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History of the porcelain trade

In 1558, a single Portuguese trading ship returning from Asia carried 1,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain. A Dutch ship making the same journey 50 years later brought 60,000 pieces. And by 1638, about 900,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain were transported via Dutch trading vessels.

In the span of one century, the fine, thin, white ceramics made from a clay called kaolin and fired in blazing hot kilns went from being a unique treasure for a handful of wealthy European connoisseurs to a common household item, especially in the Netherlands. Today, this porcelain is known in everyday English usage as china, and as early as the 17th century it was already being copied throughout Europe.

Chinese export porcelain includes a wide range of Chinese porcelain that was made (almost) exclusively for export to Europe and later to North America between the 16th and the 20th century. Whether wares made for non-Western markets are covered by the term depends on context. Chinese ceramics made mainly for export go back to the Tang dynasty if not earlier, though initially they may not be regarded as porcelain.

It is typically not used as a descriptive term for the much earlier wares that were produced to reflect Islamic taste and exported to the Middle East and Central Asia, though these were also very important, apparently driving the development of Chinese blue and white porcelain in the Yuan and Ming dynasties (see Chinese influences on Islamic pottery). Other types of Chinese wares made mainly for export to other markets may or may not be covered; they are certainly described as export wares in discussing the Chinese industry, but much discussion in Western sources only refers to wares intended for Europe. The other types include Swatow ware (c. 1575-1625), made for South-East Asian and Japanese markets, and Tianqi porcelain, made mainly for the Japanese market in the 17th century. Chinese celadons were exported to most of Eurasia, but not Europe, between roughly the Tang and the early Ming dynasties.

Wares from the 16th century include Kraak porcelain, Yixing stonewares, Blanc de Chine, blue and white porcelain, famille verte, noire, jaune and rose, Chinese Imari, armorial wares, and Canton porcelain.[1] Chinese export porcelain was generally decorative, but without the symbolic significance of wares produced for the Chinese home market.[2] Except for the rare Huashi soft paste wares,[3] traditionally Chinese porcelain was made using kaolin and petuntse. [4] While rim chips and hairline cracks are common, pieces tend not to stain. Chinese wares were usually thinner than those of the Japanese and did not have stilt marks.[2]

In the 16th century, Portuguese traders began importing late Ming dynasty blue and white porcelains to Europe, resulting in the growth of the Kraak porcelain trade (named after the Portuguese ships called carracks in which it was transported). In 1602 and 1604, two Portuguese carracks, the San Yago and Santa Catarina, were captured by the Dutch and their cargos, which included thousands of items of porcelain, were sold off at an auction, igniting a European interest for porcelain.[5] Buyers included the Kings of England and France.

Dutch 17th-century still-life painting by Jan Jansz. Treck, showing late Ming blue and white porcelain export bowls, 1649.

After this, a number of European nations established companies trading with the countries of the Far East, the most significant for the porcelain being the Dutch East India Company or VOC. The trade continued until the mid-17th century when the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, and civil war disrupted porcelain production. European traders then turned to Japanese porcelain instead.[6]

As valuable and highly prized possessions, pieces of Chinese export porcelain appeared in many 17th century Dutch paintings.[5] The illustration (right) shows a painting by Jan Jansz. Treck that includes two Kraak-style bowls, probably late Ming, the one in the foreground being of a type the Dutch called klapmuts. The blue pigment used by the artist has faded badly since the picture was painted.[7]

Under the Kangxi Emperor‘s reign (1662–1722) the Chinese porcelain industry at Jingdezhen was reorganised and the export trade soon flourished again. Chinese export porcelain from the late 17th century included Blue and white and Famille verte wares (and occasionally Famille noire and Famille jaune). Wares included garnitures of vases, dishes, teawares, ewers, and other useful wares along with figurines, animals and birds. Blanc de Chine porcelains and Yixing stonewares arriving in Europe and gave inspiration to many European potters.[8]

For the potters of Jingdezhen the manufacture of porcelain wares for the European export market presented new difficulties. Writing from the city in 1712, the French Jesuit missionary Père François Xavier d’Entrecolles records that “…the porcelain that is sent to Europe is made after new models that are often eccentric and difficult to reproduce; for the least defect they are refused by the merchants, and so they remain in the hands of the potters, who cannot sell them to the Chinese, for they do not like such pieces”.[9]

Although European crests on Chinese porcelain can be found on pieces made as early as the 16th century, around 1700 the demand for armorial porcelain increased dramatically. Thousands of services were ordered with drawings of individuals’ coat of arms being sent out to China to be copied and shipped back to Europe and, from the late 18th century, to North America. Some were lavishly painted in polychrome enamels and gilding, while others, particularly later examples, might incorporate only a small crest or monogram in blue and white.[10] Chinese potters copied the popular Japanese Imari porcelains, which continued to be made for export into the second half of the 18th century,[11] examples being recovered as part of the Nanking cargo from the shipwreck of the Geldermalsen.[12]

Qing export porcelain with European Christian scene, 1725–1735.

A wide variety of shapes, some of Chinese or Islamic origin, others copying faience or metalwork were made.[13] Oriental figurines included Chinese gods and goddesses such as Guanyin (the goddess of mercy) and Budai (the god of contentment),[14] figurines with nodding heads, seated monks and laughing boys as well as figurines of Dutch men and women.[15] From the mid-18th century, even copies of Meissen figurines such as Tyrolean dancers were made for export to Europe. Birds and animals, including cows, cranes, dogs, eagles, elephants, pheasants, monkeys and puppies, were popular.[16]

From around 1720, the new Famille Rose palette was adopted and quickly supplanted the earlier Famille Verte porcelains of the Kangxi period. Famille rose enamels for the export market included the Mandarin Palette.[13] Specific patterns such as tobacco leaf and faux tobacco leaf were popular as were, from around 1800, Canton decorated porcelain with its figures and birds, flowers and insects.[16] Many other types of decoration such as encre de chine or Jesuit wares, made for Christian missionaries, pieces with European subjects like the Judgement of Paris, or Adam and Eve, were made for the European market.[17] Other examples include the Sydney punchbowls from the Macquarie era in Australia, 1810–1820.[18]




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