The second quarter of the eighteenth century is thought of as the golden age of Chinese export porcelain, and with good reason. This is the period just following the introduction of the famille rose enamel, a period of innovation and experimentation when European porcelain manufacture was in its infancy and Europe was crying out for the very best that the Chinese enamellers could offer.
According to accepted wisdom, quality dropped in subsequent years; the European factories had developed and were now providing the market with porcelains of the highest quality, and, with production so close to the final consumer, the cost of distribution was considerably less than for the Chinese competition. The Chinese now had to compete on price, and speed of production became more important than quality of production. The designs became simpler and the enamels less lustrous due to the use of opacifiers that allowed the enamels to be used more thinly.
Figs. 2a-2c. Chinese export porcelain punch bowl attributed to the Purple Foliage Workshop, Qianlong period, c. 1775-1780. Diameter 11½ inches. The hunting scene is after the print in Fig. 1. Collection of Marvin Davidson.
As a young dealer in the 1970s, possessed of little wisdom, accepted or otherwise, I came across a Chinese export bowl with enameling of such quality and artistic integrity that it became one of my first "have to have it at any cost" purchases. The decoration was of archers in European dress, apparently a uniform, at practice. The enamels were bright and the draftsmanship was better than anything I had seen previously on a Chinese export piece, and yet the style of the border suggested a late eighteenth century date, as did the clothing of the archers (Figs. 3, 3a).
I sold the bowl, too quickly, to a New York dealer buying for a client, but not before I had run off a whole roll of film as a memento of an extraordinary find.
The photographs went into a drawer and, although the bowl was fondly remembered, I grew to think of it as a one off, an exception to the rule that quality of this caliber was not produced in the late eighteenth century. Until, that is, I was viewing a general auction in the United States in 2007 and a bowl caught my eye. This was a European foxhunt scene, not a particularly rare type but, in this case, exceptional (Figs. 2a-2c). As I was examining the bowl I was joined by the dealer to whom I had sold the archery bowl thirty years earlier. The first words we said to each other, spoken simultaneously, were, "same workshop!"
At this point it became clear that there must have been an enameling workshop in Canton that employed exceptional artists and was able to take on special orders. The Cohen and Cohen staff started to scour reference books and auction catalogues for other examples of their work, seeking out pieces where the perceived quality did not tie in with the date of production.
We bought the hunt bowl, which was featured in our 2008 catalogue. The design was from a print by the French engraver Pierre-Charles Canot after a painting by James Seymour (Fig. 1). The Chinese artist has moved the buildings to the left in order to create an image that successfully goes all around the bowl. Interestingly, the Chinese artist has misinterpreted one of the riders who, in the original, is looking down toward the hounds, his black jockey's hat redrawn as a black face (Fig. 2c). The idea of painting a figure while the face was not visible would have been alien to a Chinese artist. This also suggests that a later generation copy of the print with some detail lost was used as the source material.
The figure in the turquoise jacket, mounted on a gray horse and with his back to the viewer, is Sir William Jolliffe, M.P. for Petersfield (and a patron of James Seymour), who hosted the hunt (Fig. 2b). The style of the floral border on the inner rim dates this bowl to the 1770s.
This scene also appears on an earlier bowl (Fig. 4) from a typical workshop, and the difference in quality and draftsmanship between the standard bowl and the later example from the mystery workshop is plain. Both the archery and the hunt bowl have two defining features that, apart from the sheer quality, suggest a common source. The first is the spread of the foliage on most of the trees, which is far looser than is typical on Chinese export bowls (see Fig. 4 for a typical interpretation). The second is the use of violet enamel in the foliage. This is a difficult color to achieve, requiring a high firing temperature and great control of the firing process. Although this color was commonly used on hunt bowls the variety of shades and purity of color on this hunt bowl are exceptional.
In the spring of 2013 I was talking to a specialist in Chinese porcelain who described a fantastic famille rose bowl that he had just acquired. He was sure that, due to the quality of the enameling, it had to be Yongzheng period and dated to about 1730. As he described the bowl I knew we had found a third piece from the mystery workshop, as the design he described was not commensurate with the Yongzheng period. I reserved the bowl there and then (Fig. 5).
Unlike the previous two bowls, this one depicts a Chinese subject of figures in a landscape. Its date is similar to that of the hunt bowl, the gilt scroll border on the foot dating it to the 1770s. As with the previous bowls the enameling here is exceptional. The design is arranged in such a way that it fills the surface in a most satisfactory fashion. The foliage on the trees is well spread and there are hints of violet amongst the greenery.
No sooner had I gotten over my excitement at acquiring this bowl than I received a call from someone describing a bowl with a subject I had not seen before-a mounted hunter with two pointers cornering a hare beneath a bush. It was not long before I had seen and purchased this bowl too (Figs. 7, 7a). It is stylistically earlier than the other examples and dates to roughly 1755. At the time of purchase, I had not connected it to the mystery workshop, but when we were photographing it for the catalogue, I began to notice the familiarity of the color palette, the ambition of the artist in painting the horse and rider facing forward rather than in profile, the wide spread of the tree in the background, and the clincher, the use of purple in the foliage. The source for this bowl is The Pointers and Hare (Fig. 6), a mezzotint by Thomas Burford after a James Seymour painting, the publication date of which (1754) agrees with the dating of the bowl by style of 1755. As with the hunt bowl (also after a Seymour painting) the design has been altered slightly for reproduction on a bowl. I was convinced that we had an early example of our workshop, now christened the "Purple Foliage Workshop."
It seems probable that all of these bowls were special orders at a premium price. In forty years I have seen only four bowls that meet all the criteria for inclusion in the group, yet, for it to survive commercially, the workshop must have had an output far greater than this. The only one of these bowls that could conceivably be traced to a special order is the archer bowl-that the archers had a common uniform suggests an association.
There was a revival of archery in England in the 1780s attributed to two men, Sir Ashton Lever and his secretary Thomas Waring, who formed the Toxophilite Society in 1781. Waring looked back to medieval England when every yeoman was obliged to practice archery and the strength of the English archers was legendary. When, in 1787, the Prince of Wales agreed to become patron of the Toxophilite Society, the sport's future seemed assured and archery societies sprang up nationwide to follow the fashion set by the prince.
By 1787 an elaborate set of rules had been devised for the Toxophilite Society and those who were admitted had to furnish themselves not only with a bow and arrows but also with the society's uniform. This comprised a green single-breasted coat trimmed with gold buttons, worn over a white waistcoat and breeches and topped off by a hat, turned up over one eye, from which a single black feather sprouted.
Although some liberties have been taken with the colors, the archery bowl clearly illustrates this uniform (see Figs. 3, 3a), and it would almost certainly have been a special order by the society or one of its members to commemorate the patronship of the Prince of Wales in 1787, probably depicting the Annual Target Day held on the Prince of Wales's birthday. This ties in perfectly with the dating of the bowl by its border designs.
Returning to our search for further production of the Purple Foliage Workshop two designs stand out as being likely contenders. The first design is a depiction of a passage from Don Quixote in which Don Quixote puts on a barber's bowl as the Helmet of Mambrino, after an image by Charles-Antoine Coypel originally for the Gobelins tapestry factory, engraved by Jacob Folkema (Fig. 10).
Two services exist with this design, and the tradition is that the first, both more complete and more elaborate, was produced around 1745, and the second, a simplified version, around five years later.
The first service (see Fig. 8) has an unusual color palette and shows great detail with much higher artistic values than the second, which employs a more conventional palette (Fig. 9). The borders on the first service are an inner chain border and an outer border of flower heads linked by gilt scrolls, with floral sprays between the two. The border on the second service is of four Meissen style cartouches, containing landscapes and birds en grisaille.
Because of the usual assumption that quality decreases the later one looks into the eighteenth century, the dating of these two services has not been challenged, but the borders tell a different story. The Meissen style border is similar to that on a famous plate depicting two Scottish soldiers and dating to 1745, whereas the chain border is not known to appear prior to 1755 and is most commonly seen on services dating from 1760 to 1770. Thus our assumptions are turned upside down, and the higher quality service is the later of the two and comes from the mystery workshop.
The hare hunt bowl (Fig. 7) suggests that the workshop was producing as early as 1755 and the later Don Quixote service falls comfortably after this date. An examination of the enamels used on the later service shows the violet/purple enamel is used in the grass in the foreground, which together with the degree of detail and accuracy of the draftsmanship provides a strong case for this being another product of the Purple Foliage Workshop.
The second design likely ascribable to the workshop is on another, larger, hunt bowl of slightly later date (Fig. 11). The underglaze blue border is typical of late in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, yet this bowl shows exceptional draftsmanship well beyond that typical of earlier hunt bowls, and this is coupled with superb composition and an interesting color palette that includes, once again, the telltale purple foliage.
Although I have held the bowl and have had images of it on my computer for a number of years, I had not considered it as a product of this workshop because its decoration is a known type and, although not common, is seen with a great deal more frequency than the other examples I have shown. However, as I stated previously, the workshop must have had a substantial amount of regular production in order to survive, and production of this quality at so late a date and also demonstrating the use of the purple enamel in the foliage makes this a strong candidate for inclusion in the output of the Purple Foliage Workshop.
The pieces described here are, in the main, depictions of English field sports and of literary references popular in England at this time. This leads to the conclusion that the Purple Foliage Workshop operated under the auspices of the Honorable East India Company in Canton, that it could undertake special commissions, and was capable of enameling and draftsmanship of an exceptional standard.
The period 1745 to 1795 represents the last forty years of the reign of the Qianlong emperor, the period that supposedly signaled the decline of skill and artistry in the enameling of porcelain. Although this decline in quality is undeniable, clearly there was one workshop that bucked the trend and produced work that equaled and, in some cases, exceeded the quality of what had come before.
MICHAEL COHEN of Cohen and Cohen has been dealing in Chinese export porcelain for forty years and exhibiting at major fairs in the United States and Europe. He is currently chairman of the British Antique Dealers' Association (BADA).