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With a strong interest in Sino culture, Robin Best has lived and worked in the old porcelain city of Jingdezhen, China for five years. Here, Chinese artisans make the fine translucent porcelain vases on which she applies her meticulous on-glaze history paintings. She has trained extensively in both Chinese Xin Cai (oil painting on porcelain) and the German equivalent of Meissen oil painting in the Oriental style. Best’s work successfully merges internationally-sourced materials, traditional techniques, and historic imagery with contemporary themes of natural preservation and environmentalism. Through her work, Best raises awareness of important historical events still relevant today.

Robin Best – Artist’s Statement September 2017

Seven years ago I moved my studio to the old town of Jingdezhen in China famous for porcelain and once the site of the Imperial Kiln.   Jingdezhen is located in a river valley surrounded by verdant mountains that are often shrouded in mist. The image of man dwarfed by the landscape is at the heart of traditional Chinese painting and this idea of the scale of man in the cosmos can also be found in the emergence of the Age of the Enlightenment and the Age of Scientific Discovery. The subject of my painting is history and more especially the history of European trade and its association with scientific discovery and its attendant cross-cultural links with Asia and the New World. Fueling the rampant success of world trade was the appetite of the European for exotic foods and spices and luxury goods in the form of printed textiles, porcelain and lacquer ware as well as for the serialized stories of the natural history scientists who risked life and limb to bring back animals and plants for their private zoos and gardens: the naturalist William Bartram’s The Travels, has been in print continuously since 1791. I use the method of Xin Cai polychrome on-glaze painting on porcelain that originated in China during the Qing Dynasty. The Meissen Factory in Saxony would expand the colour palette to accommodate the needs of landscape and history painting on porcelain. Using a small palette knife, the coloured powders, mixed with fat oil and thinned with pure turpentine, are applied with a brush that tapers to a very fine point and can used to make both fine lines and washes. — Robin Best

The Audobon Vase

The Audobon Vase, 2017, hand thrown translucent porcelain with over-glaze painting, 15.75 x 10″

John James Audubon was an ornithologist, naturalist and painter and was regarded as one of the most accomplished natural history painters of the bird and animal life of North America. Born in Haiti, educated in France, he moved to America in 1803 to escape conscription into Napoleon’s expanding army. In 1820 he began in earnest to document the birdlife of North America traveling south to the Mississippi where he painted the elegant wading birds that were to become the signature portraits of birds set in their natural environments. His us major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839). Audubon identified 25 new species. In 1826 with his wife’s support Audubon took his collection of over 300 bird paintings and drawings to England where he raised enough money to set into print his seminal publication that captivated the British and European readers. Audubon’s paintings appear on this vase in comical and dramatic life-threatening situations depicting nature’s hunters and hunted performing in and around the mythical trees inspired by the verdant foliage of the Mississippi. — Robin Best

The Aldrovandi Vases

A pair of hand-thrown translucent vases with coloured on-glaze xin cai painting, made by the artist is Jingdezhen, China, 2017 – 30cms x 13cms. Ulisse Aldrovandi was a 16th century Italian naturalist and regarded by many including the Comte de Buffon and Carl Linnaeus as the father of the science of natural history and was instrumental in the establishment of the Bologna Botanical Gardens. A major figure in the advancement of natural history and not without intrigue, the Encyclopædia Britannica describes his life thus:

Ulisse Aldrovandi, (born Sept. 11, 1522B, Bologna—died May 4, 1605, Bologna), Renaissance naturalist and physician noted for his systematic and accurate observations of animals, plants, and minerals. After studying mathematics, Latin, law, and philosophy, Aldrovandi went to Padua in about 1545 to continue his studies. There he began to study medicine, the field in which he eventually earned a degree in 1553. On his return to Bologna in 1549 he was arrested, charged with heresy, and sent to Rome, where he was able to exonerate himself, probably in part because of his noble parentage. Returning to the University of Bologna, he was made a full professor in 1561 as a result of the great interest in his lectures, in which he presented natural history as a systematic study. He founded a botanical garden at Bologna and was named curator. His appointment as inspector of drugs and pharmacies met opposition, but Pope Gregory XIII confirmed the appointment. The official pharmacopoeia that Aldrovandi wrote, Antidotarii Bononiensis Epitome (1574), describing the constituents and properties of drugs, became a model for such works. Pope Gregory XIII gave Aldrovandi financial assistance in publishing his numerous works on natural history, which included detailed observations of the day-to-day changes occurring in the incubation of the chicken embryo. Only four volumes, with detailed copperplate engravings, appeared during his lifetime; the remainder were prepared by his students from only a portion of his manuscripts. He also wrote Le antichità della città di Roma (1556), an account of various statues in Rome. His museum of biological specimens, classified according to his own system and left to the city of Bologna at his death, contributed to the later development of animal taxonomy.

— Robin Best

The Knight of the Lions

The Knight of the Lions — White porcelain sculpture with on glaze Xin Cai painting made by the artist in Jingdezhen, 2016. Dimensions 36cms (14 1/8”) x 20 cms (7 7/8”) x 26 cms (10 1/4”) Monkey portraiture was a favorite subject of French decorative artists of the 18th and 19th centuries with entire rooms, singeries, given over to imagery of this exotic animal mimicking human behavior. This monkey, seated on his satin cushion, is relating the adventures of Cevantes’ famous character Don Quixote. Some of the more absurd episodes of the story are retold in the imagery of the raspberry-red, painted French toile that covers his body. His torso is painted to represent the16th century Spanish decorative armor. Don Quixote lives in La Mancha, Spain and more than a little obsessed with knight errantry and who with his nag Rocinante, his faithful squire Sancho Panza and Sancho’s ass Dapple, takes to the road in search of heroic adventure and to prove himself to Dulcinea del Toboso, a local peasant girl. In his many adventures Cervantes’ hero imagines windmills as giants, mobs of sheep as two great warring armies and a washbasin as Mambrino’s helmet. His misguided heroism usually leads to serious injury, however he becomes known as The Knight of the Lions in an episode concerning the King’s lions when he successfully challenges an indifferent lion that is unwilling to leave the comfort of his cage. Eventually his friends, to save him from himself, trick him into returning home where he repents his silliness, catches fever and dies.

The Arcana Bowl

The Arcana is an illustrated record of the observations of the first naturalists who worked in Australia between 1770 and 1805. Written by George Perry, it was published in 1811. Made in Jingdezhen, China, this cast eggshell porcelain bowl was hand-painted by Robin Best with on-glaze colours in Jingdezhen in 2011. The bowl is impressive in both scope of the subject and size — measuring 23 x 9.5″. The Arcana Bowl is a composition of hand-painted, exotic images gathered together to describe the success of the second age of discovery that was closely tied to trade in exotic goods including spices, fabrics, porcelains, tea, animals, and plants and much more, that were bound for the markets of Europe and the Americas. In 1801, Captain Mathew Flinders left England on the ship Endevour to finish mapping the coastline of Australia that was begun by James Cook in 1770. His other mission was to record and collect the native fauna and flora of the country. Many of the live animals, including kangaroos that were captured with a view to returning them to England, died en route as Flinders was detained by the French at the Isle de France for 6 years on suspicion of being a spy — war having broken out again with France. The Chintz patterns on the bowl are taken from fabrics that were orginally made on the Coromandel Coast of South Eastern India, home to a flourishing textile industry that supplied both England and Europe with beautiful hand printed cottons.

Wallacea Vases

Wallacea is located in western Indonesia and is transitional zone for vastly different animal species. It is made up of a group of islands bounded by The Wallace Line to the east and Lydekker’s Line to the west. The Wallace Line separates Borneo and Sulawesi and continues south between the islands of Bali and Lombok that are separated by a mere 35 kilometers of sea. The Wallace Line was drawn up in 1859 by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace where he noticed the distinct difference in animal species on either side of this line. He recorded that to the east could be found tigers and monkeys but to the west could be found a transition zone and then the vastly different animal species of Australia and New Guinea consisting of marsupials like the bush wallaby, the tree kangaroo and the spectacular birds of paradise. Wallace’s research into the distribution of animal species between the islands of Indonesia and New Guinea is recognized today for its co-contribution to Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of The Origin of the Species. The Vases    The animal and bird imagery I have used in the composition of Wallacea have been extracted from the natural history drawings of the Dutch scientists associated with the Dutch East India Company the largest of the East India companies that traded in spices from the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. These drawings can be viewed on the website of Naturalis Biodiversity Center of the Netherlands. The plants that decorate the vases are derived from the fantastic patterns of printed Indian Chintz – an essential part of all the East India trading companies of France, Britain, Portugal, Spain and Holland. Sprinkled around the Chintz are stylized flowers, plants and insects of the area.

Mark Catesby Vase

Mark Catesby was an English naturalist who sailed to North America in 1712 to collect and study the fauna and flora of the region.  This was the age of Enlightenment and the emergence of the amateur scientist.  In Virginia, Catesby began to make his first exquisite natural history drawings; these were to be his entre into the elite scientific circles of the day. He was then offered the position of Naturalist to the Governor of South Carolina and as Catesby was not a man of means, sponsors were found in the guise of the wealthy collector Sir Hans Sloan and the botanist William Sherard. Funds in hand Catesby returned to North America in 1722 where he travelled through the southern states collecting and making drawings of the plants and animals that would be the basis of his pioneering two volume publication ‘The Natural History of  North and South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and The Bahama Islands’.  After its publication in 1733 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and Carlolus Linnaeus, the scientist who began the groundbreaking work of classifying plants, included much information from Catesby’s Natural History in his 10th edition of Systema Naturae of 1758 and naming after him Catesbaea lilythorn, a genus of thorny shrubs of south-eastern United States. In order to complete the extensive two volume tome he relied heavily on many of his American naturalist friends to provide specimens to compliment his own work among whom was William Bartram whose own later publication ‘The Travels’ would captivate the world. Catesby’s etchings are charming and rendered in his own original and playful style; he includes some natural vegetation that may sometimes appear to be a little out of scale with the animal associated with it.  He was probably inspired by the work of Maria Sibylla Merian who published her work on insects and plants Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium of 1705. Many of the images on the Catesby Vase have been taken from the first volume of his great work, and an original first edition that I was fortunate enough to be able to peruse in the library of the Natural History Museum in New York.  Some of the plants I have chosen to include in the composition of the vase are introduced species my own imagination with markings on the vines and leaves from patterns inspired by the art of the Cherokee Indians of the region.

The Florida Vases

This pair of vases were painted by the artist on translucent porcelain vases hand-thrown by artisans using traditional methods in Jingdezhen, China. Best uses an oil painting technique known as Xin Cai or China Paint. The subject of the paintings is dedicated to the work of two amateur scientist plant-collectors: Mark Catesby and William Bartram. Mark Catesby was an English naturalist who first visited Virginia in 1712 and then the isolated British colonies of the south where he spent several years exploring the region drawing and collecting plants and sending back seeds to his sponsors including The Royal Society in London. Between 1731 and 1741 he published his colossal work Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. It was the first published account of flora and fauna of North America. The second volume was completed in 1743, and in 1746-1747 he produced a supplement from material sent to him by friends in America, particularly John Bartram of Philadelphia who had become botanist to the King. John Bartram’s son William Bartram shared his father’s botanical interests financing expeditions to gather plants in North and South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. His famous book ‘The Travels’ was first published in 1791 and has never been out of print. It was widely read through Europe and influenced the writings of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Chateaubriand. The paintings of the fauna and flora on the vases are faithful copies of the illustrated works of Catesby and Bartram. Their charmingly rendered drawings were some of the first natural history paintings to place the birds and animals dramatically in their natural environments– those of the hunter and the hunted. These two scientist adventurers must have been aware of the danger that they faced themselves in their wanderings through crocodile infested waters and sometimes with none too friendly Native Americans across whose land they attempted to travel. Danger aside; some of their work could sometimes show a sense of humor even with a touch of the absurd. Catesby on horseback and Bartram in his bark, our two heroes are to be found in the vase painting dwarfed amongst the imagery of their own drawings and a forest of colorful plants and flowers borrowed from old Chintz and also some inspired by the flora of Florida itself. On the necks of the vases can be seen beetles framed in the twinflower creeper (linnaea borealis), named after another great 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus who gave us the science of classifying plants. My story of science and discovery begins with the image of Catesby’s one-eyed buffalo under that of the tree of Indian Chintz. These widely traded printed cottons of Coromandel Coast of India, are favorite patterns of mine representing for me the flowering of the age of science and industry. Cotton growing also formed the backbone of the economy of the southern states of America and cotton manufacture bolstered France and England’s thriving economies while they fought each other over sovereignty of India and North America. — Robin Best, Jingdezhen, 2014

The British East India Company – Trade and War

Robin Best, “The British East India Company – Trade and Colonise.” 2016. Made by the artist in Jingdezhen, China 13 × 6 15/16 × 4 5/8 in. (33.02 × 17.62 × 11.75 cm). In the collection of the Minneapolis Art Institute, photo courtesy Adrian Sassoon

“The British East India Company came into being as a joint stock company in 1600 to exploit the growing spice trade of the East Indies already dominated by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Later in 1664 the French East India Company was formed. It was trade with India that really made The British East India Company wealthy. Indian printed chintz textiles and later tea production being the most enduring market commodities throughout the 18th and 19th centuries set Britain on the road to being a very wealthy nation. China produced silks, porcelain and tea – commodities much sought after in Britain and paid for in Sterling Silver.  Britain, fearful of its ever-depleting silver reserves, encouraged the export of opium to China to address the trade deficit with opium grown in India. The Chinese Emperor opposed the use of opium and his attempt to expel the British and Indian traders was thwarted by an army of imported Indian Sepoys. After Chinese capitulation the treaty ports of Canton and Shanghai were created with Hong Kong being ceded to the British in 1842. The French were given equal trading rights in 1844 with the Treaty of Whampoa. The Portuguese maintained their presence in Macau. The East India Company also operated ships to the colonies of America of New Holland (Australia).  As with the Nabobs in India there was much wealth to be made by enterprising individuals in the import and export market of the colonies.”

The Wallace Line

As a traveler myself, I am particularly interested in the travels of natural history painter scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries. They combined their scientific curiosity with discovery, boarding vessels for far off lands, there to gather all manner of exotic plants and animals to bring back to hungry collectors in Europe. This piece, The Wallace Line, is the story of one such collector, Alfred Russel Wallace, an amateur scientist who studied species distribution between the Indonesian archipelago and Australasia. His work led to the recognition of of the Wallace Line, an imaginary line drawn through the Celebes Sea. On one side of the line live Asian tigers and monkeys and on the other there are Australian marsupial kangaroos and the beautiful birds of paradise of New Guinea.


Robin Best, (b. 1953, Perth, Western Australia) graduated from the South Australian School of Art with a Diploma in Design Ceramics in 1976 and the University of South Australia, Australia with a Graduate Diploma in the Visual Arts in 1993.

With a strong interest in Sino culture, Robin Best has lived and worked in the old porcelain city of Jingdezhen, China for five years. Here, Chinese artisans make the fine translucent porcelain vases on which she applies her meticulous on-glaze history paintings. She has trained extensively in both Chinese Xin Cai (oil painting on porcelain) and the German equivalent of Meissen oil painting in the Oriental style.

Best’s work successfully merges internationally-sourced materials, traditional techniques, and historic imagery with contemporary themes of natural preservation and environmentalism. Through her work, Best raises awareness of important historical events still relevant today.

Best has a long resume with work included in numerous collections and exhibitions. Her most recent exhibitions were the Ceramic Top 40: New & Selected Works at Gallery 224 of the Office for the Arts at Harvard (Allston, MA), Ceramic Top 40: 2013 at the Red Star Studios at Belger Crane Studios (Kansas City, MO), and New Blue and White at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA, Boston, MA). Her work can be found in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh, Scotland), Art Gallery of Western Australia (Perth, Australia), and Seto Marutto Museum (Seto, Aichi-ken, Japan).







In Pursuit of China 2014

China in China Western artists are increasingly traveling to China to research and produce  work  for exhibitions in the USA, Australia and Europe.  Over a third of the artists shown…

Ferrin Contemporary’s 10 Best of 2013

[one_half content_align=”left”] New Blue and White Museum of Fine Arts, Boston important exhibition of contemporary cross-cultural interchange Robin Best Project Art visiting artist from Jingdezhen, China summer 2013 Animal Stories…

Ceramic Top 40 | 2013

Exhibition of artists under and over age 40 currently working in ceramics November 1 – January 25, 2014 presented by Ferrin Contemporary and Red Star Studios at Belger Crane Yard…