Chinese Export Porcelains: The Other Real Porcelains
Tuesday, June 18, 2019 in Education
A 30-Second History of Chinese Export Porcelains
Europeans began regularly trading with China for porcelains in the 16th century. Trade was tightly controlled with only certain types of wares made available. None of the Imperial ware pieces—those with lovely glazes such as robin's egg blue or rich yellow—which are highly valued now, were available to outsiders. The most common pieces made for export by the 18th century were those with the blue river scenes on white body or pieces decorated in the Famille Rose or Verte palettes.
In America, the blue and white tended to be chosen by those along the northern shipping coast and the floral patterns with shades of rose, green and pale yellow were more popular in the South. The blue and white patterns are still popular in America and have been reproduced in varying qualities for hundreds of years.
The third main type of decoration is called Fitzhugh and started as heraldic china in England. Americans who did not have coats of arms would order similar borders with symbols adopted as family crests. The china used by George Washington with the symbol for the Order of Cincinnatus is an example. Those who made their wealth in shipping would frequently order pieces featuring hand painted images of the ships of their line. Reproductions of these patterns are now available, particularly through museum shops.
Washington's China (image: Winterthur Institute)
The limited access to inland China and the goods produced made China mysterious and thus fascinating to customers of the traders. Shortly after Chinese porcelains were introduced, Europeans began striving to reproduce both the porcelain body and the decoration. The Chinese were able to make true porcelain (using kaolin and petuntse) which Europeans tried unsuccessfully to emulate until a close recipe was discovered in Meissen at the turn of the 18th century. Until then, soft paste porcelains such as bone china were used. The decoration was easier to assimilate for use on the soft paste porcelain.
Potteries around Europe began making pieces with decoration mimicking that of the export wares to meet consumer demand. English potteries around Staffordshire became adept at transfer decorated pieces in "the Chinese taste." Because soft paste porcelain was not fired at temperatures true porcelain could endure, the colors are often less clear and the glazes did not hold up as well to wear. Large quantities of export pieces from both China and England were ordered by Americans in the 19th century and much of it is still in good condition and is available today.
- True porcelain is fired at high temperatures and the clay vitrifies, causing it to "ring" when lightly struck. The ring will not sound if the piece is cracked. Soft paste porcelain has a less resonant "thunk" when struck.
- Export porcelains tend to have clearer colors that don't look faded.
- Decoration on export pieces is hand painted and tends to be crisper. Look for signs of tissue transfer designs (seams where the transfer meets or wrinkles in the design) though some of these may have some hand painted accents.
- Most of the designs on export pieces are not used for the simple, elegant pieces made for Imperial or domestic use.
- Wheel marks may be visible on the European pieces and small tripod or spur marks from the spacers in the kilns may be visible on the bottoms of the Chinese pieces. The feet of the Chinese pieces may have some grit from the kiln present.
- European adaptations of Chinese decoration are often "improved" and actually look very little like the pieces they are based upon. You may note that facial features on some Chinese pieces become Anglicized on later pieces.
- Decoration on the older pieces is usually more precise, getting less detailed toward the 20th century.
- Differences between early Chinese export ware and Japanese copies can be subtle and the slightly gray or celadon tone of the glaze is one difference. It takes a little practice to recognize the differences.
- You can't always go by the marks. Chinese warehouses were full of pieces for export when the marking system was introduced. It is possible to find old pieces marked "China." It is also very possible to find new pieces faked to look like early ones. It was common in the late 20th century to use paper labels that easily disappear.
- Serving pieces tend to be more valuable than place settings, but they must be complete. For example, a tureen with its lid and underplate are more valuable than one with a lid only. A tureen without a lid is now a planter. Some vases (or now lamps) and figurines are collected but the group seeking them is unpredictable. The appeal of Asian design in modern interiors helps the pieces maintain value, though it is frequently considered a traditional element. The location of the property can make a difference as well. Some regions still value Chinese export for the heritage it represents.
The value of these pieces has dropped drastically since the collecting craze of the 1980s ended, but some forms are still worth noting individually in an appraisal.
Books on Chinese Export porcelains are readily available and there are good examples of well documented objects in museums, auctions and shops. Make sure you use trusted resources while you're learning.
- Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, by Rose Kerr and William Robert Sargent, 2012.
- A Winterthur Guide to Chinese Export Porcelain by Arlene M. Palmer, 1976.
- Made in China, Export Porcelain form the Leo and Doris Hodroff Collection at Winterthur, by Ronald W. Fuchs II and David S. Howard, 2005.