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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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