Porcelain China: The Pinnacle of Ceramic Pottery
Pottery is almost as old as mankind. Shards of ancient pottery as old as 4000 B.C.E. have been found on archeological digs on 5 continents. For archeologists, the quality of the pottery an ancient culture produced is a significant sign of the culture’s level of social development.
Porcelain First Achieved in Shang Dynasty China
The most important qualitative breakthrough in ceramics and pottery from a technology standpoint was the invention of porcelain. The oldest pieces of what can be described as “proto-porcelain” have been found in Shang dynasty era China, roughly 1600 B.C. E. Actual porcelain was in use widely in Han dynasty China by 200 B.C.E.
High Temperature Kilns in 8th Century China
The classic porcelain most of us associate with the word is the thin, extra hard and translucent white ceramic pottery. This was first achieved by master Chinese potters in the eighth century, and perfected over the Tang, Song & Yuan dynasties.
The breakthrough came when potters took pottery thrown from specially formulated clay, and fired them in kilns built to generate ultra-high temperatures of between 1200 & 1400 degrees C. (2100 to 2500 degrees F).
The correct combination of clay, silica, and minerals, and the extraordinary heat, produced a quality of fine ceramic pottery previously unseen. Though whispered about for centuries.
Earthenware, stoneware, terra cotta, ceramics of all kinds, were forever relegated to a quaint, very easily broken past. Hard, beautiful, lightweight, fine porcelain was the future of pottery. And it began, and, for the most part, remains, in mainland China. That’s why sometimes, it’s call “Fine China”.
Review of Fine Porcelain Glazes & Designs
Small amounts of metal oxides mixed into the glaze and fired at ultra-high temperatures, produced a selection of simple yet beautiful monochrome glazed porcelain.
Rich Red Oxblood Porcelain
Red is the luckiest color in the ancient Chinese color palette, and producing a red glaze was inevitable in Chinese decorative design.
Celadon Porcelain Glaze
During the Song dynasty, beautiful Longquan Celadon porcelain was first produced with a small amount of iron oxide, creating a fine pale green jade color glaze. Sometimes the celadon was “crazed”, creating a uniquely beautiful “ice crackle” effect in the clear over-glaze.
Ancient Korea also found celadon an elegant glaze and developed a distinctive Korean celadon industry.
Cobalt Blue Porcelain Glaze
With a small amount of cobalt added to the glaze, the high temperature kilns produced a deep, rich royal blue glaze. The dark sapphire blue appeals the eye, and accentuates the hard, clear, otherworldliness that porcelain has intrinsically.
Porcelain accessories large and small are still produced with in all three of these classic glazes.
Modern Reproduction Celadon, Oxblood, & Cobalt Blue
China, Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to produce fine quality Oxblood glazed decorative porcelains. An exceptionally beautiful style, with artifacts in the glaze around the lip of vases and pots, are popular in contemporary high end East Asian décor.
The deep cobalt blue is reproduced mainly for fishbowls and large planters, as well as umbrella stands and garden stools, both for porcelain as well as stoneware pottery in Malaysia, Vietnam, and mainland China.
Ming & Qing Blue & White Export Porcelain
By far, these are the most popular decorative porcelain patterns yet developed by Chinese export production kilns. Developed during the Ming & Qing eras of dynastic China, fine Chinese blue & white “export” porcelain has been shipped to Europe and America since the 18th century.
Blue & white porcelain was hand painted with beautiful cobalt blue pigment in a wide variety of designs, and finished with a clear over-glaze. Thousands and thousands of cargoes of fine Ming blue and white export porcelain were shipped to major sea faring port cities of Europe in the 17 & 1800s; including France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, as well as Holland, Belgium, Austria, and Germany.
Great Britain and her colonies were also major importers of the various designs of fine Chinese export blue and white porcelain. Almost all, countries and their colonies, developed some domestic porcelain production as the centuries passed, and most produced some domestic pattern in blue and white.
Blue & White Porcelain in the Décor of European Royalty
Chinese blue and white porcelain chargers and decorative plates, spice jars, flower vases, fish bowls, planter pots, umbrella stands and garden stools, as well as dinner ware and tea service porcelains became part of interior design and décor in France since the time of Louis VIIII. Also in Great Britain and the Americas since the time of King George II.
Blue & White in Colonial & Early American Decor
By the late 1800s in the United States, what was termed “colonial” or “early American” interior design and décor often included ornate Chinese blue & white porcelain bowl and chamber pots sets, traditional flower vases, spice jars, platters, and plates. As well as larger accessories, like umbrella stands, planter pots, and garden stools.
Canton Porcelains; Famille Rose, Famille Verte, & Famille Noire
By the 19th & early 20th centuries, large export companies conglomerated in Guangdong province, and developed designs now referred to as “Canton Porcelains”. The Canton porcelains were beautifully hand crafted patterns, some reproductions from bygone eras, with exquisite hand painted enamels over the traditional porcelain glaze.
Canton Famille Rose (Rose Medallion)
A lovely cornucopia of chine blanc (white), pale rose (pink), green (verte), and gold, as well as black outlined figures and figurines and birds and flowers. Canton Famille Rose porcelain was particularly popular in France and Italy, though never reached a level of demand close to classic Ming blue and white export porcelain.
Though not widely available, versions of Canton Rose Famille or Canton Rose Medallion porcelain is still produced and exported from Guangzhou and other kilns in China. Beautiful fishbowls, umbrella stands, and garden stools, as well as classic rose medallion vases, spice jars, and table bowls.
Canton Famille Verte
Canton Famille Verte is a beautiful, multi-colored pattern and, true to its name, includes a rich green and often a colorful bird: a phoenix, a long tail quail, or a peacock. The famille verte designs were also popular in the Mediterranean cities of southern Europe, though it still has a following throughout the world.
Famillie Verte decorative porcelain continues to be produced in mainland China and Taiwan in a limited variety of porcelain blank shapes. Nowadays mostly rendered on flower vases and spice jars, sized that can be converted into striking oriental lamps.
Japanese Satsuma & Imari
The Canton porcelain kilns also produced reproductions of classic Japanese porcelain patterns; mainly the popular “Imari” and “Satsuma” designs.
Imari is the name of an ancient Japanese port that once had large scale domestic porcelain production. The Imari pattern popular in the 21st century was developed by the Japanese for export to the west around the same time as Chinese Ming blue & white.
It’s ironic that the original Japanese Imari pattern included classic elements of the very successful Chinese export porcelains. Hundreds of years later, a Cantonese Imari porcelain pattern reproduced the Japanese original with the same rich blues, rust red, white, burnt orange, and black. The Canton Imari pattern is still produced by kilns in Hong Kong and in Guangzhou.
Satusma Style Porcelains
Satsuma ware, circa the 16th century, was first produced by master Korean potters kidnapped by a Japanese prince. It’s a beautiful, elegant design, with exquisite fine gold line detail. Fine gold line is accentuated either by a white background, or a deep red, green, royal blue, or black background. Often presenting birds and flowers, figure and figurine, or even a nautical motif.
Historically, the authentic Japanese Satsuma ware was earthenware pottery, not porcelain, and was later produced for export by the Japanese in the 1800s. The authentic Satsuma earthenware is said be produced to this day.
Cantonese kilns reproduced Satsuma patterns on Chinese porcelain, and this pattern became popular in the U.S. and Britain in the early 20th century.
A very limited amount of Satsuma style reproduction porcelain is still exported from Guangzhou (Canton) and kilns throughout mainland China. Elegant fruit bowls, tea jars, vases, and urns, as well as exceptionally attractive bodies for fine oriental table and desk lamps.
Tobacco Leaf Porcelains & China
Tobacco leaf porcelain patterns are colorful decorative designs, with a large green tobacco leaf prominent in the design. Fine handmade, enameled variations were produced in Hong Kong and Canton until World War II.
After the Chinese Civil War, porcelain kilns in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Guanzhou produced a limited selection of reproduction tobacco leaf pattern. Mainly fishbowls, garden stools, umbrella stands, reliquary urns, and other large pieces, as the pattern lends itself well to a larger canvas.
Elegant Lacquered Porcelain
In the second half of the 20th century, small family-run lacquer factories began to hand lacquer a narrow range of classic Chinese porcelain vases, jars, fishbowls garden stools, and umbrella stands, with classic red, gold leaf, and gloss black.
After applying lacquer, craftsman hand paint landscape designs, birds and flower motifs, or simple Shou symbol designs.
Some designs are hand painted and decorated with hand carved mother of pearl sea shell applique.