A story of a surprising discovery in our Chinese collection stores

By Clare Pollard, Curator of Japanese Art
4 minute read

For many years, this small red vase sat in our China collection stores, blending in amongst other ceramics just like it. When a keen graduate student took a closer look, she realised that wasn’t where it belonged at all. This week, read the story of a small vase that had a big impact on the direction of Ashmolean Curator Clare Pollard’s career. 

‘One of my favourite objects in the museum is this beautiful little porcelain vase with a ‘peach bloom’ glaze – a gorgeous pinky-red glaze made from copper oxide that was originally developed in China. To me, this little vase represents the very beginning of my journey towards becoming a curator, and also my first association with the Ashmolean – long before I began working here.


A small round Japanese vase with red glaze and a narrow spout

I was a graduate student at Oxford back in the 1990s, writing my doctorate on Japanese potter Miyagawa Kozan - an Imperial Household artist and one of the most influential potters of the Meiji era (1868–1912). I was studying with the great curator Dr Oliver Impey, then Keeper of Japanese art at the Museum.

I remember discussing with Oliver one day Kozan’s extraordinary skill at producing Chinese-style ceramics that looked so authentic he was even accused of forgery. Oliver joked that there were probably Kozan pieces hiding in Chinese porcelain collections around the world. So I duly went off to check the Ashmolean’s China store and, lo and behold, discovered this little vase! After taking a closer look, I established that it was indeed made by Kozan in Yokohama, Japan in the mid-1890s.

As an aspiring scholar of Japanese art, it was the first time I realised that my research and knowledge could actually have an impact. The vase now sits on display in the Shikanai Galleries of Japanese Art, but it’s quite easy to overlook as it’s only 6½ cm tall.

A dimly lit photo of Japanese vases in a case, with small red vase in central focus

Beyond this discovery, I also love the vase for the story of its provenance. It was presented to the Ashmolean in 1956 by Sir Herbert and Lady Ingram, who bought it in Japan on their honeymoon in 1908. The Ingrams spent three months in Japan, sightseeing and hunting for ‘curios’.

We know from Sir Herbert’s diaries that the Ingrams acquired this vase in Tokyo for one yen, but not as a piece by Miyagawa Kozan. It was sold as a Chinese work from the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (1735–96), despite the fact that it is clearly stamped on the base with the mark of Kozan’s workshop. What is even more odd is that the dealer only charged one yen for the vase - which is about the same price as it would have cost directly from the workshop - so you have to wonder why he bothered!

A close up image of the bottom of a red vase with a stamp from Kozan's workshop and an accession number in blue ink

I love the way that these details bring the object alive, weaving it into the history of 19th-century Japan and into the history of the Ingram family. It becomes so much more than just a small pot in a case.