‘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, illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
Produced in the 18th century, Chinese export porcelain was crafted with the same technical virtuosity as Chinese Imperial porcelain but designed to Western taste. Its continued appeal is testament to the incredible interaction of Chinese artisans and Western importers who, without common language or culture and separated by vast oceans, together promoted the spread of these wares.
Bulk-ordered blue and white porcelain decorated with generic mountain landscapes comprised the overwhelming majority of China Trade cargoes. But the other 2 per cent — large, colourfully enamelled wares — were at the top of the market and remain so today. Made across 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 — pieces specially commissioned by Dutch and English East India Company directors, European royals or Yankee merchants — that really makes collectors’ hearts beat faster. 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 objects reflected the absolute latest in fashion, not just in their decorations but also in their forms, which evolved as trends emerged and 18th-century cuisine developed.
Armorial porcelain can connect a collector directly to important personages of the day: Louis XV of France, Catherine the Great, the ‘Princely’ Duke of Chandos and many, many more owned Chinese armorial services.
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.
Large-scale pieces — so-called ‘country house’ porcelain — filled the great 18th-century European houses. Timelessly elegant, the large 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 the American ballrooms of the Gilded Age; today they would perfectly suit a modern loft.
A further category of Chinese export wares includes those modelled after fashionable European silver forms. From soup tureens, tea services, candlesticks and candelabra to ewers and wine coolers, these pieces offer a fascinating mix of Chinese decoration and Western shape.
When collecting in this category, look for quality of modelling and rarity of form, as well as attractive decoration and superior enamelling or painting.
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 pug dogs made in China, and these models soon became highly desirable. Smaller figures were often placed on dinner tables, while large Chinese animal-form tureens were used in the dining room.