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Rose Medallion 101: Building a Collection

A collector’s guide to understanding and buying Rose Medallion.

What makes Rose Medallion so appealing? 

Is it the darling details? The whimsical flora and fauna? The curious figures strolling about in gardens? Or perhaps the vibrant play of colors?

Flat lay image of various Famille Rose porcelains from the Chinese export market, featuring Rose Medallion

No doubt the appeal is a combination of all of these characteristics, and really it is quite hard to define the je ne sais quois of a well painted Rose Medallion porcelain. It just has a pleasing quality and a verve that is captivating! 

After all, this style of Chinese porcelain has commanded rather steady popularity for more than two centuries among lovers of stylish design and Chinoiserie. Of late Grandmillennials have revitalized this love affair and found much to admire in the vibrant palette, whimsical motifs, and pretty luster.

If you’ve been captivated by the spell of Rose Medallion and want to learn more about these porcelains, then this article is for you! Whether you’ve already started your collection or are just beginning to shop around, it is critical to understand the history of this porcelain style, how it is made, and what makes it valuable. 

Every collector wonders: Am I getting a good deal…paying too much…buying a true antique?

In this guide to Rose Medallion 101, we’ll explore those fundamentals as well as examine the differences in patterns, the symbolism of motifs, and the evolution of styles. But most importantly, I hope to set you up with strategies to determine the age and quality of a Rose Medallion porcelain.

If you need help decorating with your Rose Medallion collection, read this post!

Rose Canton platter with 6 reserves featuring butterflies, peonies, birds, and bats - a key pattern to learning Rose Medallion 101



 

Rose Medallion 101

A Rose By Any Other Name

Well…if we are talking about Rose Medallion, it is not actually a rose, but a peony! The rose in Rose Medallion refers to the color, and the actual flower depicted in the pattern is a peony – the national flower of China. 

Let’s talk terminology: Rose Medallion is a style of porcelain or china pattern, if you will, that developed in the first quarter of the 19th century, about 1820 or so. It was produced as part of the Chinese export market largely for European and American consumers. 

The term Rose Medallion gets widely applied to a group of patterns with similar characteristics that were all part of this export production, but there are actually specific names for those patterns, and they all can be grouped under the umbrella category of Famille Rose. 

Think of Famille Rose as the genus and the subsequent patterns as species— related but not the same!

Famille Rose (The Rose Family) is a French term applied to Chinese enamel decorated porcelains first produced in the early 18th century that utilized the newly introduced pink or rose colored enamel along with a palette of enamels in green, blue, aubergine, and yellow. These overglaze low-fired enamel paints were known to the Chinese as “fencai” or “yangcai” depending on the time period, and they are notable for the opaque quality that blended powdery white to produce soft gradations in color.

Painting depicting waterfront of Canton with trading ships and factories
Painting showing Canton waterfront with European and American factories circa 1816-20, Image via Christie’s

Brief History of Chinese Export Porcelain

By the time Rose Medallion was produced, trade between the West and China was flourishing although the most lucrative commodity for the Chinese was not porcelain, but instead tea and silks. Developed by the British East India Company and regulated by the Chinese emperors, Canton (Guangzhou) in South China stood as the main trading center, and merchants had to dock there to negotiate and purchase export goods.

You will sometimes hear the term Rose Canton to describe all of the Famille Rose style porcelains coming out of export production as a reference to this trading port. Canton is also used to denote blue and white export porcelain that depicted an exotic landscape with houses and bridge in a central medallion.

Importantly, the city of Canton was not just the shipping port for trade, but also the end of the production line for Chinese export porcelain as it was painted and re-fired here. The porcelain bodies were formed about 400 miles north of Canton at Ching-Tê-Chên where the necessary ingredients, kaolin, were mined and mixed into a clay. 

The process of porcelain production Guangzhou
Painting depicts production of porcelain in Canton, Image via Gardiner Museum

Techniques of Production

Kaolin is the fundamental element for porcelain that gives it the hard, durable body, luster, and translucence. It is a decomposed feldspar of granite and petuntse that has to be ground down into a fine white powder then mixed with water to form a clay.

The production of porcelain was a highly labor intensive process with numerous steps. Forming the porcelain bodies for plates, bowls, jars, etc. took great skill and care, and these clay bodies had to be fired at high temperatures to vitrify the clay with great attention paid to the speed of rising and lowering of the temperatures in the kilns. 

The undecorated hardened form is referred to as bisque-fired or biscuit form. These forms were then glazed before being painted with designs in the enamel Famille Rose palette and fired again. We call this decoration over-glaze. You will also see this referred to as polychrome decoration.

Basically, you need to understand that certain colors were painted on before the glaze — mainly cobalt blue and this is called under-glaze decoration. This technique is what you see most in the classic blue and white Chinese ceramics that are so popular. To learn more about enamel decoration read this.

Rose Medallion for the most part employs over-glaze decoration, but you do see later 19th century pieces combining both, which can be seen when examined with a loupe.

Flatlay showing Rose Medallion and Rose Canton patterns next to each other

A Breakdown of Famille Rose Patterns 

 Too often Chinese export porcelains with pink in the color palette get referred to as Rose Medallion, but as I mentioned above, there are actually specific patterns with notable variations. Again we can think of Famille Rose as the umbrella category for porcelains using this color palette.

Famille Rose  

A Chinese porcelain decorative style that developed by the 1720’s and was popular amongst the Imperial court under emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong. It used overglaze enamels in opaque or semi-opaque soft colors of pink, yellow, white, green, and blue. There is evidence the style and palette were developed utilizing European methods of mixing enamels and with the Western taste in mind. Designs were more artistic without a formalized repetitive pattern, and typically featured florals, landscapes, and figural scenes.

Rose Mandarin – A more formalized pattern that depicts Chinese figures in domestic and courtly scenes and pursuing leisure activities. The figural panels are often surrounded by a fanciful border of scrolling foliage, floral, and fauna. This pattern is the earliest of the rose Canton export designs and examples exist from the 18th century.

Top of lid on tureen showing Rose Mandarin pattern
Rose Mandarin design on top of lid of tureen, 20th century

Rose Medallion – The most prolific of the rose Canton export patterns! It features a central medallion usually depicting a bird, tree peony, and/or rocks surrounded by four or more alternating panels of people then florals with fruits and birds. The panels also called reserves are outlined by intricate borders of c-scrolls set agains green tendrils and pink florals. Bats, butterflies, and birds often decorate the outer edges of a form or fill in the spaces between the reserves.

Flat lay of Rose Medallion plates and cups showing differences in designs internal in understanding Rose Medallion 101

Rose Medallion services were very popular in America, and we know that Ulysses S. Grant and his wife ordered a large service in the 1860’s as well as President James Buchanan who owned a service with his initials in the central medallion.

Soup dish with the monogram of Ulysses S. Grant, about 1868
Soup dish with the monogram of Ulysses S. Grant, about 1868, Image via Peabody Essex Museum
Detail from Soup dish with the monogram of Ulysses S. Grant, about 1868
Detail form Grant Soup Dish, Image via Peabody Essex Museum

The pattern perhaps reached its apogee in the middle of the 19th century, but production continued into the 20th century, and it is still being made today. The quality and delicacy of the pattern has changed and evolved over the years. Most collectors and scholars agree that the pattern declined in terms of intricacy and detailed depictions of the figures and fauna. More on that below!

Rose Canton – This is the third main Chinese export porcelain in the rose family. It features florals and fauna but no people. The layout of the designs is more ambiguous — sometimes depicted in panels and sometimes in a more free form arrangement.

Two small plates showing variations in Rose Canton porcelains

There are a number of recognized sub-patterns to Rose Canton: 

The Bouquet of Flowers  This pattern features a bouquet of florals in the center often tied with trailing ribbons and bows. Most pieces seem to have been made in the second half of the 19th century.

The Garden pattern – A more frontal landscape style depiction with flowering trees, plants, birds, and butterflies.

The Sacred Bird and Flowers pattern – This design is often painted on top of a celadon glazed porcelain and features long tailed birds, butterflies, insects, and florals in small groupings or random arrangement across the surface. Usually dating to the second half of the 19th century.

Mille Butterflies – Features a swirling mass of butterflies often in bold darker colors with prominent black and yellow. There is usually a central panel of butterflies and florals with an outer butterfly border.

Cabbage Leaf or Bok Choi – Introduced in the third quarter of the 19th century, characterized by green cabbage leaves encircling a central medallion with Chinese symbol and usually featuring butterflies. Often stamped on bottom “CHINA” or “MADE IN CHINA.”

100 Antiques – A general collection of emblematic objects representing the Eight Treasures, the Four Treasures, the symbols for the fine arts, and other symbolic and sacred items. 

Rose Medallion 101 -Determining Age & Quality

This has to be said in a Rose Medallion 101 collector’s guide no matter how many times you’ve heard it before:

The best way to become familiar with Rose Medallion and other Chinese porcelains is to handle lots and lots of them! Go to auctions, antique fairs, and museums. Talk with dealers about what makes a piece old and special. Find a trustworthy regional auction house and go to their previews. They will let you touch things, and they have subject matter experts who are happy to expound on the details and history of a piece!

Most of my knowledge comes from years working as a registrar in a museum and in an auction house where I was able to see and feel different forms from different periods and learn from curators. Be aware that there are always exceptions to every rule. Not any one of these factors is in and of itself a complete determination. Rather you have to look at all of these indicators in a piece, how they related to each other, and in comparison to other examples.

Don’t expect to nail a particular porcelain down to an exact date unless it has an established provenance. Ranges of dates, for example mid to late 19th century, are acceptable.

Here are some key factors to be aware of when trying to determine age and quality of your Famille Rose piece:

Attention to Detail

Rose Medallion and Canton are highly intricate patterns, featuring layers upon layers of delicate painting and multi-faceted borders. The intricacy declined over the course of the 19th century. Experts agree that the facial and clothing details on the figures became less defined as well as the depictions of the birds. In earlier pieces, figures often have gilt outlining in the hair and softer more discernible expressions, while birds are shown with longer tails and defined feathers. The designs between the reserves are also usually tighter and more intense towards the beginning of the 19th century.

Comparison of Rose Canton plates from different periods- early 20th century versus mid
Comparison of Rose Canton plates from different periods- small top saucer is late 19th – early 20th century versus mid 20th century on the under plate.

In fact some mid to late 20th century Rose Medallion pieces were made using stamps or stencils, and thus not entirely painted by free hand, and contemporary pieces -what many dealers refer to as designer pieces- are decorated using a printing technique.

Take a look at the images in this slideshow to see the evolution:

Mid to late 19th century Rose Medallion plate
Mid to late 19th century Rose Medallion plate. Note the soft orange color and the gold details in figures’ hair.
Comparison of 2 Rose Medallion plates showing changes in orange color and details
Same mid 19th century plate compared to late 19th- early 20th century plate. Note the changes in orange enamel and the lessening of details on birds and figures.
Detail of late 19th-early 20th century plate
Here is a detail of that late 19th-early 20th century plate.
Comparison of early to mid 20th century plate with 19th century plate.
Now take a look at the changes in this 20th century plate as compared to the 19th century one.
Back view of Rose Medallion plates - 19th century and 20th century
Here are the backs of the 19th century plate and the 20th century plate. Note the “Made in China” mark in red.
Comparison of 19th century plate with mid-20th century or later plate.
Last comparison is the same 19th century plate with a mid to late 20th century plate. Note the significant color changes and harsher depiction of the figures and birds.
Detail of mid to late 20th century Rose Medallion plate
Detail of mid to late 20th century Rose Medallion plate
ACF Hong Kong mark on back of mid-late 20th century Rose Medallion plate
ACF Hong Kong mark on back of mid-late 20th century Rose Medallion plate

The Color Orange

Another notable development over the course of the century and particularly evident in 20th century productions is the increasing intensity of the color orange. This color frequently appears in older pieces and newer ones as the floor of a figural scene, an accent to butterfly and bird wings as well as the rim color. Over time the orange becomes more reddish and more acidic. 

Take a look at these two teapots! The one on the left is 19th century and the other is 20th century. Note the changes in colors.

Two teapots - one 19th century and the other 20th century show differences in enamel color over time

Weight & Shape 

Porcelain for the Chinese export trade was fairly weighty and sturdy in the early 1800’s but over the course of the century it became lighter.

Many of the forms for porcelain were derived from European silver, especially tableware pieces like gravy boats, teapots, and pitchers. Ken Rivenbark’s Southern Heirloom series shows some fabulous examples of this relationship.

Marks

Early Chinese export porcelains are by and large unmarked on the bottom. As part of the United States’ McKinely Tarriff Act of 1890, imported goods had to be marked with the country of origin, so you will commonly see pieces after 1891 with a red mark on the bottom of the porcelain stating “CHINA.” After 1919, pieces were required to bear a “Made in China” mark — at least those pieces intended for the U.S. market.

Back view of Rose Canton plate with "Made in China" mark in red

By the mid-20th century it is quite common to also see a Chinese character or seal mark for the factory where it was produced or you might even see an emperor/dynasty mark for the Qing although these pieces were produced after 1950 or so. For more on identifying late 20th century marks read this.

It is important to understand that marks or lack there of are not in and of themselves the determining factor to a piece’s age or quality. Marks were often filed off of later pieces or altered. An early 20th century piece not intended for the American market probably won’t have the “CHINA” or “Made in China” designation. Dynasty marks were often used to dedicate the ceramic as homage to an earlier emperor. These are just a few examples of the dilemmas with marks and dating!

Common 20th century marks:

ACF or YT – This mark indicates the porcelain body was made in Japan, but painted in Hong Kong. The porcelain trade in Hong Kong reached a peak in the 1960s and at this time demand was so high that workshops had to import plain porcelain forms from Japan to meet it. By the mid 1980s, this production slowed.

ACF Hong Kong mark on back of mid-late 20th century Rose Medallion plate
ACF Hong Kong mark on back of mid-late 20th century Rose Medallion plate

Macau – You will see a wide variety of more inexpensive enameled porcelains with a made in Macau mark on the bottom in enamel or paper form. This indicates the porcelain body was usually made elsewhere and then decorated in Macau. This production line really began in the 1950s and continued until the end of the 1980s.

Some notable characteristics of Macau porcelain are more cloudy or opaque enamels and a less “Chinese style” of decorations. Sometimes the borders in particular seem to have a Middle Eastern influence.

Symbolism

Whole decorative arts tomes are dedicated to deciphering Chinese porcelain symbolism, so I won’t go into detail here just give you a few examples that I find particularly inspiring.

Detail of dragons on Rose Canton plate
Detail of dragons on Rose Canton plate

Butterflies – represent social happiness, love, and fealty

Crickets – a fighting spirit

Magpies – (common bird depicted on Rose Medallion) are said to attract joy

Peony – symbolizes beauty and opulence

Dragons – first a symbol of the emperor, but also representing power, joy, and rebirth

Rose Medallion & Canton Collector’s Notes:

No. 1 Look for Rose Medallion porcelains with vivid coloring that feels luminous but not harsh.

No. 2 Designs should be detailed and artistically rendered.

No. 3 The older the piece, the more unique the shape, and/or the larger the form expect to pay more.

No. 4 Many mid-20th century Rose Medallion pieces are worthy of collecting and you will often see these noted as vintage.

No. 5 Examine the bottom of a piece for marks. Run your finger over the central area to detect rough patches in the glaze, which may indicate filing to remove 20th century mark.

No. 6 In terms of condition, antique Rose Medallion pieces could be 200 years old, expect to see some wear and tear: hairline cracks, old repairs, and flake like losses to the enameling. If the integrity of the piece is compromised, meaning it is unstable and likely to deteriorate further with handling, avoid it!

No. 7 When buying online, don’t hesitate to ask the seller for more detailed photos, so you can detect the nuances of the porcelain.

No. 8 Be wary of buying a particular pattern in Famille rose just because it is currently popular. For instance, tobacco leaf is seeing a major resurgence right now and is commanding high prices, but if it doesn’t appeal to you as much as Rose Medallion — stay true to your tastes!

For more on collecting and decorating with Rose Medallion read: 5 Ways to Decorate with Rose Medallion

Further Reading & Resources

Chinese Export Porcelain: Standard Patterns and Forms, 1780-1880 by Peter Herbert & Nancy Schiffer

The Canton Famille Rose Porcelains by Dr. John Quentin Feller

Chinese Ceramics: A New Comprehensive Survey by He Li

Gotheborg.com Website from Jan-Erik Nilsson

East and West: Chinese Export Porcelain by The Metropolitan Museum

Chinese Export Porcelain: A Collector’s Guide by Christie’s

Chinese Porcelain: Production and Export by The Khan Academy

Southern Heirlooms: Rose Canton Porcelains by Ken Rivenbark

12 comments

  1. Marie says:

    Love all these photos! You have a beautiful collection. Recently I’ve been looking into collecting a few rose medallion pieces to use as serve ware. Do you know if newer production is food safe? I can’t seem to find any info on this. Thanks!

    • Katherine says:

      Hey Marie, Thank you! Rose Medallion is not food safe to our modern standards. Much of the mid-century Macau or other export china is definitely poisonous and sometimes says that on the bottom. Best, Katherine

  2. Christine Darpino says:

    I purchased a Porcelain bowl with canton rose medallions, and was wondering if you could help identifying this item.I have researched many website to gain information about this bowl to no avail. The information I have obtained leads me to believe that it is Guangcai Style Porcelain. I have done a picture search for this item and obtain only one identical match, which was in a museum. I can send you a picture if you are interested. Thank you

  3. Pati DeSoto says:

    Very informative and enjoyable article. Thank you. I have had these pieces in my family for over 80 years and as we are downsizing must sell.

  4. Hi Katherine,

    This article is very well done! I am commenting to ask you a question about the Rose Canton plate that you illustrated. The detailed photo appears to be a modern copy of an older antique pattern. I have two antique Rose Canton platters with the very same Kui dragon decoration.

    My question is, do you know anything about the origin of this Kui dragon decoration? I posted my platters on Gotheborg.com in the Chinese Export for the West, and of the members who responded, no one has ever scene this decoration or pattern before on 19th C. Rose Canton or Rose Medallion.

    I’m hopeful you might know something more about it.

    Best Regards,
    -matt

    • Katherine says:

      Hi Matthew, Thanks for reading and your kind words. The Kui dragons do appear on 19th century Canton pieces. I’ve seen them as early as 1850-ish. Dragons in general are a highly symbolic motif in Chinese ceramics and as the West became more enamored with the fantasy and romance of the East, Chinese ceramics incorporated more of them to appeal to the Western market.

      I have sold a few plates with the Kui dragon border and dated them to 1920s. Definitely check out the book Chinese Export Porcelain by the Shiffers.

  5. Christine Brooks says:

    So much excellent information. I am wondering where you’re situated as I am in Melbourne Australia and wanting to have my piece valued to sell. A very old family piece.
    I’m not sure where to start, your website was a very good place as far as gaining information about something I know nothing about.

    • Katherine says:

      Hi Christine, I’m so glad you found the post helpful! I’m in TN, USA and happy to take a quick look at the piece and give you my thoughts. Once you have an idea of its age and quality you can look at comps on ebay, liveauctioneers, etc. You can also work with an appraiser. Send a few clear well lit photos of it to penderandpeony@gmail.com. Best, Katherine

  6. Susan Barnes says:

    I have learned so much from your article on Rose Medallion. I just recently picked up ten what I believe to be the Rose Medallion plates at a thrift store. They have the flower, butterflies and birds, no people. On the back is a number and statement that it is for “decorative use only, not for use with food”. It has texture on the plate like brush strokes. Is this common for this type of plate? This is all very new to me, but I think they are beautiful.

    • Katherine says:

      Hi Susan! Glad you found the article helpful. What you are describing is very common for mid-20th century reproductions of Rose Medallion. If your plates lack people, it would be called Rose Canton. Many of the porcelains made during this period are still produced in China and feature hand painted designs.

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