This November marks the 20th anniversary of Asian Art in London, an annual event that takes place each year in London with leading Asian art dealers, auction houses, and museums. In honour of the event, we are taking a closer look at a specific type of Chinese pottery that has long been a popular collector’s item: the Tang Dynasty pottery horse.
These pottery figures were made to go in tombs to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. Starting in the Qin dynasty (210 BCE), potters created various figures to go into tombs, including tomb attendants, aristocratic ladies, farm animals, soldiers, and horses.
The appreciation for horses in China dates all the back to the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1100 BCE) when real horses were buried with the emperors. Ma Yuan, a Han general (14 BCE – 49 CE), once acclaimed, ‘Horses are the foundation of military power, the great resources of the state.’ Horses were associated with power and wealth, and these pottery figures were a way to honour and exalt the animal. Han Gan, a leading painter of the Tang Dynasty, depicts a charger of Emperor Xuangzong (r. 712-56) and is considered one of the greatest equine portraits in Chinese history.
The Tang dynasty marked a high period of Chinese power in politics, military might, and cultural and artistic prowess. The pottery horses of this period reflect great artistic skill and ingenuity in the realistic depiction of the horses as well as variety in movement, colour, and decoration.
The Western interest in collecting Tang horses emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shown above is a painting by Edgar Degas entitled The Collector of Prints, showing a man sitting in a room with a Tang horse visible in the display case behind him. The market for Tang horses experienced a boom in the late 20th century, with a notable sale of a Tang horse by the British Rail Pension Fund at Sotheby’s London in 1989 for £3,740,000.
Today, exceptional examples of Tang horses can be found in today’s leading museums, including the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as shown in the picture above.