Chinese Export Porcelain
May 1, 2010 | Chinese export porcelain is one of the oldest and mostvenerable areas of serious collecting. The term Chinese export refers to porcelain made and decorated in China betweenthe sixteenth and twentieth centuries specifically forthe Western market. The Chinese first exported porcelain tothe Middle East in the fourteenth century, but it was not untilPortugal established sea routes to China that this materialmade its way to Europe. Ironically, it traveled northwardfrom Portugal at the end of the sixteenth century thanksmainly to Dutch pirates, who raided the capacious, triplemastedPortuguese carracks and brought their swag back tothe Netherlands. With a nod to their plundered sources, theDutch called the wares kraak porselein and sold it to northernEuropean buyers, amongthem James I of England.The landscape and animaldesigns on the early seventeenth-century pieces reflectedChinese taste, but theChinese potters often copiedthe vessels’ shapes fromEuropean silver and pewter models. In the meantime, Chinawas able to keep the actual production techniques a secret fromthe Europeans until the early eighteenth century.
Porcelain is essentially a refined form of earthenware, its“batter” a mixture of kaolin (called china clay) and petuntse(called china stone). Both are forms of decomposedgranite, hence porcelain’s ringing hardness. When blendedinto a claylike mass, the kaolin makes the petuntse more pliableand easier to manipulate by hand or shape on a wheel,where it can be worked into very thin-bodied vessels. Porcelainis fired in a kiln at temperatures of 1,280 degrees Celsiusand higher, the ingredients fusing into a vitreous stateranging from pure white to light gray in color. Unlikeopaque unglazed earthenware, porcelain is translucent andnonporous.The Chinese made porcelain for their own use with a varietyof richly colored monochrome glazes, but they also paintedelaborate designs in colored enamels and gold, sometimesapplied before the final glaze (underglaze painting) and sometimesafter (overglaze painting). These designs required additionalfirings at different temperatures, so a finished objectcan represent as many as three separate visits to the kiln.
Spreading the largesse
European interest, especially in blue-and-white wares,grew exponentially during the seventeenth century,particularly during the declining years of the Ming dynastyin China, which ended in 1644. The reign of the KangxiEmperor (r. 1662–1722) witnessedthe development of polychromeexport wares with designspainted in rich blues,turquoises, mauves, reds, andyellows adapted from the traditionalMing hues. The productionof export porcelain roseas orders from Europe poured in for beautifully decoratedwares in virtually every popular European shape—vases,ewers, punch bowls, and all manner of drinking vesselsfrom cups for wine and tea to beer mugs. Entire diningservices with both Chinese and Western enamel designswere being ordered by the shipload in the late eighteenthand early nineteenth centuries. Many of these serviceswere entirely European in appearance with decoration—copied from engravings or other designs sent with theorder—featuring the crest or armorial device of the familywho ordered it. Americans also sent orders for armorialdecoration, as well as for monograms and patrioticmotifs such as stars and stripes or the American eagle.Today “armorial” porcelain remains an area of specializationamong many collectors.The two eighteenth-century Chinese export punch bowlsdepicted here represent another important collecting area,Mandarin ware, named for the painted scenes featuring Chinesefigures of the Mandarin class (imperial China’s magistratesand administrators) with pavilions and gardens againsttypically dreamlike mountain landscapes. The scenes arepainted in reserves framed by rococo style gold outlines.Both bowls date from about 1780 and are available fromthe distinguished Boston dealer Polly Latham. The first, measuring14 inches in diameter, is in perfect condition and pricedat $8,500. The second is 11 1/2 inches in diameter and pricedat $2,500, in part due to its smaller size, but more importantly because it has undergone somerestoration: several hairline crackshave been sealed.
The bowl was restored byJohn Kovasckitz, an independentceramic conservatorand visiting lecturer at the WinterthurMuseum, which has apreeminent collection of Chineseexport porcelain. “My goalas restorer is to ensure that theobserver’s eye is completely undistractedby the damage,” Kovasckitzsays. He begins the process,which takes several days, by loosening dirt in thehairline with pressurized steam from a small gun (a deviceactually designed for cleaning and polishing in dentistry).There follow several intricate steps involving soaking, rinsing,a steam treatment, more rinsing, and another steamtreatment. Finally he introduces a consolidant in the hairlineto stabilize the two edges. “The restoration is not meantto disguise,” he says, “but to stabilize the piece to preventfurther spread of existing hairlines.” Although the processrenders the cracks almost invisible to the naked eye, theycan be seen under magnification.Latham points out that collectors are often faced withdecisions about condition when choosing export pieces.Despite some restoration of age cracks, she purchased thesmaller of these two bowls because of “the vivid scenes depictingeveryday life; from street vendors to pickpocketsto children playing, all of which speak to us across the centuries.”“Painting, form, and condition determine the value of anypiece,” Latham says, “and when dealing with ones that exhibitflaws or restoration it is always important to understandthe flaws and to decide whether the beauty of the design andworkmanship outweighs them.” These hard decisions are upto the individual collector.To complicate matters further, collectors have to be awareof fakes. “Because trained artisan labor is still easily availablein China, Chinese porcelain factories are now producingvery good fakes of these old export designs,” Lathamexplains. “They are produced using traditional hand methodsand hand painting and are meant to deceive. And theyare being offered as authentic period pieces in both live andinternet auctions.”
Tips for collectors
As with all objects, train your eye. Admittedly it takesyears of hands-on examination and comparison to be able totell genuine pieces from modern handmade fakes. But trainingthe eye helps you to develop the collector’s intuition aswell. The better your eye, the better your chances of discoveringbargains in unexpected places.
Visit museums such as Winterthur in Delaware and the Peabody-Essex in Massachusetts to see fine pieces in abundance. Most major urban museums also have good collections.
Consult dealers and reputable auction rooms where youcan not only see pieces, but handle them. There is nothinglike careful, hands-on examination to train the eye and the
hand to recognize the appearance and the actual feeling ofthese fine works of decorative art.
Consider joining such scholarly groups as the OrientalCeramic Society or the American Ceramic Circle.
Read. There is an extensive literature on the subject, includingthe following volumes, the first two, by America’s doyenneof Chinese export, the late Elinor Gordon:
Elinor Gordon, Chinese Export Porcelain: An HistoricalSurvey (Main Street/Universe Books, NewYork, 1975).
Elinor Gordon, Collecting Chinese Export Porcelain (Universe Books, New York, 1977).
Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain in North America (Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1986).
Photos: Punch bowl, Chinese export, c. 1780. Porcelain; height 5 ¾, diameter 14 inches. Photographs by courtesy of Polly Latham Asian Art, Boston.
Punch bowl, Chinese export, c. 1780. Porcelain; height 5, diameter 11 1∕2 inches.