For two centuries, China was the West's only source of porcelain. Even after factories such as Meissen and
Sevres discovered the secret, the bulk of all porcelain sold in Europe was Chinese.
Portuguese ships first brought Chinese porcelain to Europe in the 16th century. It came as a revelation to Europeans accustomed to thick pottery dishes and heavy silver, pewter or wood platters. Its whiteness, translucency and delicacy enchanted wealthy westerners.
Although a few European factories finally discovered how to make porcelain of their own the 18th century, trade in Chinese
pieces, already brisk, continued to grow, reaching a peak between 1760 and 1780. By this time the English had taken over from the
Portuguese as China's main trading partners.
China was in an internal turmoil from 1644 when the Ming dynasty collapsed, and the porcelain industry was hard-pressed until the Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty reorganised the Imperial factories in 1683.
At first the factories at Jingdezhen turned out pieces decorated in underglaze blue. The design was painted on a dried porcelain body that had not yet been kiln hardened.
The blue of the Kangxi period was rich and vibrant, and the glaze very smooth and clear, but the European market looked for more. Chinese decorators began making polychrome (many-coloured) porcelain. By 1720, the demand for polychrome porcelain had outstripped that for blue and white.
The earliest polychrome wares used hard enamel colours in which green had a leading part; they're known as famille verte (green family) porcelain. The painting was done over or under the glaze. Famille verte ware is invariably highly coloured and ornate, and may be decorated with stylized patterns, flowers, birds, insects, fish, butterflies or scenes from Chinese fiction or history.
Famille rose (pink family), a much softer palette of colours, became popular in the 1730s. As well as the traditional designs, many were created specifically for the western market, with the oriental decorators reproducing portraits of famous Europeans, Biblical and classical scenes and unfamiliar animals with varying degrees of success.
Designs could be commissioned to order, and it was commonplace among 18th-century aristocrats to order, through the East India Company, services decorated with their family coat of arms. These might take three years to deliver from the time the order was made.
The delicate beauty of Chinese porcelain captivated refined European taste from the very start. Once the oriental potters had mastered the decorative techniques that enabled them to replicate the exquisitely colourful look of Chinese painting, and applied them to subjects which appealed to western ideas of the exotic, the continuing success of their export wares was assured.
CHINESE PORCELAIN COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The rarest pieces of early Chinese export porcelain sell for thousands, but common items can be relatively inexpensive. Look for them at auctions, at house sales - most substantial houses will have a piece or two at least tucked away somewhere - and with specialist dealers. You never known when a piece of old porcelain might turn up at less formal sales, such as car boots or jumbles; old plates are much of a muchness to many people and, if you know what to look for, you may pick up a bargain.
With all blue and white china, it's til quality of He blue that mainly determines value. Any hint of impurities - a reddish blush or a grey tone are the most common - will bring down the price a great deal.
Famille verte pieces command higher prices than similar articles in famille rose or blue and white, while famille rose prices tend to vary according to the amount of colours used. A piece featuring a coat of arms generally attracts a premium.
Dating pieces can be a problem. Experts do it by 'feel', a combination of a number of characteristics. Some pieces can be roughly dated by their marks, which usually give the current Emperor's name. However, in 1677 the then Emperor decreed his name must never appear on pottery, as to break it would desecrate him. The names of earlier emperors were used instead, mainly for decorative effect, with no intent to deceive. Some Chinese jars and vases from the 19th century bear reign marks as early as the 1400s.
Blue and white pieces should be in reasonable condition, while a slight deterioration in polychrome pieces is acceptable. Overglaze painted decoration on plates and dishes may have suffered scratching and fading as the result of many years of use, and gilding is particularly susceptible to rubbing.
Hairline cracks halve or quarter the price of a piece, which will also be drastically reduced by chips and repairs. Unobtrusive damage - a chip on a large vase which could be turned to face the wall, for instance - is acceptable, providing the price is lower.
Read articles and references:
Good standards are Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).