Pair of Large Horses


Earthenware with pigments

Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Height : 35 ½ inches (90 cm) and 30 inches (76 cm)

Unusually large pair of painted pottery horses modeled in a free standing, vigorous walking pose. One horse, painted in a buff tone strides forward with head held high, the well articulated features of the face evoking a determined air, the forelock divided frames the face and there is a runnel down the mane that would have held real hair. On his broad, high back sits a leopard spotted saddle cloth with a cloth covered and knotted saddle above, the tail is docked and bound. The other, white painted, animal moves forward with head lowered in compliment to his pair. The horse also shares the same level of fine attention to detail in the superb rendering of musculature, refined facial features and overall attention to detail.

In keeping with such pairs, the saddle is treated differently, with a large, single well-draped textile covering the saddle that is clearly outlined beneath. Such pairs of horses modeled with such acute detail and power and of such generous proportion are rare. During the seventh century the bodies for such pottery figures were rich in iron and as such difficult to manipulate and often included interior iron frameworks for support. To achieve such a successful pair on this scale constitutes an artistic tour de force and would have been reserved for a dignitary of the highest level.

These wonderfully articulated sculptures date from the early Tang dynasty, a period during which the most monumental and sculpturally the finest pieces were made. The making of pieces of this scale and quality was made possible by a very clever technical innovation. If one were to be able to see inside the body of these Tang pieces one would see that they were constructed on an iron armature or frame, this armature was wrapped in straw that would burn away during the firing process leaving room for the iron to expand without shattering the body. This technique enabled the potter to create pieces on a larger and more solid scale; after these pieces were modeled they would emerge from the mould ‘leather hard’ enabling the craftsmen to then carve the musculature, fur and other fine details by hand. Consequently this group of wares are extremely heavy and sturdy whereas the pieces that were simply moulded are quite light in weight and lack the fine detailing found here.
The cost of production involved would have been extremely high ensuring that only members of the royal families or people of extreme wealth could afford them. At this time in China extravagant funerals were the vogue and were used by the rich educated elite as a means to reflect both wealth and status. The cost of these funerals was such that families were taken to the edge of financial ruin and official edicts were issued in a futile attempt to arrest the huge amounts spent on them.

Objects such as these were not quietly placed in the tomb but were paraded through the streets in a display of conspicuous consumption used not only to proclaim the status of the deceased in the world to come but to announce the wealth and social status of the family holding the funeral. Thus the potters at the time were placed under great pressure to produce pieces of sufficient stature and quality to reflect the power and position of the nobility and officials who commissioned them. The ateliers work became enmeshed in a game of social standing that served to drive the quality ever higher reaching a pinnacle with pieces such as these.