3 Things You Should Know About Chinese Blue & White

Curio IQ Series: Let’s take a short and sweet lesson in antiques! Here are the 3 things to know for a better understanding of Chinese blue and white porcelains:

In this week's Curio IQ Series, I'm discussing the 3 things that make collecting blue and white Chinese porcelains challenging and fascinating!

No. 1 It Was Mass Produced

I've heard a number of people say, "I don't buy the new blue and white because it is so mass produced!" Well...so was the "old stuff"! Chinese porcelains have been mass produced for the West since the 17th century. An estimated 6 million Chinese ceramics were imported to Europe when the Dutch took over trade with China.

Christie's Amsterdam Hatcher Collection Catalog, Image of Chinese Junk

Christie's Amsterdam Hatcher Collection Catalog, Image via eBay

In example, just one trade ship, a Chinese junk, that headed West in the mid-1600's had 25,000 pieces of porcelain on board. This ship, now referred to as the Hatcher Cargo, was wrecked on its journey and recovered in the 1980s.

Production of blue and white porcelain centered in South China in Jingdezhen (Ching-Tê-Chên) and became a highly developed process with division of labor between those who:

  • prepared the basic clays into a paste
  • created the saggars (containers for firing)
  • moulded the pieces
  • decorated the surfaces

In fact, a single jar may have been touched by over 70 different craftsmen, and the painting done in stages by different hands. Mass production did not always result in poor quality although standards for export porcelains were lower than Imperial, and it is entirely safe to say that Chinese ceramic innovations far surpassed those in Europe at the time.

For more on my thoughts about collecting quality blue and white porcelains read this.

No. 2 Cultural Exchange

Blue and white porcelains facilitated a vast cultural exchange between China and the West. They exposed Europeans to Chinese aesthetics and symbolism and vice versa exposing the Chinese to Western iconography and designs. As blue and white gained in popularity, European traders began commissioning monograms, crests, and christian symbols be incorporated in the decoration as well as requesting specific porcelain shapes and forms.

Artworks were even made by European artists especially for porcelain designs to be produced in China like this charming plate design featuring a lady feeding ducks with her attendant holding a parasol. The print was actually created by Dutchman Cornelis Pronk in 1734 as a commission by the Dutch East India Company to be used on plates made in China and sold in Europe. Interestingly, the Chinese artist substituted water reeds for bamboo...cultural exchange at work!

Many shapes for blue and white vessels were actually supplied by the West, especially the Dutch, following popular silver forms or European tableware like beer mugs and mustard pots.

Kraak porcelain, named after the Portuguese ships that carried so much of the blue and white from China to Europe, is one of the distinct designs that emerged to satisfy the growing demand for blue and white porcelains in Europe. It features radial panel decoration around a central design often of birds in a pond landscape with panels of fruit, flowers, and auspicious symbols. Kraak porcelains had a huge impact on European pottery and art.

No. 3 Authentication is Tricky

Dating and authenticating a piece of blue and white Chinese porcelain can be difficult at times especially for the non-expert. The marks on the bottom or sides of pieces can be misleading or totally apocryphal and the techniques used to craft these porcelains are still being used today. It takes a careful examination of the foot rims, cobalt, porcelain body and shape, and the symbolic decorations to assess a porcelain's age and legitimacy.

Apocryphal seal mark on blue and white Chinese prunus jar for Kangxi (1662-1722) but acutally made in the mid-20th century.

Apocryphal seal mark on blue and white Chinese prunus jar for Kangxi (1662-1722) but actually made in the mid-20th century.

Start by confirming the ceramic is porcelain. Porcelain is white, grey or creamy in the undecorated areas. When tapped hard with your nail you should hear a clear ringing or singing sound not a dull ding. If the piece is cracked, this is not a good test. Try the light test if the piece is a plate or has a thin body by holding the piece up before a light source. If you can see shadows on the other side chances are good it is porcelain.

Detail of transfer printed blue and white Spode dish

Note the linear transfer break at the bottom rounded corner of this Spode dish. See how the pattern is disjointed. This is a sign of transfer printing.

Next see if you can determine if the piece is hand painted or not. Many modern pieces use stencils to apply the decoration or a transfer printing technique, and of course a whole slew of English dishes from Spode, Wedgwood, Mason's, etc. were made in blue and white using transferware techniques. Look closely at the designs for breaks in the stencil where it would have been moved or adjusted and the pattern doesn't match up. See if you can see brush strokes or evidence of hand painting.

Another indicator of age is the look of the cobalt blue. A tonally even very vivid blue color that feels flat is indicative of a modern piece, and its achieved with synthetic pigments not possible when hand grinding pure cobalt.

For more on the history of blue and white Chinese porcelain and my tips on authentication read this. My selection of blue and white ceramics are available to shop here.

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