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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

China "Mania"

"CHINA-MANIA" was an epidemic that once held the whole of Europe in polite and beneficent thrall. It can be compared to a Beetles mania, "but has lived much longer; for results of both we have cause to be thankful. Chinaware was the "new toy" of the Western world from middle of the seventeenth century until the eighteenth to present day. During all that time the enthusiasm - Oriental chinaware maintained an intensity that we today, accustomed as we are to the finest porcelains of east and west, find it hard to understand. However we may sincerely delight in rare or beautiful china the keenness of our admiration for porcelain as porcelain-porcelain as the embodiment of certain physical properties is somewhat blunted by constant association. We have been used to it from infancy. We take it as a matter of course; it is a familiar incident of everyday life. Even though we may treasure no especially noteworthy porcelain amongst our own household possessions, we know it well in the collections of museums. To our seventeenth century forebears, however, the wondrous quality of the porcelain substance was a revelation that provoked unmeasured delight. They straightway recognized porcelain as the most patrician product of the potter's art and paid homage to its worth.

But, over and above the charm of an hitherto almost unknown substance of exquisite delicacy and refinement, which extended trade with the Orient had placed within their reach, there were combined with it the marvels of glowing, brilliant color, the engaging patterns of decoration, and a beguiling novelty in the diversity of shapes. It is no wonder that chinaware won an instant hold upon their affections. Personal whim and what was in fashion doubtless played their parts at first in establishing the sway of chinaware, but its own intrinsic excellences made so strong an appeal to commonsense and good taste that the permanency of its place could never afterward be in question.

We are so used to chinaware as a part of the daily machinery of polite life that it is an effort to envision the way of things before china cups and saucers, plates, platters and dishes became commonly accepted at our tables. The nobility and gentry had table services of silver or pewter, pewter of course being much the more abundant. At the same time, there was a certain amount of Delft pottery in use. Even amongst the less well to do there was usually a plentiful garnishing of pewter, while the less wealthy were content with simple and substantial earthenware that would come under the head of crockery.

The habit of drinking tea, coffee and chocolate, which came into vogue about the middle of the seventeenth century and gained headway with amazing rapidity, gave the initial impetus to a general introduction of chinaware and supplied the stimulus for its popular acquisition. So long as ale was a prevalent breakfast beverage, or meet for polite between-meals refreshment in the afternoon, the most fastidious could be quite content with mugs and tankards of silver or pewter. But these new exotic drinks required ethnic different. Imagine drinking tea out of a pewter tankards! The glamour would be gone and the flavor would be annihilated. Tea pre-eminently, and coffee and chocolate in scarcely less degree, demanded the association of porcelain both for the sake of the flavor and also on aesthetic grounds. It was natural that these foreign potables should be accompanied by vessels deemed appropriate to their serving in the countries of their origin. This peculiarly true in the case of tea, the subtleties of whose taste and fragrance could so easily be destroyed by contact with a wrong substance. Fashion prescribed dainty cups of porcelain, later designated "Chinaware" from the place of its provenance, although "Gombroon ware" was an earlier name to which we shall have occasion to allude hereafter.

Fashion having set the seal of its approval upon tea drinking and the use of porcelain therefor, the chief devotees of fashion accordingly employed tea tackle of the choicest chinaware they could come by. The emulative instinct in humanity has ever been the same. What the leading devotees of fashion did, that other folk imitated as fast as they could. And thus the use of teacups and their related accompaniments became one of the foremost means of causing a general, popular and intimate acquaintance with the worth and desirability of chinaware. The old table services of pewter or silver were not summarily abandoned the instant china teacups came into the house, once the possessors of porcelain tea equipage learned to appreciate the elegance and manifold fascination of chinaware and this they did very soon-it was only a short time before other items of chinaware multiplied with amazing rapidity until its possession became a positive mania and complete table services of porcelain became the pride of their owners' hearts. Queen Mary was a sincere admirer and ardent collector of chinaware and her example had much to do with firmly fixing its hold upon popular esteem. China-mania and the Queen's precedent were responsible for evolving a new article of furniture, the hooded china cabinet with glass doors that made its appearance as a distinctive mobiliary item of the William and Mary period. This gave an opportunity to display, without undue ostentation, the choice pieces of porcelain that china-lovers delighted to acquire.

What was true in England was also true in the American Colonies. The Colonists were always alert to know exactly what was going on in the Mother Country, even to the minutest detail in the current fashions of clothing. Whatever elegancies of domestic appointment came into general favor in England were sure to appear a very little while afterward in the houses of affluent Americans in New England, the Middle Colonies and the South, for they were prospering and wealth was increasing apace as the result of their industry, initiative and commercial activity. Their circumstances, growing yearly easier, enabled them to gratify their tastes for the refinements of life and to order from London merchants whatever luxuries within reason they desired.

Before the seventeenth century came to a close, there was an appreciable amount of good china to be found in and round about Boston, Philadelphia and New York,and throughout the great plantations of the South. In the early years of the eighteenth century the quantity of china arriving at American ports waxed steadily more and more,and from the middle of the century onward the stream of both Oriental and British porcelain imported reached such volume as to justify in great measure the assertion that the "history of the production of English china can be traced as easily in New England as in old England." It would have been truer if the writer here quoted had said, "America" instead of "New England;" New England, though well supplied, had by no means a monopoly of the good things, for much of the best china, both Oriental and British, was to be found in Philadelphia, New York and the South. There was an especially large quantity in Philadelphia and its neighbourhood.

We must bear in mind, however, that the early distribution of chinaware in the American Colonies was by no means uniform.While the seaports and places within easy reach of them secured the coveted porcelain with little delay, and while the planters of the South and the manorial families of the Hudson lightly set aside the obstacles of distance and inconveniences of transportation to obtain any luxuries they wished, in the ordinary run of events the generality of people who lived in the less accessible portions of the country did not acquire very much chinaware until a somewhat later date than the more favoured folk who enjoyed ready communication with the shipping centres. For example, it was not until 1757 that "Maple Grove" was built at Marlborough in Ulster County, in the Province of New York. Madame du Bois, the mistress of "Maple Grove," is said to have used the first complete dinner service of china in that neighbourhood, and curious housewives from the country round about came journeying thither to gaze with interest on this unwonted piece of luxury." The du Bois dinner service, nevertheless, could scarcely have been the first in the county for polite, wealthy, luxury-loving Kingston-onHudson must surely have cultivated and gratified the taste for porcelain long ere this. At the same time to instance the differences in date of porcelain penetration in the Colonies, there are the dainty handleless teacups of Chinese porcelain from which William Penn sipped his Oolong when he visited some of the substantial Friends of Philadelphia in the latter part of the seventeenth century. These little teacups are still treasured by the descendants of the original owners. Fine china, too, doubtless formed part of the equipment of Pennsbury, in Bucks, for the Proprietary, despite Quaker principles, had an exquisite taste and was not averse to a degree of dignified courtliness that permitted him to make his journeys between Pennsbury and the infant City of Brotherly Love in a stately barge with its due complement of rowers.

In France the popular vogue of porcelain as a utilitarian household accessory, apart from its presence in the form of rare object's of art, received its initial impetus from the dictates of stern necessity. On two occasions, once after the ruinous war of 1691, and, again, after the famine of 1709, Louis XIV, and the nobles of France were obliged to send their silver plate to the Mint in order to obtain badly needed funds in a period of economic tension. To take the place of melted and minted plate, table services of faience became the fashion, but it was a fashion followed under stress of compulsion and, directly circumstances permitted, the noblesse got new plate again and abandoned the faience. No matter how beguiling its decoration, it was earthenware and they could not forget the quality of its body which, to their minds, seemed rustic and lacking in elegance. They had not the English habit of tea-drinking and Chinese tea equipage made little appeal to them. Fine jars, vases and bowls of Oriental porcelain they could and did appreciate, but it was not until they could obtain dinner services of Western china, or Oriental services made after Western patterns, that they became really enthusiastic "China-maniacs" and willingly supplanted silver plate on their tables with choice porcelain.

Although little or nothing was known in Europe of the technical aspect of making porcelain before the sixteenth century, when various attempts were made with more or less success in Italy, to be followed by further successful essays in the latter part of the seventeenth century in France, and although the vogue of porcelain cannot be said to have become generally popular until the second half of the seventeenth century, when the rapid growth of trade with the Orient and the activities of the various East India Companies, English, Dutch and French, brought the elegancies and charms of chinaware within the reach of ordinarily well to do people, it must not be imagined that porcelain was unknown or unvalued in the West at a much earlier date. As a matter of fact, it was known and highly esteemed for centuries before it became subject of common interest and aspiration, but it was of such rare occurrence and so precious that few besides princes and kings, or the greatest nobles, could hope to possess a piece of it.

Though it is not at all impossible that returning Crusaders may now and then have brought back with them from the East a bit of porcelain, just as they brought back spices, plants and fur-lined night-clothes, there is no definite and indubitable evidence on this score. We must be content to date the authentic history of Europe's concern with Oriental porcelain from the year 1447. Then it was, so we are told by Mathieu de Coussy, the historian of Charles VII, that a letter addressed to the Sultan of "Babylon," bespeaking favour towards French commerce in Levantine seaports, concludes with a request for a present of porcelain to be conveyed to the King of France by his ambassadeur Si te mande par le dit Ambassadeur un present a savoir trois escuelles de pourcelaine de Sinant, deux grands plats ouvertz de pourcelaine, deux touques verdes de pourcelaine, deux bouquetz de pourcelaine ouvre," and then the customary polite salutations. The touque was a vessel or oval vase; the bouquet was a bottle with handles. What value was attached to porcelain may be imagined when it was thus solicited in a diplomatic communication as a present from one monarch to another. Thence onward we find instances, now and again, where the porcelains of the Orient were collected and highly prized by the kings and greatest nobles of Europe. An inventory of the year 1586 shews us that Francis I. of France had amongst his treasures "vases and dishes of porcelain, curiously wrought." We know, too, that the Medici had rare specimens of Eastern porcelain considerably prior to this, while it seems to have found its way to Venice at an even earlier date. In 1567 Queen Elizabeth possessed a much esteemed gift in the shape of a "poringer of white porselyn and a cup of green porselyn." Similar porringers and cups of porcelain were in the possession of some of the great nobles of England not long after, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a splendid octagonal ewer of blue and white Chinese porcelain with exquisite silver mountings bearing the hall-mark of the year 1585. Cairo was the Mediterranean port to which much of the precious porcelain came overland from China, and thence, during the early period, it went through various channels to different parts of Europe where it was eagerly sought.

In the Palace of Versailles there was a Chinese room where were kept the rarest pieces of porcelain presented to Louis XIV, or purchased by him. In 1686 this collection was much enriched by the magnificent porcelains presented to the Grand Monarch by the King of Siam and delivered with great pomp by the Siamese ambassador, but long before this vases, jars, bowls and platters of Oriental porcelain had become familiar objects of decoration not only in the palaces and great houses of France but in England, Italy, Spain, Holland and other countries as well. In fact, ever since the beginning of the seventeenth century the increased development of trade with the Orient had tremendously broadened the acquaintance with porcelain and stimulated appreciation of its value and beauty. As early as the year 1660 there were various merchants in Paris dealing especially in fine porcelain and they were well patronised by a clientele of amateurs and collectors.

In England, however, it was left for the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate drinking to popularise and give impetus to the acquisition of china by the general public who had hitherto regarded possession of the precious substance as peculiarly the privilege of the very wealthy. "Gombroon ware" gave place to "China ware" just a little before or about the time of this marked spread of popularity. Up to about 1640 porcelain was called "Gombroon ware" in England from the English trading post at Gombroon, on the Persian Gulf, whence the Chinese porcelains were sent to England; after that, when the East India Company had obtained a concession in Canton, the name for porcelain was gradually changed to "China ware." And not a little of the early "China ware" brought to England consisted of the thin, handleless teacups and the various objects associated with them, as already pointed out. Directly the passion for china was implanted in the popular taste and a supply was forthcoming to meet the demand-it spread like wildfire. We hear of Mistress Nell Gwynne time and again going down to the docks and poking through the cargoes of newly arrived East Indiamen in order that she might have the first pick of anything that pleased her fancy. Doubtless she gathered in many a choice bit of porcelain on these piratical forestalling jaunts and her practice, we may be sure, not a few others followed as closely as they could. It needed only the example of Queen Mary a few years later to clinch the ardent desire for chinaware on every hand.

To show how the consuming taste for china continued unabated through the eighteenth century, and how it not only swayed all ranks of society but also aroused genuine enthusiasm amongst men as well as women, we may cite, an amusing incident that occurred about 1765. A ship, in whose cargo was a large quantity of Oriental china, went ashore on the Cornish coast. Presumably it had been intended to smuggle the china and escape the customs duties, for when the customs agents boarded the wreck, as soon as the weather permitted, the ship's company had gone and taken all the papers with them. The chief customs agent, finding some choice teapots and other pieces of china that he greatly admired, in the course of his examination, and regarding them as a professional perquisite,stowed the whole lot in his capacious knee breeches preparatory to going over the side. As he was gingerly descending the ladder to get into the waiting dory, one of his comrades, impatient to be off, bade him make haste and playfully paddled him on the seat of the breeches with the blade of an oar-to the utter ruin of the concealed china and an astounding loud crash!

Horace Walpole was no less enthusiastic a "Chinamaniac" than the Cornish customs gauger, but it is not recorded that he ever had such a disastrous disappointment in his collecting efforts. He had a good collection of different sorts of china at Strawberry Hill and was always on the alert to add to it, soliciting his friends when they were traveling abroad to bring him back representative pieces from the various Continental china manufactories. In 1785 he writes to Sir Horace Mann, then in Italy:

" On reading over your ` Florentine Gazette,' I observe that the Great Duke has a manufacture of porcelain. If any of it is sold, I should be glad if your nephew would bring me a single bit, a cup or other trifle, as a sample. I remember that, ages ago, there was a manufacture at Florence belonging to a Marquis Ginori, of which I wished for a piece, but could not procure one. The Grand Ducal may be more obtainable."

What he seems really to have had in mind was a piece of the Ginori china which he had previously failed to procure, for the Ginori china had then attained great fame but there was no Grand Ducal manufacture. But it is not surprising to find Horace Walpole falling into confusion over such tiresome things as facts. The beauty of china, however, strongly appealed to him and he was constantly seeking some new type to gratify his insatiable taste. And Horace Walpole's attitude was a good index to the popular passion for china, the "china-mania" that affected all ranks of society.

America was not a whit behind England in appreciation of good china and eager desire to possess the best, whether of Oriental or European origin. It was not uncommon thing to send special orders for complete dinner services to the East, and to wait patiently, or impatiently, for the execution of the commission with monograms or armorial bearings on each piece. The vast treasure of fine old china preserved all along the Atlantic seaboard bears eloquent witness not only to the prevalence of widespread "china-mania" in America, but also to the knowledge and discriminating taste of those who first secured this goodly heritage. When a ship laden with china was lured by the wreckers to destruction on the Barnegat sands, the "beach" china, as it was called, found a ready and profitable market amongst purchasers who either knew not whence it came or, at any rate, asked "no questions for conscience sake." But most of the china made its entrance in a regular manner and if anyone cares to examine the old shipping invoices they will gain an amazing but fairly accurate idea of the amount of porcelain it took to satisfy, even partially, the demands of American "china-mania."

With all the enormous demand for Oriental china, it was but natural that attempts should be made in the West to produce the same material, comparable with the Eastern prototypes in substance and decoration. These attempts began in Italy in the sixteenth century. More successful and enduring essays were made in France in the seventeenth century. The eighteenth century saw successful and permanent manufactories of china in France, Italy, Germany and Austria. The earlier attempts resulted in what is known as "soft paste" porcelain, an approximation to the Oriental ware that has much to be in its favor. During the eighteenth century, beginning with Saxony, European potters mastered the secrets of making "hard paste" or the so-called "true" porcelain of the same quality and characteristics as the Chinese. Thence onward both "soft paste" and "hard paste" china were made in the West, as well as the "bone china" manufactured in England, a substance holding a middle ground between the "soft paste" and "hard paste" porcelains. In America some attempts to produce china were made in the eighteenth century, but though these attempts in one or two instances resulted favorably so far as the quality of the porcelain was concerned, they were not commercially successful and came to an untimely end. It was not until the early years of the nineteenth century that china was successfully and profitably produced on American soil.

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