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East Meets West – Chinese Export Porcelain

by Wes Cowan (02/03/07).

Over 200 years ago an American ship, The Empress of China, arrived at the port of Canton, China to join a vigorous trade in Chinese ceramics that had flourished since the 16th century. The early trade in porcelain was dominated by the Portuguese, Dutch, and the English, all of whom had developed hearty tastes for all things “blue and white.” The ship’s arrival ignited America’s passion for Chinese exported porcelain.

Fortunately for collectors and historians the early hard-bodied, resonant porcelains have survived in sufficient numbers to hint at the volume and nature of the China Trade. In the hundred years following the opening of the port of Canton to foreign traders, the British alone undertook nearly 800 voyages, surpassed only by the Americans in the 19th century.

The process of fulfilling a porcelain order was lengthy, starting with six to eight months by ship to Canton, where business was conducted in houses called “Hongs” presided over by wealthy merchants. Some orders could be filled from stock and special orders for patterns and new shapes would take two years.

Early Chinese porcelains were decorated with colors under, over or in the glaze depending on the nature of the coloring agent. Blue and red predominated because only oxides of copper and cobalt could withstand the high temperature required to fuse glaze and body.

One important development in Chinese porcelain painting came about in the early 18th century, when Western influence led to the use of opaque and semi-opaque enamels in soft, rich hues, especially a rose color known today as “famille rose”. Other forms of decoration were “encre de chine”, (literally, “ink of China”) which was monochromatic and produced from about 1736 to 1795, and “Chinese Imari,” which are floral designs of iron-red enamel and gilt, combined with a blue underglaze. Later 19th century wares made for the American market include Rose Medallion, Canton, Nanking and Mandarin wares.

Historical records show that most of the forms seen today are Western in origin. They include beakers, flowerpots, wine coolers, barber basins and more. The modern dinner service evolved during the reign of K’ang (his dynasty, 1662-1722) and might contain more than 300 pieces, from salt cellars to sauce boats. In the instance of vessels associated with tea drinking, Chinese customs and forms were accepted by Westerners and examples of tea bowls, teapots and tea caddies are among the forms found most frequently today.

Special orders comprised a minority of export porcelains. Among the most interesting and collectible are armorial, or personal coats of arms, which appeared on 17th-century European pottery but were not commonly seen on China trade porcelains until the 18th century. These designs ranged from simple to complex. Some persons not entitled to bear arms devised their own coats of arms and had them painted on porcelain. The bearings of nations, cities, states and private societies also appear on export wares, one of the most famous perhaps being the service ordered by George Washington painted with the badge of the Order of the Cincinnati. State seals appear, but are often not portrayed correctly. The eagle, in many forms and variations, became a popular emblem for more elaborate American-market wares, and maritime subjects appear frequently, perhaps because shipping held such a prominent position in the economy of the new republic. However, these polychrome special order pieces represent only a fraction of the millions of porcelains exported to America.

The China Trade in porcelain peaked in the early 19th century, declining after 1830, but continued until the Civil War. By 1845, the British pottery industry had taken over the American ceramics market.

Tips on Collecting Export Porcelain:

• Determine which type of export porcelain appeals to you. Many institutions and museums across the country, including the Cincinnati Art Museum, have collections which can be viewed. Reference books such as Elinor Gordon’s Collecting Export Porcelain, 1977, Universe Books, New York, NY, are excellent introductions to the subject matter.

• Depending on what kind of financial investment you are willing to make, an entire luncheon or dinner service in the later wares can be assembled. Earlier 18th century examples, depending on rarity, or complexity of form and decoration, will require a far greater commitment. Animal forms are some of the most interesting and rare and command the highest prices. Armorial porcelains are still affordable and offer many opportunities to the savvy collector.

• Purchase the best quality examples you can afford; second rate or damaged examples are may be useful for research purposes but will not appreciate in value.

• Be aware that very high quality reproductions are appearing on the market in increasing numbers. Purchase only from auction houses or reputable dealers who authenticate what they sell.

About the Author:

Kentucky native Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at info@cowanauctions.com. Article research by Mimi Morgan.

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