Finest China

Forged by the flames of Chinese kilns, porcelain (also called “china ”, “fine china” or “chinaware”), has been collected and revered for centuries. Translucent when held up to the light, strong and emitting a ringing sound when tapped, porcelain was believed by some to be a magical substance when it first appeared in Europe. Its trade contributed to one of the first cultural exchanges between the East and West and launched myriad, and for a long time unsuccessful, European attempts to replicate the exquisite quality of Chinese porcelain. Today the craze continues and some of the finest wares reach millions of pounds at auction. To find out what lies behind our continued captivation with what is essentially a manufactured produce, Glass looks back at the history of porcelain and speaks with three experts in the field.
The tale of porcelain begins with early or “primitive” porcelain in Ancient China during the Shang Dynasty (17th – 11th century BCE), and signals the transition from the thicker, more porous, grainy and opaque qualities of pottery, to the thinner, harder, smoother, translucent porcelain. This type of early porcelain was made from Kaolin clay and fired at a lower temperature with a rougher texture than the fine porcelain that would follow. Primitive porcelain was, however, smoother and more impervious than pottery and its durability and lustre quickly inspired demand for it to be refined and used in everything from crockery, vases and jewellery cases to incense burners and even musical and medical instruments.
As we move into Imperial China around the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220), styles of porcelain were increasingly characterised by the kilns of different regions, and celadon (jade green in colour) and black porcelain had become popular. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), it had become fashionable among the wealthier classes to collect porcelain. Kilns proliferated producing different styles of porcelain for collectors and also exclusively for royalty. Famously, Emperor Huizong, who took a great interest in the arts, ensured that one of the most famous kilns, the Jun kiln, produced only royal porcelain. Indeed, the collection of Jun porcelain at this time by anyone outside the royal family was strictly forbidden.
It was the export of cobalt or “Islamic blue” from Persia to China that paved the way for large scale production of the famous blue and white style porcelain of Jingdezhen. Today Jingdezhen is still regarded as the capital of Chinese porcelain production. During the Qing Dynasty (1661 to 1722) Jingdezhen’s much sought-after blue and white style was being collected in both China and Europe, as the production of export china and the porcelain trade took off.
Another popular style of the Qing period was Falangcai porcelain. Falangcai or “foreign colours” in Chinese, also referred to as Famille Rose, is a flowery style, often in an array of colours that included ancient purple, magenta, ochre and emerald. It was influenced by the emerging fashion for Rococo design in Europe at the time and is one of many examples of a great cultural dialogue between the East and the West that took place during the time of the porcelain trade.
Although traders had first brought Chinese porcelain to Europe in the 12th century, it would remain relatively unknown until the porcelain trade gathered pace in the 17th century. The rise of drinking chocolate, tea and coffee led to an increased demand for fashionable porcelain cups and saucers but European attempts to produce its own porcelain remained largely unsuccessful until the 18th century, by which point the popularity of porcelain had extended beyond royalty and aristocracy to the emerging middle classes.
The Victoria and Albert Museum recently collaborated with the British Museum to send a very special collection of porcelain to The National Museum of China in Beijing. That collection spans domestic Chinese porcelain, export porcelain, and the first European attempts to make porcelain.
Luisa Mengoni, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, sheds light on this period.
How did the porcelain trade begin to really take off?
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Portuguese opened a direct route with China, so it was possible to ship ceramics, silk and spices, directly from south east Asia, from China back to Europe. This direct trade overlapped with an existing inter-Asia trade – for example China to South East Asia to India and India to the Middle East. So in a way the Portuguese were able to unify the entire route. Inter-Asian trade had been in existence since the very beginning of the Christian era. The Europeans made it more global.
The Portuguese really monopolised the scene in the 16th century, especially the trade of spices, but then we have the Dutch in the 17th century and then the English and the East India Company, established in the 17th century as well. In fact, they become the real engine, the real force during the 18th century.
What was the reaction to porcelain in Europe like at the time? Were they quite astonished by it?
Porcelain was considered nearly a magical substance because they had no idea how it was made. The coming of Chinese porcelain to Europe really prompted many attempts to imitate because it was white, translucent, very hard. There was no analysis like there is now, no chemical or physical analysis, so they had no idea how it was made.
In the exhibition we included a piece of Medici porcelain that was made in the late 16th century; it was one of the first attempts to reproduce Chinese porcelain by the Medici family in Florence. But in fact this attempt was not successful because they were not able to imitate the composition of Chinese porcelain. The first imitation of Chinese porcelain was only made around 1710 – 1715 in Meissen with hard paste. This was made by an alchemist called Johann Friedrich Böttger who was working in the Saxon court.
On the other side, there are also many Chinese pieces with a design that is completely European because they are using prints and engravings that were sent to China to be copied onto porcelain, there were shapes copied from European metalware that were completely new to China. It was a two way exchange, not only Europe imitating China, or China imitating Europe; they were really influencing each other in porcelain production.
Did European collectors of Chinese porcelain actually use the porcelain they collected or was it more often collected for decorative purposes?
They were using them as tableware: you would have full dining sets, up to 250 pieces, especially during the 18th century. The dining habits changed quite dramatically, so it was necessary to have a full set, and they wanted to have the same pattern of decoration for the whole dining service. So that’s why Chinese porcelain was fantastic, because it was possible to order full sets with the same decoration, all hand painted, very, very quickly and at very low prices. Some of these families would request their own coat of arms on these dining services.
So we can now identify them because of the coat of arms. In England, David Howard, one of the most important scholars in this field, recovered 3,000 services, but he thinks that there were probably around 5000 different services in Great Britain. These were the ones that were used on the table or to drink tea, chocolate and coffee. The other use was also decorative because many of these vases were used as decoration on the wall, on the shelf or chimney. They are still discovered; there are so many country houses, and many families who have inherited the porcelain, so it is still possible to find new pieces.
Your collection also includes some very important domestic Chinese porcelain. Can you tell us about that?
The final section is about masterpieces of Chinese ceramics from the 10th – 19th centuries. These were made for the domestic Chinese market and most of them were made for use in the Imperial Court. These ceramics are very highly valued in China. Since the 10th century, members of the imperial court collected ceramics. It was considered one of the hobbies, one of the pastimes for the educated elite. Some of this porcelain, because it was used at court, has a very special pedigree; they have a very high value because of that. We have included some of the ceramics of the Song dynasty that were considered the most beautiful wares of the time.
Today porcelain continues to be keenly collected and highly prized. Demand for antique wares has exploded, particularly amongst Chinese collectors, many of whom are seeking to buy from European collections, repatriating porcelain that once left China during the porcelain trade.
Two world experts in Chinese porcelain from Sotheby’s and Christie’s speak about porcelain at auction today and some of the most exciting pieces they’ve seen.
Rosemary Scott, Christie’s international academic director for Asian art
What are the most popular pieces of porcelain today at auction?
The most popular Chinese ceramics at the moment are Qing dynasty imperial wares, particularly those with fine overglaze enamelled decoration in falangcai style.
How does porcelain tend to reach auction and who are the main collectors today?
In a number of cases the pieces have been in private collections for many years, often decades, and are brought to us by the collector or his/her heirs. Some of our most enthusiastic buyers at the moment are collectors from mainland China. Pieces can sell for several million pounds. Their value is linked to their popularity. They are particularly admired by Asian collectors because of the quality of their raw materials, their potting, and the exquisite delicacy of their decoration. They were made for emperors who took a personal interest in the porcelains made for their courts.
Can you tell us about the most memorable pieces of porcelain with which you have worked?
The most memorable piece from my own point of view was a Yuan dynasty mid 14th century blue and white jar that we sold in London in 2005 for over £15 million. It had a narrative scene around the sides which we managed to identify as coming from a woodblock printed illustration in a book published in the 1320s.
What do you particularly enjoy about working with porcelain?
For me Chinese ceramics are endlessly fascinating from a number of different points of view. They have always been so technically advanced; they can be extraordinarily beautiful; a study of the motifs included in their decoration is extremely interesting; the cultural and political history behind their manufacture is fascinating; and finally, due to continuing archaeological excavation in China, we learn more about them all the time.
Robert Bradlow, Sotheby’s London Head of the Chinese Works of Art Department
Can you tell us about some of the most exciting porcelain wares that Sotheby’s has dealt with recently?
In May this year we had a group of fine Qing Imperial monochromes from a private European collection, the highlight of which was a beautiful fine and rare pale celadon-glazed beaker vase (known as gu), of the Yongzheng mark and period (1723 – 1835), which sold for £589,250 against a £200,000 – 300,000 estimate.
In our next sale we have a number of interesting items including an underglaze blue and polychrome enamel “Magpie and Prunus” moonflask (a flask shaped like a moon) (est £300,000 – 500,000). This piece is part of a private collection that will be offered in the single owner sale, “The Treasures of the Qing Court”, which is being sold on behalf of an American collector.
Other highlights include a Qianlong Period spinach green jade carved brush pot (est £100,000 – 150,000), and a rare Yuan Dynasty blue and white dragon guan jar, (Est £400,000 – 600,000). We also have the remainder of the collection of Qing Imperial monochromes from the European collection that we sold in May, and one of the highlights is a fine and rare turquoise-glazed cup, Yongzheng mark and period (1723 – 1735) (Est £60,000 – 80,000).
Porcelain has been collected and revered for centuries; what do think is behind our love of it?
There has always been a fascination from the West with porcelain since its early importation into Europe. I think that there is a love for the qualities of the porcelain itself in that due to its high firing, vitreous quality, it rings when tapped; also the combination of colour designs on its surface in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels has always been a fascination; and the degree of dexterity with which this has been achieved.
Do you think new exciting pieces will continue to be discovered in the future?
Yes there are always exciting pieces being discovered and I think that is what drives me and many of my colleagues … is that great new discovery just around the next corner?
by Tara Wheeler

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue 13 – Peace

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