The pottery horses of the Tang dynasty are among the most iconic objects in all Chinese art. Fired to fairly low earthenware temperatures and decorated using simple lead glazes, often in three colours (san-cai); these beautiful objects were essential grave goods for anyone with pretensions to status and produced in very large numbers.
Examples vary greatly in quality and size and smaller, cruder examples can still be bought for modest sums by collectors today. The large examples from high status tombs are, of course, much less common and stand among the highest examples of the sculptor’s art anywhere. Two examples in the British Museum in London are astounding for the way the “essence of horse” has been abstracted from the maker’s knowledge of real animals, especially in the modelling of the heads.
Even in the best examples, the bodies of these horses are generally very simply modelled with all the careful observation and formal invention devoted to the heads; so much so that the heads can sometimes seem a mismatch for the bodies they are attached to.
Modelling horses in clay was already an ancient tradition by the Tang dynasty (618 – 906AD). It is interesting to compare them to the horses found with the Terracotta Warriors dating from 800 to 1000 years earlier.
I am not in any sense a horse lover but I never fail to appreciate just how sensitive the artist’s reaction to these animals was.
Sadly, the Tang horse has become a bit of a cliché, with endless modern copies, often of poor quality. Perhaps that is why Chinese today do not value them as highly as they do more modern Ming and Qing artefacts; or perhaps it is because refined surface decoration counts much more than form for Chinese connoisseurs. This is a subject that Alex and I plan to expand on in a later post.