‘Made in China’ was once the ultimate mark of sophistication for Western porcelain enthusiasts. Specialist Becky MacGuire offers advice on collecting styles that cross continents, with works from our January 2017 sale in New York
Chinese export porcelain has many stories to tell. Made with the same technical virtuosity as highly desirable Chinese Imperial porcelain, but designed to Western taste, Chinese export has a classic appeal that has endured from the 17th century until today — a testament to the incredible interaction of the Chinese and Westerners who, without common language or culture and separated by vast oceans, together produced these fascinating wares.
Most of us think first of the ubiquitous blue and white when we hear ‘Chinese export’. We’ve seen it in Whistler and Sargent portraits, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, in Amsterdam townhouses and in our grandmother’s pantries — and bulk-ordered blue and white porcelain decorated with generic mountain landscapes did comprise the overwhelming majority of China Trade cargoes.
But the other 2 per cent — largely colourfully enamelled wares — were at the top of the market and remain so today. Made over three centuries and with decoration ranging from Chinese myths and legends to exotic botanical blooms, ‘famille rose’ and ‘famille verte’ enamelled porcelains appeal both to collectors and to those looking for high-quality decoration for their interiors.
It’s the Chinese export ‘private trade’ porcelain, those pieces specially commissioned by Dutch and English East India Company directors or investors, by European royals and aristocracy or by Yankee merchants, that really makes collectors’ hearts beat faster. And at the top of the ‘private trade’ list is armorial porcelain, the great dinner services, tea services and decorative pieces made to order with European coats-of-arms. These pieces reflected the absolute latest in fashion, not just in their decorative borders but also in their forms, which evolved as trends emerged and as 18th-century cuisine developed.
Armorial porcelain can connect you directly to important personages of the day: Louis XV of France, Catherine the Great, the ‘Princely’ Duke of Chandos and many, many more had Chinese armorial services. This very large dish is from a set made for prominent Whig politican Sir Clement Wearg, who married the only daughter of Sir James Montagu, Chief Baron of the exchequer.
A particularly charming and even quirky Chinese export category is known as ‘European subject’. These wares were painted to order in China after popular Western paintings and prints, with scenes ranging from literary to topographical, mythological or historical, up to and including political cartoons.
This year’s Chinese export sale is particularly rich in this category, with pieces finely enamelled after European paintings such as Teniers’ The Card Players, or decorated with the political news of the day, such as a bowl showing two Jacobite martyrs in their kilts (above, right). Horse-racing is another very rare subject found in this sale.
Large-scale pieces — what I call ‘country house’ porcelain — decorated the great 18th-century European houses and have just as much impact in a modern home today. Large pairs of Chinese export jardinières or floor-standing vases, such as the famous ‘soldier vases’ that stood guard in the palace of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, were equally at home in an Amsterdam townhouse or a Gilded Age Newport ballroom; their timeless elegance suits any era’s interiors.
A super example from our January sale is this elegant pair of very tall vases, with their serene scenes of court ladies. Very difficult to produce in a simple wood-fired kiln, costly to buy and expensive to ship, large-scale Chinese export pieces are sought by new and established buyers.
Chinese export made in European shapes is another category that we find mirroring changing Western tastes through the decades. Modelled after fashionable silver forms, these wares include soup tureens, coffee and tea pieces, candlesticks and candelabra, ewers and basins and wine coolers. With a fascinating mix of Chinese-tilted decoration and Western form, European-shaped wares appeal to the decorative arts sophisticate but are also easy to live with.
Look for quality of modelling and rarity of form, as well as attractive decoration and superior enamelling or painting. European-shaped pieces are well-represented in our sale by an impressive collection of more than two dozen snuff boxes and a very rare sugar caster.
Lastly, we have the very appealing category of birds, animals and figures. Chinese potters had a long tradition of modelling lifelike ceramic figures to accompany important individuals in the afterlife, and developed a special affinity for these sculptures in porcelain.
Eighteenth-century Europeans were captivated by the porcelain exotic birds, court figures and then-unknown pug dogs made in China, and these models soon became highly desirable as decoration for grand European houses. Smaller figures were often scattered on dinner tables (as nascent German porcelain factories quickly realised), while large Chinese animal-form tureens were borne into the dining room emitting steam.
The Chinese Export Art sale on 18 January 2017 boasts such rarities as a large pair of hound puppies and a crouching boar, as well as a pair of elegantly-robed court ladies designed to hold candles which would light an 18th-century dining table.