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How To Know Fine China
There are five factors to keep in mind when judging a piece of china-(1) the body or paste of which it is made; (2) the glaze that covers its surface; (3) the kind of article and its contour; (4) the manner of its decoration; and (5) the mark affixed by its maker. The latter is often lacking as there are a great many pieces of old china that are altogether unmarked. Many of the unmarked are the older and can out value the marked pieces.
One cannot expect to gain a sufficient and accurate knowledge of china merely from books. It is absolutely essential to see and to compare the various sorts of china in order to acquire and cultivate a proper appreciation of the outstanding characteristics that distinguish one kind from another.
Language alone is inadequate to describe and fully define all the subtle variations of quality, color and texture that enter into consideration and cannot be disre garded. The statement of facts must be complemented by sight and touch, or at any rate by sight, when it is not possible to handle and feel of the actual objects. The habit of close, critical observation must be encouraged.
The English language is fully as capable as any other -and more capable than most-of expressing the nice differences of quality that appear in the paste, the glaze and the color of the several sorts of china. Nevertheless, there are many variations quite perceptible to the eye that cannot be adequately described in words, for no matter how carefully weighed or meticulously couched the phraseology may be, you can never be sure that the same words or expressions are going to convey identically the same impressions to two different minds.
For example, we may be obliged to describe the pastes of two different kinds of china as white and the glazes as transparent. There are no other terms by which to designate them. Furthermore, both whites may be of a creamy tone. The term "creamy white" as accurately describes one as the other, so far as words can convey a definitely exact idea, and yet when we see examples of the two pastes side by side we can readily distinguish a difference between one "creamy white" and the other "creamy white." The one "creamy white" is just as much "creamy white" as the other and just as much entitled to the term. The only way in which these differences can be expressed verbally-and it is an insufficient and clumsy way, at best-is to establish some basis of comparison and to say that the paste of A is not so creamy white as the creamy white paste of B. This method must needs be purely arbitrary, and the arbitrarily chosen norm of comparison cannot be a constant, invariable quantity, definitely fixed with mathematical exactitude, but will inevitably vary according to each individual conception.
It is plain, therefore, that acquaintance and familiarity by sight, and acquaintance and familiarity by touch also if it be possible, must accompany and comple ment the knowledge conveyed verbally. The verbal descriptions constitute an indispensable guide and an equally indispensable check; from the visual and tactual acquaintance comes the real knowledge and likewise the real pleasure.
This intimate acquaintance it is not hard to gain. Outside of one's own personal possessions in the way of china, there is always the opportunity to inspect and study the china treasures of one's friends, who are almost always pleased at the interest and appreciation manifested; there are the antique shops where you are at liberty to scrutinise as closely as you will; and, above all, there are the museums whose collections exist for the purpose of being studied.
Too much stress cannot be laid upon the importance of using the opportunities provided by the museums. You rarely have the chance to touch and handle the museum specimens, it is true, but they are generally well displayed for the purpose of close inspection; they usually have the advantage of indubitable authenticity and therefore serve as representative and trustworthy standards of comparison; and, finally, there are the curators to give such additional information regarding the specimens as you may require. This help they are there to give. It is a part of their duty, and a duty that is almost always cheerfully and graciously discharged.
In the matter of color and methods of decoration, and likewise in the matter of characteristic contours, a study of the museum specimens will be quite as helpful as it is in the particulars of paste and glaze. With respect to colours, modes of decoration and characteristic contours the experience you gather with keen observation from the wares in antique shops and amongst the possessions of your friends will be even more broadening than the results of museum study, for the museums, no matter how large and complete their collections may be, cannot be expected to display every type of every phase of chinaware ever produced. Such a display would be manifestly impossible. What they aim to do is to in each instance the essential characteristics. Having grasped these essential characteristics, it is part of the fascination and stimulus of chinaware study to detect them, trace them and collate them in their manifold combinations which you are certain to meet with from time to time.
The marks of chinaware are often the least reliable sources of identification. While the marks, in many cases, may be accepted as trustworthy, there are many other instances in which they are positively deceptive. Time and time again the marks were deliberately forged, or else made so closely to resemble the marks found on the products of some other factory that there was obviously an intent, on the part of the makers, to deceive the public. Then, again, not a few marks have been applied at some period long subsequent to the date of manufacture.It is wise to collect several books on Marks.
Both the fashioning and decorating of china are preeminently imitative arts. Many of the early Chinese shapes were imitated from earlier bronze vessels. When china began to be made in the West, Chinese shapes were universally imitated. One factory imitated another in its wares. And just so was imitation carried on in endless ways throughout the practice of the whole art. It was precisely the same with decoration. Chinese types were imitated in Japan, and when any decorator initiated a new method in Japan his style was copied in China. The West copied both with avidity, and when the decorators of one European factory originated something different from what had been done before, it was not long before most of the other factories were putting forth products decorated in almost exactly the same manner.
Despite this promiscuous imitation, certain general types of decoration became so to speak crystallised and their pronounced characteristics were unmistakable whether the pieces of porcelain on which they appeared were made in China or Japan, Bow or Worcester, Chantilly or Dresden. Very often there was just enough of the element of individual or local interpretation to add a flavour of varied interest without destroying or obscuring the identity of the mode. The more important of these families of decoration that occur almost universally will be recognised in the key-plate of decorative types at the beginning of the volume. Other types, less conspicuous perhaps but none the less well-defined, are noted here and there with references to examples on which they occur.
The contours of china objects are of great significance, more, indeed, than many people imagine. Quite apart from the skillful technique required for producing shapes of a certain description and the mastery of the art implied in their successful achievement, the contours indicate sundry other things. For instance, plates with rims, although they may have been made in China, were unquestionably made for export to the West. The Chinese prefer plates or dishes of a modified or flat bowl contour devoid of rims. Again, there are certain national tastes and preferences betrayed in the shapes of chinaware, some shapes being peculiarly characteristic of France and others just as peculiarly characteristic of England while, of course, there are numerous contours unmistakably Chinese which have persisted through the centuries and inspired numberless derivations in the West.
But there is still another aspect of contour that ought not to be overlooked. While there are many shapes that have been repeated indefinitely from early times and continue in unabated popularity, nevertheless the prevailing trend of "collective" contour, as exemplified by a number of different pieces of any one date, plainly reflects the design tendencies that made themselves felt everywhere in every branch of art at different well defined periods.
If we care to make a few comparisons, we can easily see these successive design influences manifested in china contours-the swelling rotundity and symmetrical vigour of the Baroque age, when the making of European porcelain was first established upon a permanent basis; the sinuous whimsicalities and polished graces of the Rococo period; the restraint and delicacy of the Neo-Classic dominance; and, finally, the downright severity and bold insistence of the later Neo-Grec era.
Although shapes of early date may enjoy permanent favor such, for instance, as various types of teapots, so that we cannot assume that they were made at this or that period merely on account of their contour, we do know, however, that certain shapes first made their appearance at certain epochs and not only enjoyed universal contemporary popularity but were also embodiments of the spirit of design dominant at that time. As striking instances of this sort of thing, the Ginori tureen (Plate 36, B), with oval body and straight, tapering fluted legs clearly betokens the Neo-Classic feeling that pervaded every field of design in the latter part of the eighteenth century; the Derby teapot , has a shape eloquent of Neo-Grec supremacy and echoes the contour of silver plate made at the period; the Mennecr vase , could not have been designed before the Rococo influence of Louis XV's reign was paramount; and the Saint Cloud vase , is plainly indicative of Baroque inspiration in the background of its maker's.
Finally, a word of advice about acquiring china. If a piece appeals to you by the quality of its shape and the beauty of its decoration, and if you can get it at a fair price, it is worth buying for the joy and satisfaction it will give you to possess it. Study its characteristics and settle its identification, if there is any doubt in your mind about its origin, at your leisure. On the other hand, if you are seeking a specimen of some particular make and date, and if you are not fully satisfied that the piece is what it more or less appears to be, have no hesitation in consulting a museum curator about it and settling the doubt in that manner. A museum curator of ceramics who knows his subject, and is thoroughly conversant with all the niceties of paste and glaze, will be able to give you an unbiassed attribution and, in most cases, will do so quite cheerfully. This is a precaution that is worth taking, especially if the piece in question happens to be of a sort much sought after and likely to command an high price. After all, however,while there is a certain satisfaction in acquiring a piece of highly-prized ware, prized by the professional connoisseur because of its origin and rarity, there is infinitely more satisfaction to the average person in getting something that appeals because of the intrinsic beauties it embodies. Acquaintance with and appreciation of the varied and beautiful qualities to be found in chinaware.