“I’ve got just the thing.” She teetered near the top of a rickety wooden ladder and reached up to a dusty cardboard box on the top shelf of the cobwebby garage. I steadied the ladder from below. Brushing the dust off the box revealed the word “China” written in marker. Old newspapers crinkled back from around the two fragile bone china cups and saucers of different designs as we opened the box. Laid away so long ago, each cup was the remnant of a larger set, long lost even before she owned these pieces. Each cup the last in a line of service that extended into the past.
In their day, they sat on white tablecloths surrounded by silver, scones, cream and bustling servants and elegant ladies. Hot steam rose from the black English tea they held and held again and held again until the high tea rang with laughter and conversation and good spirits. That was long ago in days we can only imagine, not knowing, really, where these pieces came from. And now only these two remain. One boldly painted in red roses and upstanding, the other more delicate and fluted.
“Perfect.” I said as I folded the cardboard closed. I would paint these cups and, in the process, find a new way to observe and think as I paint. I would take what I learn and bring it outside, painting the landscape in the same way.
It is such a long journey from the origins of china somewhere in China perhaps as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) but certainly brought to perfection by the Tang Dynasty (618–907) to the studio of an artist who sits and paints a delicate china cup. Who knows if it is even true, but perhaps Marco Polo brought back carefully wrapped examples of china, back from his long sojourn with Kublai Khan. He may have wrapped them in chinese paper and packed them in a box marked “Cathay”. A few hundred years later the English steal the formula and Josiah Spode perfects “bone” china then centuries later an artist sets up the last surviving tea cup from a set of bone china and he paints it in his studio. All for the sake of art.
Perhaps it is too much to see a link between ancient China and a painting in my studio but, I don’t know, isn’t everything connected somehow? Isn’t everything speaking to everything else? The voices are many that come to us from the past and inform us of the future and the streams of influence are many in this river of art that we artists swim in, and my little painting has floated to the surface and I am happy for it. I’m happy for the streams of influence, for Marco Polo, for the ancient kingdom, for canvas, brushes, and paint, for delicate tea cups, for her who reached the box marked “China” down to me, but, most of all, for the clarity that I found observing and painting this single tea cup.