Baudot Private Office logo



1.  Chinese Art - Introduction

The art of China is extremely ancient and characterised by complex symbolic traditions sustained over time. The two principal mythologies that supply images and stories are Daoism and Buddhism each with many visual symbols that are repeated from the earliest times to the present and an extensive literary tradition is also used for narrative scenes.

Chinese art has always interacted with other cultures, from the Middle East and India in particular and artefacts have been traded both ways from the earliest periods, along the silk route and by sea. Techniques, materials, shapes, designs all cross-fertilised to produce a huge range of items. Chinese artists have always been keen to welcome and develop new materials. The cobalt blue in blue and white porcelains came from Persia and the pink in famille rose porcelains originated in Europe.

2.  Chinese Export Art

2.1  Introduction

After the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century a maritime trade developed with the West and this grew through the 17th and 18th centuries into a substantial export trade with items being made in China for specific Western tastes, as well as pieces that reflected Western fashions for exotic Eastern items, all alongside trade in tea, silks and various metals.

Chinese art made for export to the West is usually characterised by the market for which a piece was originally intended (though this is not always easy to ascertain) and the period in which it was made. The fluctuations in the market reflect the dynastic politics in China and the changes in maritime dominance by Western powers. The Portuguese market dominated in the 15th and 16th centuries and trade was relatively small - though export artworks from this period are highly prized today. The Dutch dominated in the 17th and early 18th centuries and the English in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Western contact with the Chinese was limited to a small area in Canton (Guangzhou) on the riverbank where each nation's trading company had offices and workshops (Hongs). Orders were placed there by the Western merchants or 'supercargoes' and the porcelains were made in Jingdezhen, some 500 miles away and then brought to Canton. In the 18th century much of the overglaze enamelling on export pieces was moved to Canton to permit closer oversight by the supercargoes.

The collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the rise of the Qing in the mid seventeenth century meant that Chinese trade was disrupted and some went through Japanese ports for a period, known as the transitional (1620-1683). With the accession of the Emperor Kangxi and the consolidation of the Qing Dynasty across China from 1662 and his re-establishing of the kilns at Jingdezhen in 1683, the export trade in Chinese porcelains began to flourish.

2.2  The Three Emperors

The high period of Chinese export porcelains and works of art covers three Chinese Emperors: Kangxi (1662-1722), his son Yongzheng (1723-1735) and grandson Qianlong (1736-1796). After that the quality, especially in porcelain, began to decline as the competition from bone china made in Europe drove down prices and the internal corruption and decay within the Qing dynasty was reflected also in an artistic degradation, further exacerbated by Western powers interfering in China politically throughout the 19th century.

2.3  Porcelain Manufacture

Porcelain is a high temperature fired mixture of two mined components and is characteristically white, strong, translucent and rings like a bell when struck. The earliest porcelains were developed in the Song dynasty but the best Imperial porcelains began in the Yuan, decorated in underglaze blue or copper red and the earliest to reach the West were from the Ming period. By the later Ming much blue and white porcelain was being traded to the West, mainly The Netherlands, though most was of Chinese style.

In the Qing period, and especially through the 18th century, the diversity and quality of shapes and decoration expanded enormously with much experimentation and innovation. European shapes were copied, European prints and designs were used and at the top of the range the quality of execution was as good as anything made for the Imperial market. The versatility and ingenuity of the Chinese potters and enamellers was extraordinary and responded continually to shifts in fashion.

2.4  The Types of Decoration on Chinese Export Porcelain/Ceramics

2.4.i  Blue and White (all periods)

Decorated using cobalt pigments painted on the biscuit clay and then over-glazed. Produced throughout all periods from the Yuan onwards and in a full range of qualities.

2.4.ii  Famille Verte: (Kangxi period onwards but very little made in the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, with a revival in the 19th century)

Decorated in over glaze enamels of limited palette, dominate by greens but with iron-red, yellow, aubergine and blue (and some designs include elements painted in underglaze blue). The enamels are translucent and the painting styles resemble waterclours. Famille Jaune and Famille Noire are similar but have either a mainly yellow or black enamelled ground.

2.4.iii  Famille Rose (from 1722 onwards)

Decorated in overglaze enamels with a greater colour range and importantly adding three new enamels: pink, white and a new yellow. The use of white mixed with many of the other colours renders the enamels quite opaque and the painting styles resemble oils painting - or gouache with heavy body colour.

2.4.iv  Chinese Imari (about 1690 onwards and made in all periods)

Decorated in a limited palette of underglaze blue, overglaze iron red and gold. This colouration was used on Japanese porcelains exported in the 17th century through the Japanese port of Imari - and hence the name when the Chinese copied it. Chinese patterns tend to have softer blue and red and cover less of the porcelain surface.

2.4.v  Armorial Wares (mostly 18th century)

Possibly as many as 10,000 whole dinner or tea services of porcelain were privately ordered with specific coats of arms, the majority for the English market but also for the Dutch, Portuguese, French, Swedish and Danish markets among others. This is a significant collectors' market today.  Porcelain Figures (all Qing periods)

A small market of human figures and animals was sustained, usually through the private trade, the animal figures and animals tureens being specifically for the export trade.

2.4.vii  Clay Figures

From the last quarter of the 18th century Chinese and European figures were made using unfired clay, paint and other materials, many with nodding heads. These became hugely fashionable in the early 19th century following the decoration of the Brighton Pavilion where many are found, and also in the Swedish Royal Palace at Drottningholm.

3.  Imperial Porcelains

The best materials and craftsmen were reserved to make porcelains for the Emperor and only these pieces could bear the Imperial marks. As the firing was an uncertain process with accidents many pieces would be made and only the best sent to the Emperor, with the rest being destroyed. Thus the Imperial 'mark and period' pieces are considered the finest and the rarest. And they are also the most copied.

4.  Chinese Works of Art

A huge range of heavily decorated items were made for imperial, domestic and export markets. It can be difficult to distinguish some of the domestic market and export pieces as the tastes were similar and the separation in manufacture was less evident than in porcelain manufacture.

4.1  Metals

4.1.i  Bronze and Gilt Bronze

Figures and vessels, some for export but most for the domestic market.

4.1.ii  Enamels on Metal

Cloisonné and champlevé techniques using small fields or wells of coloured enamels fired onto the metal.

4.1.iii  ‘Painted Enamel’ or ‘Canton Enamel’

thin layers of enamels painted onto a copper vessel, resembling famille rose porcelain in appearance but crucially the whole manufacture process could be done in Canton. The Qianlong Emperor encouraged this technique and commissioned marked pieces with European subjects, establishing an Imperial enamelling workshop in Canton as an extension of his workshops in Beijing.

4.1.iv  Silver

Silver was very rare in China until the European traders began to import it so items in silver are not common before the Qing Dynasty, though pieces are known from much earlier using metals traded from the Middle East. By the 19th century there was a significant export trade in silver pieces in European styles, complete with copied hall marks!

4.2  Materials from Nature

The Chinese were very resourceful and almost anything that could be carved or worked was exploited: ivory, rhino horn, bone, bamboo and wood, silk, lacquer (from beetles), feathers (kingfisher). Pieces were usually small, such as Scholars' Objects (brush pots, scroll weights, brush rests, water droppers etc) which elaborated upon the aesthetic concept of ‘the scholar contemplating in his garden’ that developed in the Song period and influenced much of Chinese Art from then on.

5.  Japanese Porcelain

The Japanese porcelain workshops were less centralised than the Chinese and more individual styles emerged. In the 17th and 18th centuries manufacture was based in the city of Arita where significant amounts of blue and white and ‘Imari’ palette wares were made and much was exported to the West through the port of Imari.

The most important of the Arita kilns was the Kakiemon factory where Kakiemon Sakaeda (1596-1666) developed a distinctive colour palette of over glaze enamels, soft red, blue, yellow and turquoise green, sparsely applied to the milky-white porcelain. Small numbers were produced for export and are highly prized.

6.  Appendix: The Important Periods in Chinese and Japanese History (simplified)

6.1  Chinese Periods

6.1.a  Ancient