MAM sends me a photo of a fascinating Chinese table lamp that is a four-sided gently sloping rectangular shape in colored glazes on white with floral enameling, setting off a raised relief of a Buddha.
I have never shared with anyone the secret of the ‘hidden treasure’ potential of the Chinese vase lamp. Here it is: in the early days of electric lamps, (1920’s) many very valuable old Chinese vases were denuded of their floral arrangements from the front parlor and conscripted to be “electrified.” If you have a 1920’s table lamp, therefore, you might have a Ming Period (1368-1644) vase.
When I search the thrift stores, I always look at lamp bases because almost any handyman can take the lamp apart and reconstruct the vase. I found, years ago, an old Chinese tobacco leaf HUGE barrel shaped lamp base patterned with those bright green rows of leaves. I had the drill hole professionally filled and threw away all the electrical apparatus. It sits today as a vase on my dining room table.
Occasionally an amateur 1920’s lamp maker (and almost all lamps were custom made in home workshops in the early days of electricity) kindly leads through the top of the vase and made a niche for the old silk woven cord in the neck fitting. Those are the lamps to grab, as someone knew they were valuable. However, more often than not, the treasured vase has been drilled through the base to allow for a shaft or cord. Although this would devalue a 19th century Chinese vase, it may not significantly devalue a rare early Chinese vase. You will be shocked when you start to look at old table lamps. Craftsmen transformed everything from Bronze sculptures to giant glass pickle jars from general stores into lamps in the early 20th century.
The first quarter of the 20th century drilled away on expensive, rare vases because early home lighting via electricity was also expensive and rare. The Western Electrician of 1890 wrote “in 1878 the electric light made it appearance in San Francisco and was exhibited at the Palace Hotel.” That was the first public display of a lighting fixture in California; think of all the lamps we have in our homes today. You can imagine how early 20th century householders loved to show off the newly invented light bulb situated in a suitably impressive vase.
MAM has exactly this configuration of a lamp. Her vase is 19th century Chinese Shiwan Pottery, which is a form of high-glazed (in colors) earthenware, from a group of ancient kilns near Canton. As opposed to the finer, hotter fired, more desirable porcelain, earthenware was never made for the royal families of China. Shiwan became known as the people’s ware. Perhaps MAM’s vase was potted at the 17th century Nan Feng Kiln (the Southern Wind Kiln), 32 meters long with 26 rows of stoking holes. This shape is a dragon kiln, a long tunnel snaking up a hillside; the shape was pioneered for pottery as early as the Waning States Period (475-221 BC).
The area where MAM’s vase was thrown in the Foshan area goes back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Distinctive heavy weight pottery with a thick glaze of gray-white, over which additional glazes are added in shades of blue, rose, black and a uniquely toned blue/purple/red glaze called “the kingfisher” are the characteristics of Shiwan or Shekwan (Shek = rock in Cantonese) pottery.
Now what does the imagery on MAM’s vase mean? In Buddhist China, that figure on a lion and the figure on an elephant is Wenshu, who lives on one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China, Mount Wutai in Shanxi. Foguang Temple shrine to Wenshu was built in 1137. Wenshu’s mountain paradise in North China is in caves on a mountain in the ‘Northeast’ when seen from India. In India, this Buddha of the East Mountain Teaching is Manjusri. Indian pilgrims came to China to visit Manjusri at Wutai Shan as early as the 7th century.
Not only is Wenshu the giver of illumination to the mind’s eye, but his steed signifies the restraint needed to control the wild mind. MAM, your Wenshu was believed to have written a poem about reincarnation with his monk:
Drumming your grandpa in the shrine,
Cooking your aunts in the pot,
Marrying your grandma in the past –
Should I laugh or not?
Aside from the marvelous history and imagery, your lamp, purchased years ago at a Montecito estate sale, is worth $400.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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