The Orient was the birthplace of porcelain, and China and its neighbours had a virtual monopoly on its manufacture for around 1,000 years.
Porcelain was first made in China sometime in the 7th century. At first, it was uncoloured, as the very high temperatures needed to fire and
glaze it vaporized all conventional paints and dyes. In the 14th century, Chinese potters began to use two metallic elements, cobalt (blue) and
copper (red), that could resist the heat for underglaze decoration.
Much of the early blue-and-white ware was made for export, at first to Persia, and then to Europe. Then, in
the 15th century, multi-coloured porcelain, with enamelled colours applied over the glaze, was developed. This was kept in reserve for members of the Imperial family and courtiers until around 1700, when it caused a sensation in Europe. Early wares were painted in the famille verte palette of colours, with the famille rose range following soon after.
From the late 17th century, the Chinese increasingly made porcelain purely for the European and, later, American markets. Blue-and-white wares were exported in huge quantities. Many featured Chinese versions of Western decoration, or debased forms of traditional motifs such as the 'temple landscape' - the main source of the English willow pattern - or cherry blossom.
Export wares, which often had a slightly pitted feel to the base, could be made to order by Europeans. A list of items needed for a service, together with a coloured drawing of the motif - usually a family coat of arms required was sent to China via various East India companies and the service was delivered a year or two later.
Chinese history is split into periods according to the ruling family or Chinese dynasty. The Chin period (1115-1260) was ended by the Mongols, whose Yuan dynasty ruled from 1280 to 1368. This year saw the beginning of the Ming dynasty, supplanted by the Qing (or Ch'ing) dynasty in 1644. Also known as the Manchus, they were the last
ruling family. Chinese porcelain begin to find its way onto the European market only towards the end of the Ming period and wares from this time are much prized.
Traditional patterns were repeated over and over again through the centuries, making Chinese porcelain difficult to date; distinguishing Ming form Qing is largely a matter of technical details of glaze (thick and uneven in
Ming, thinner and smooth in Qing) and footrims (roughly cut in Ming, smoothed out in Qing).
Many pieces are marked on the base with four or six characters, known as a
reign mark. The first two characters (reading top to bottom, right to left) give the dynasty and the next two the first and second name of the Emperor. The last two roughly translate as, 'made in the period of'.
Reign marks help in dating, but are just as likely to mislead. This is because many potters and decorators applied the reign mark of an earlier period to their work. Sometimes these early marks were put on pieces that mimicked the style of the period named, but not always. There was no intention to defraud; the marks were used to venerate their ancestors and predecessors in the art. Experts rely more on technique and style in dating pieces than on reign marks.
MADE IN JAPAN
The first Japanese porcelain was made near Arita in 1616 by Korean potters who had settled in Japan in numbers - some willingly, others under duress - in the previous 50 years. Early pieces copied Chinese blue and white. Japan was largely closed to Westerners at this time, but a Dutch trading post near Arita brought its wares to
Europe in the 1640s.
Japan also developed enamel painting. The second half of the 17th century saw the flowering of the Kakiemon style, named for a dynasty of porcelain makers and painters in Arita. Kakiemon porcelain was very fine, and very white. The quality of the white was enhanced by spare, asymmetric, brushed paintings of flowers and figures, mostly in green, orange-red and a deep lilac blue. Touches of yellow, gold, turquoise and underglaze blue were also used. Much of the surface was left white and was sometimes moulded.
Imari ware was developed a little later. It was also made at Arita; Imari was the port from which it was exported. In contrast to Kakiemon wares, it was decorated all over in under-glaze blue, with bright red and gold, and a little green, yellow, purple and turquoise, added over the glaze.
Flowers and mythological figures were the main decorative motifs. A rich flower decoration with a lot of gilding, that looked like a piece of silk, was known as brocaded Imari. Genuine Imari ware was rare in the West before the opening up of Japan in 1853, but was much imitated in Europe, where it was known as Japan pattern. The style was revived in Japan, mainly for export purposes, in the late 19th century.
The Japanese porcelain industry went into a slow decline from the 18th century on, relieved only in the
1880s by the Fukagawa factory and several studio potters. In the 20th century, it has been dominated by the work of the Noritake factory, much of which is very European in inspiration.
Read articles and references:
Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).