utility, pleasure and service, the work of craftsmanship teaches us lessons in sociability.’ [5]”

This essay by Paz was given to me by Gay Bilson; writer, cook and appreciator of fine ceramics. It seems to me that is here, in the intersection of knowledge, use and taste, that the qualities of the bowl reside.

Damon Moon
Willunga 2006


[1] Basil Grey 'The development of taste in Chinese Art in the West 1872 — 1972' Inaugural George de Menasce Memorial Lecture in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society Vol. 39 Oriental Ceramic Society 1974, pp. 19 – 41

[2] ibid p. 26, 27

[3] see Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere 'Defining Temmoku: Jian Ware Tea Bowls into Japan' Hare's Fur, Tortoiseshell and Partridge Feathers Robert D. Mowry (ed.)Harvard University Art Museum 1996

[4] Octavio Paz 'Seeing and using: Art and Craftsmanship' in Convergences: Essays on Art and LiteratureBloomsbury 1987, pp. 50 – 67

[5] ibid p. 60