Confession time...I'm a blue and white ceramics snob and not ashamed to admit it! I'm tired of the trending blue and white, but not giving up on my passion either.
I am never going to own a $5,000 Kangxi jar even though my tastes could easily go there!
Instead I buy 19th century export and vintage pieces with the occasional quality reproduction thrown in. Yet I just admitted to being a blue and white snob.
Every time I find myself suffering visual fatigue with blue and white ceramics and annoyed by the knock-offs crammed on shelves at the big box stores, I re-examine the elegance of Ming dimensionality, the cultural exchange of Kraak ware, the twisting arabesques of Persian naturalism, the sinuous dragons, the lobed rims, and the lustrous cobalt of the "old stuff" and I am once again in love.
I try to buy the best examples of Chinese blue and white porcelain within my budget. I have a discerning eye that I educate, train, and use. I am forever curious!
I won't accept the shoddy details of the poor quality ceramics found in the big box stores because I know there is better out there even if that means waiting or choosing a quality reproduction. Yes, blue and white porcelains are still being made in Jingdezhen using the same centuries old techniques, and many of those I find beautiful. I offer some charming contemporary ones in the Curio Shop here.
No, mass production is not my problem. 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. The Hatcher Cargo recovered from the wreck of a Chinese junk (ship) in the South China seas in the 1980s revealed 25,000 pieces of porcelain headed to the West in the mid-1600s. That's just one ship's cargo!
I would rather have the patina and authenticity of age from the previously loved whenever I can.
I enjoy the connection to the past displaying and caring for these porcelains gives me. I feel it opens up worlds within my home and furthers my appreciation of beauty!
The Thrill of the Hunt
I'm a thrill of the hunt gal who wants to find my treasures on an adventure. I want the story that comes with the hunt, and I savor that spark of recognition when a piece is discovered!
Are you a blue and white snob too or ready to become one?
Here are my thoughts on how to refine your taste...
No. 1 Understand the difference between Chinese porcelain and European Chinoiserie ceramics
Cobalt blue first came from Persia and Chinese potters perfected the technique of painting a white porcelain body with designs in cobalt and glazing over top a clear coating that fired at high temperatures during the Yuan Dynasty 1279 - 1368. By the 16th century, blue and white porcelains were filtering into Europe via Portugal and then the Dutch. It grew in popularity and availability throughout the 1600s and 1700s, which led European potteries to develop their own versions of Chinese blue and white to meet the demand. Read this for more history.
Enter Dutch Delft! As a craze for all things Chinese swept the continent, Dutch Delft potters created their own hybridized version of blue and white mixing Chinese with Dutch motifs in the decoration. Delft ware is an earthenware pottery covered with a tin or lead glaze.
Enter Blue Willow transferware! As new techniques for producing stronger ceramic bodies and applying decoration developed and the demand for blue and white grew among a growing middle class, the 1750s saw the development of transfer printing on ceramics. What was the most popular decoration? An imitation of blue and white Canton ware referred to in the West as Blue Willow.
Ready to learn more about these ceramics and other Chinoiserie antiques? Get my antiques guide: The Grandmillennial's Pocket Guide to Chic Antiques
No. 2 Recognize the allure of porcelain & cobalt
As curator Jessica Harrison-Hall of the British Museum points out in this video, blue and white porcelains arrival in Europe transformed how the dinner table looked. Instead of earthy browns and greens from low-fired pottery and wooden trenchers or grayed pewter, blue and white porcelain added new color and shine to the table. Furthermore, porcelain does not chip and crack like earthenware but it is fairly light weight; it is a high-fired ceramic that has a non-porous body. Porcelain is extremely durable and does not age. It's also very hygienic.
Can you imagine what a metamorphosis that was?
It wasn't until 1709 that a German alchemist, Johann Fredrich Böttger, succeed in breaking the mystery of porcelain composition and Europeans began producing their own porcelain.
The cobalt blue decoration was also highly innovative. It could be applied under the glaze, thus, creating a more cohesive body whose decoration did not flake or scratch off.
No. 3 Question false aging
Remember how I said porcelain doesn't age? What I mean by that is it is not as susceptible to wear and tear or the passage of time and environmental conditions as other types of ceramics. The signs of aging are very subtle like wear to the glaze where rubbed and scratched frequently in the well of a plate or slight scuffs and rubbing on the foot rim of a vase. Porcelain doesn't often craze, stain, and flake like earthenware.
Rather what you may think are "signs of aging" are really production flaws and quality issues that occurred when potted and fired in the kiln. Pitting on the surface, adhered grit, and sloppy glaze coating are frequently found on antique Chinese export porcelains and minyao (people's ware) pieces because the quality standards were not as high as for Imperial porcelains.
I run from the false aging done to modern knock-offs, especially faux crazing like this:
Do you see the faint gray lines in the white areas? Those are craze or crackle lines, which are a fine network of cracks in the glaze that can happen over time due to temperature and humidity factors as the glaze shrinks more than the ceramic body. It can also happen during the cooling process after firing. This is less common in Chinese porcelains as compared to European earthenware, stoneware, and bone china.
No. 4 Identify transfer printing & stencils
Many modern pieces use stencils to apply the decoration. They are not hand painted in a free form technique. The designs on these look very rote and rigid. Look closely at the designs for breaks in the stencil where it would have been moved or adjusted.
Also note the coloring outside the lines! The outlines are filled in with a lighter shade of blue in a haphazard way. It's like they are carelessly washed over with a brush and the light blue goes way outside the lines. See the floral decoration below:
No. 5 Accept the quandary of marks
The presence of a mark on Chinese porcelains does not make it antique or authentic! The mark alone cannot be used to date a piece of porcelain!
During the reign of Yongle (1403-23) a four character reign mark was introduced on Imperial porcelain. Under Xuande (1426-35) the six character mark became common practice. Sometimes reign marks appear is rows of script and other times they are designed in a seal format. Fake Imperial marks are common and have been produced according to some scholars from day one, so you could very well have a vase created during the Ming period but with a fake Imperial mark, and many pieces were made by Chinese potters in homage to periods past, which may have a retrospective mark.
This type of script reign mark is read from top to bottom, right to left. The second mark tells you the dynasty, and the third and fourth marks tell you the emperor.
For more on interpreting marks read this.
No. 6 Specialize
As we discussed in No. 1 Chinese porcelains are not the only blue and white ceramics available. Maybe you are drawn to the quaintness of Dutch Delft or the whimsical landscapes of Spode. Within Chinese production there is a realm of stylistic innovation and diversity from dynasty to dynasty and emperor to emperor. Not to mention the way the Chinese potters adopted European aesthetics and forms to meet trade demands.
Consider the details that attract you to blue and white. Are they endemic to a particular era or culture? How do you plan to use your blue and white? Do you want tableware or statement pieces of decor? Narrow down your collecting to what really speaks to you and satisfies your home decorating needs!
No. 7 Tour auctions & museums
Develop your eye for the good stuff! This can be such a frustrating maxim that experts in the antiques field throw out like confetti. As frustrating as it may be to hear when you are starting out that doesn't change the fact it's the honest truth. Training your eye for valuable antiques comes from experiencing them first hand and from working with the good stuff directly!
In terms of "the good stuff" your mind, eye and hands have to learn what is the right look, color, shape, texture, and weight of a Chinese porcelain. Recognize when those elements come together to create a well made authentic ceramic, for example, or a knock-off.
Acquaint yourself with top-tier and trustworthy regional auction houses that sell investment quality antiques and vintage. Their catalogs and auction previews are the perfect playground to learn. Most companies these days are putting the full or a quality abridged catalog on the web. You can explore tons of professionally photographed and expertly described ceramics anytime you want for free.
Check out their auction schedule and plan to attend their preview events. At previews curators or subject matter experts will be on hand to answer questions and show you the available lots. The best part: you can touch "the good stuff"!
Now museums will not let you touch their collections as you know, but often these institutions provide wonderful learning opportunities from the experts with lectures and special tours.
Recommended Sources to Learn More About Chinese Porcelain:
Blue & White Chinese Porcelain Around the World by John Carswell 2000
The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World by Anne Gerritsen 2020
How to Read Chinese Ceramics by Denise Patry Leidy 2015
“Chinese Export Porcelain for the West” Gotheborg.com
"Porcelain Frenzy" National Museum of Asian Art
"Fake Chinese Porcelain on eBay" Peter Combs