The joy of collecting Satsuma

Among the many antique ceramics that have been exported from Japan to the West is Satsuma. Most collectors associate Satsuma with a particular pottery that has a brownish cracked glaze and polychrome or gilt decoration. In fact, however, Satsuma was a broad name that represented merely the Japanese district where it originated.

Technically, Satsuma is a faience pottery with a fine glaze. It is fired at lower temperatures than porcelain, but at greater temperatures than other types of pottery. The name “Satsuma” derives from the Satsuma province on the island of Kyushu in Japan. In the early 1600s, Korean potters were brought there to make pottery. (This deportation of Korean artisans followed Japanese military victories in Korea.) Most of the objects produced by these Koreans and their descendants were intended for the Japanese tea ceremony. These early pieces were both simple and elegant. The body was cream colored with a yellow glaze.

This pottery remained fundamentally plain in appearance for almost two hundred years. Around 1787 to 1800, however, Satsuma wares began to incorporate a finely cracked glaze on a cream-colored surface. This cracking was (and still is) entirely random on the surface and occurs as a result of the firing process. Gilding and enamel colors, including gold, also began to be used at this time. In fact, much early painted Satsuma was directly inspired by Imari designs. Satsuma decoration did not, however, yet include human figures or complex designs.

This period just before the 19th century marked the first appearance of the Satsuma that we generally associate with the term today. At first, Satsuma decoration was limited to a few basic categories like flowers and trees. Around 1850, it started to incorporate designs of human beings including warriors, courtesans and children, as well as images of demons and processions.

The development of these new motifs in Satsuma coincided with the visits of Admiral Perry to Japan and the opening of that country to the West. In the 1860s, the Emperor Meija began a new era that stressed contacts and trade with other countries. In 1867, Satsuma was presented by Japan to the world in the Paris International Exposition. It was immediately popular and, beginning almost immediately, Satsuma items were exported in huge numbers to the United States and Europe. Within a few years after 1867, Satsuma wares were not only being made in their original home of Satsuma Province, but also in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto and other locations. In particular, much Satsuma was made in Awata, which is a suburb of Kyoto.

In the 1880s, the appearance of Satsuma underwent more revisions. In that decade, cobalt blue was first used. The decorations also became more crowded. The 1880s additionally saw the introduction of the “1,000 faces” design, which consists of an overall design depicting faces. Another Satsuma pattern that was first introduced in this decade was the image of the “immortals,” which were a group of male figures with halos.

By 1905, colors on Satsuma pieces were generally somewhat darker than in earlier times. Around 1915, three-dimensional lines were added with white slip. The result was Satsuma ware from this period that had lines resembling raised toothpaste. In the 1920s, a dark brown background became popular, while the 1930s saw the use of a slightly redder background.

During the first world war, it was very difficult for Americans to find undecorated porcelain from Europe. As a result, undecorated Satsuma was imported from Japan. These were then decorated by American (and Canadian) artists, including many women who hand-painted the pieces at home. Art Nouveau and Art Deco motifs are often evident in these Satsuma decorated blanks. Today they are highly prized by collectors.

Satsuma is still being made today throughout several areas of Japan. There are at least three major kilns (the word for kiln is “yaki” in Japanese), including a particularly well-known one in Kyoto. Modern Satsuma still has the creamish, cracked glaze that is associated with 19th and early 20th century Satsuma. Some modern wares include a deep blue trademark. This mark coloration is called “Goso blue.”

It is even possible with some modern Satsuma to determine its exact point of origin in Japan. Kyoto Satsuma tends to be lighter in color. It has the classic cream color. Satsuma made in Kyushu, on the other hand, is frequently darker. Virtually all modern Satsuma still will retain the traditional cracked glaze. Colors will be vivid and thickly applied, and motifs may include dragons, flowers and geometric designs.