Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Real and fake

Unidentified painter after Mikhail M Adamovich (1884-1947) M S Kuznetsov Partnership Factory, 'борьбд родинг героев РСФСР V 1918-1923
Heroes of the battle of the Motherland RSFSR V 1918-1923', porcelain and enamel painting [c 1910 - c. 1995?].
The design commemorates the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Red Army
Located on the outer fringes of the western civilisation it predominantly identifies with, New Zealand's non-indigenous material culture is characterised more by what is absent than what is present. This state of absence is one of the many tangible manifestations of colonial economies. While the colony supplies unprocessed material to the colonial power and acts as a market for manufactured commodities, it has few of the skills and resources necessary to undertake domestic conversion of the unprocessed produce.

When it comes to manufactured commodities such as ceramics, this skills deficit is accompanied by by the unavailability of what might be best described as the presence of comparative material. This deficiency ensures consumer choice is limited to what consumers are aware of, with the consequence being that market is defined not so much by competitive forces but rather by what manufacturers and their agents choose to supply. In New Zealand, for example, for much of the second half of the nineteenth century, this curtailed supply chain had little cultural significance as many European settlers brought not only their material culture with them to the colony but also memories of what they had seen in the metropolis; emporia of the mind.

But this situation changed dramatically as the population became more settled. By the early twentieth century, the ceramics market in New Zealand was dominated, exclusively, by English manufacturers. On the basis of information relayed to them by their New Zealand-based agents, the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent teamed up with import/export houses, based primarily in London, to determine what ceramics would be selected and distributed in New Zealand. It was a small, unsophisticated but lucrative market. The wares sent out were generally conservative in their design, repeating the shapes and patterns of familiar wares. When New Zealand manufacturers began producing tablewares during the import substitute phases that followed the institution of import licensing in 1938, they simply reproduced the familiar products of Stoke-on-Trent. External influences on the design of ceramics produced industrially in New Zealand were limited: the studio wares of the Anglo Japanese potting tradition (Temuka's stoneware lines); mid-20th century simple hand painted wares from the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy (Crown Lynn's brief foray into art ware in the mid 1950s); and American industrial ceramics (notably the rimless plates and the Dorothy Thorpe inspired wares produced at Crown Lynn). There was no reference to the larger European ceramic tradition or to those of Islam and China; to all intent and purpose they had no bearing on local practice.
Unidentified painter/Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Tea bowl and saucer, porcelain, enamel painting and gilt, [c. 1730]. The extensive gilding and its baroque design suggests an early date of production.
Mackelvie Trust Board collection, Auckland Museum (1932.233)
These empirical limitations were recognised by some of the more pre-eminent early settlers including, in Auckland, George Grey and James Tannock Mackelvie. While Grey's primary focus as a collector of things was on books and manuscripts he also made significant acquisitions of Chinese decorative arts, apparently with the view of gifting them to a public institution. The non-resident Mackelvie – he lived in Auckland for only six years – acquired a significant collection of paintings but, as Mary Kisler observes, his 'real preference was for a range of decorative arts'<M Kisler, Angels & aristocrats: early European art in New Zealand public collections (Auckland: Godwit, 2010), p. 20>. A watercolour portrait of Mackelvie by George Halkett depicts him with a blue and white tin-glazed Delftware double gourd-shaped tin-glazed vase that is missing its lip. Unlike Grey, and no matter his proximity to the British Museum's extraordinary Augustus Wollaston Franks – they were neighbours in Victoria Street, Westminster – Mackelvie seems to have collected without the advice of experts; many of the pieces he acquired have been subsequently identified as being not what they were originally thought to be, a not uncommon problem in antipodean collections prior to the age of near instantaneous, high-quality visual digital communication.
Ceramics Study Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. This publicly accessible display storage gallery, which stretches for over half a kilometre, displays a representative portion of the museums collection of ceramics
While the collections of New Zealand museums are, compared to those of Europe, minuscule in size and restricted in scope, the situation is exacerbated by the reality that, even when correctly identified, most of the material forming those collections remains in storage, disregarded by its curators and inaccessible to the public. Museum managements have long advocated using digital resources to compensate for the absence of display space but such a solution has considerable limitations and is, ultimately, reliant on the quality and knowledge of the cataloguer.
Screenshot of the Auckland Museum's entry for a tea bowl and saucer in the Mackelvie Trust Board collection (September 2015)
The Auckland Museum's collection database is a case in point. Take the tea bowl and saucer from the Mackelvie collection, which is housed by the museum. The entry correctly identifies the form and the ceramic body and also suggests, without any supporting evidence, a date of manufacture within an imprecise twenty year span. However, the data is deficient in a number of respects. The organisation producing the piece is referred to as the Meissen porcelain factory, rather than, as Anglicised, the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory, a title that not only provides a clue as to the country of origin, Saxony but also resonates with the autocratic nature of the factory's formation by Augustus II, the Saxon elector. Any connection to the Prussian monarch Frederick II is spurious. The entry does not indicate how the crossed swords mark is applied, it was painted; it states the gilded mark '35c' is a manufacturers (sic) mark although there is a possibility that the gilding may have been undertaken outside the factory. There is no description of the ground colour or the painted vignettes. No reference material is cited. The entry appears to comply with an internal museum cataloguing standard (record richness) of ⅔ yet it is evident that the object has been catalogued by a person both without any specific knowledge of the work of the manufactory and a minimal understanding of ceramics. There is no dialogue between the object and its cataloguer, leading to an absence of dialogue with the viewer of the entry.
Screenshot of a part of the British Museum's entry for a plate produced at the Imperial Porcelain Factory, Lomonosov, Russia (September 2015)
By way of contrast the British Museum's  on-line collection data-base provides information based on the expert assessment of curatorial staff. There are hiatuses in the information which appear to relate to the limitations of the software. For example, while the porcelain blank was produced at the factory when it was designated the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St Petersburg, by 1922, when the blank was decorated, it was the State Porcelain Factory, Petrograd, and by 1925 the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, Leningrad.
Detail of the obverse of Unidentified painter after Mikhail M Adamovich/M S Kuznetsov Partnership Factory, 'борьбд родинг героев РСФСР V 1918-1923 Heroes of the battle of the Motherland RSFSR V 1918-1923', porcelain and enamel painting [c 1910 - c. 1995?]
The 'Heroes of the Battle for the Motherland' plate heading this post encapsulates some of the problems encountered in using digital technologies to verify an object's origins and dates. The plate's appearance and size suggests it is an example of the revolutionary porcelains decorated at the Lomonosov factory between 1917 and 1927. The painting is crisp and confident, albeit a little pallid and the gilding somewhat scant; the painted marks on the obverse of the plate are not too dissimilar to those found on the British Museum's examples. The lower inscription correctly attributes the design of the Red Army soldier to Mikhail Mikhailovich Adamovich (1884-1947) and the painter's 'АГц' cypher is similar to those on other examples, although, like many of them, it remains unidentified <N Lobanov-Rostovsky, Revolutionary ceramics: Soviet porcelain 1917-1927 (London: John Calman and King, 1990), pp. 154-155>. The design appears, rather more confidently executed, on a plate formerly in the Nicholas Lynn collection dated 1925, published in 1990 by Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky (Fig. 3).
Mikhail M Adamovich/Imperial Porcelain Factory. 'V РСФСР V 1918-1923/V RSFSR V 1918-1923', porcelain, enamel painted and gilded plate (1925).
N Lobanov-Rostovsky, Revolutionary ceramics: Soviet porcelain 1917-1927 (London: John Calman and King, 1990, fig. 3
There is an obvious problem though with 'Heroes of the Battle for the Motherland' plate. Rather than bearing the underglaze stamp of the Imperial Porcelain Factory at Lomonosov – an imperial cypher – it bears a blue transfer-printed underglaze factory mark with the post-1900 version of the M S Kuznetsov Partnership Factory – '[a double-headed imperial eagle] / т в2 / мс кузнецова / дф' – at Dulevo, outside Moscow. This might not be so much of a problematic given that it's known that Adamovich worked at the Dulevo factory between 1927 and 1933 and it is not without the realms of possibility he may have provided a painter at the Kuznetsov factory with the design; the painted date on the obverse might relate to the date of the original design, rather than the decoration of the blank.
Rudolf Vilde (1868-1941) / State Porcelain Factory, 'Sieg der Werktätigen 25 Oktober/Victory to the workers 25 October', enamelled porcelain plate (1921). The plate commemorates, in German, Labour Day celebrations
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (78.1288)
This is where digital information would leave a researcher; the information available suggests a possibility that the 'Heroes of the Battle for the Motherland' plate is what it claims to be. It's not. Examination reveals the decoration has been painted on a used, clear-glazed, plate which has been re-fired subsequently at a temperature somewhat lower than the original: abrasions consistent with quotidian use are visible under the painted decoration. While it may well have been decorated by a competent painter in Russia, possibly based on an unidentified prototype, it seems to have been produced within the last two decades of the twentieth century in order to satisfy a growing demand for Soviet revolutionary ceramics, which nowadays sell at auction for tens of thousands of pounds. Ironically, one of the first 'western' cultural institutions to acquire these graphic ceramics was an Antipodean museum, the Australian National Gallery in Canberra (now the National Gallery of Australia), which purchased a significant group of this material in 1978. The appearance of 'alien' ceramics in the gallery's collection represented a cultural shift from a provincial mindset to a sophisticated and knowledgeable one, comfortable with its place in the world.

Recognised for what it is rather than what it was intended to be seen as, the 'Heroes of the Battle for the Motherland' plate was acquired for a modest sum at Portobello Market in London in 1995.