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Porcelain Or "China Ware"
Eggshell or "bodiless" porcelain trickled from China into early Renaissance Europe where it was treasured almost above rubies. For hold its paper thinness to the light, or fill it with liquid, and an invisible five clawed dragon (if brushed there with self colored slip before the glazing and firing) would take ghostly shape.
Equally famous were the transparent "rice grains" in the fragile, translucent white dish. They spoke of magic to those who had not seen the Chinese artist cut in grain by grain, lay coat after coat of glaze in the "holes" with a soft brush, then fuse body, grains and glaze into rice grain porcelain.
Did China really invent porcelain? Who knows? Chinese porcelain bottles of an inferior grade, with flowers on one side and inscriptions on the other, were found in Egyptian tombs at Thebes from about the 15th century B.C.
Fine dishes were made anciently by the painted pottery people about the headwaters of the Tigris, also in the lands between the Tigris and the Indus east of Susa. Chinese envoys traveled 'to the Persian Gulf. China also traded silk with the Romans about the time of Christ. And an alkaline glaze used then not far from Rhages and Teheran; soon appeared on Chinese dishes from a pottery district on the old Silk Trail which eventually became Ching-te-chen.
EAST DID MEET WEST IN PORCELAIN
Religion, trade and war kept contact between Europe and far off Sine, $eres, or China, as we say today. An early Chinese emperor pushed his boundaries almost to the Caspian Sea. Chin ese medical men lived in the country of the Tigris where fine dishes have been made through the centuries.
The Church sent an envoy from Lyons, France, to far off Sine. Caravans sometimes traversed the dangerous miles. And Tamerlane took captive Western artists to his capital at Samarkand on the old Silk Trail - not so far from Ching-te-chen.
Marco Polo made his round trip from Venice to Cathay (China) and told of the C4inese mining white clay which they piled an left to weather for forty years before mal3ng it into porcelain. Charles VII of France hinted for a gift of Sine porcelain from the Sultan of Babylon. Elizabeth of England set value on her cup and porringer of "porselyn." Louis XIV had a room in Versailles for his porcelain treasures.
Italy and France spent fortunes trying to find the secret of these strong, yet delicate dishes. Both added ground up glass or frit and gained translucency, but they also got the brittleness of glass instead of the toughness of granite which they were after.
Italy tried talc too. Bottger of Saxony tried alabaster. And England used bone ash. All got density, but not toughness or strength. Their soft porcelain was beautiful, but it would break, scratch and stain more easily than China's true hard porcelain.
CHINA KEPT SECERT HER RECIPE FOR CHINA WARE
What was true hard porcelain? The Chinese weren't telling and they didn't want visitors. Their answers to questions sent Western potters on wild goose hunts. One such disappointed potter complained he simply couldn't believe the Chinese made porcelain from egg shells left underground almost a century.
But why this porcelain rage when Europe's nobles for centuries had been content with copper, pewter, silver, gold, glass and pottery? Well, you could almost see through this wonderful white ware. It rang like a bell, or, as the Chinese said, like jade. It looked fragile as egg shells.
Yet this China ware did not break easily. It would stand great heat without melting or cracking. It did not scratch or stain easily. It did not make things taste as did some of the metal dishes. This last was especially important with the developing maritime trade bringing in new delicacies from far places, including tea, coffee and chocolate.
The old familiar pottery was baked earth -red, yellow, brown, blue or gray-not this magic new white ware. Pottery was thick walled to keep it from being easily broken. Pottery was clay, mixed with water to shape it for baking. Baking dried out the little water pockets all through the piece, leaving air spaces which had no binding strength. Pottery had nothing in it to give the strong, dense body of porcelain.
PAINTING POTTERY DID NOT MAKE IT PORCELAIN
Europe tried to make her pottery at least LOOK like the new porcelain by covering it up. Sixteenth century Delft had its red body sealed with a lead glaze. Seventeenth century Delft was a yellow ware covered with a stanniferous (tin) enamel, and decorated with painted blue flowers. Lead glaze, practically clear and colorless, let the color of the clay over which it was put, show through. Tin glaze, an opaque, milk white coating, covered up the clay, much as white paint would.
Metal coating produced luster. Metal oxides in glass "glazed" the pottery with bright colors. But chip off this outer coat of enamel, glaze, or metal, and the pottery earth color showed.
Finally the German chemist, Bottger, found the missing link-the strength-giving kaolin of the Chinese who called this kaolin (china clay) the "bone," and their petuntse (china stone) the "flesh" of their porcelain. They mixed the two, shaped a dish, brushed on a glaze, fired it all together, and the bone, flesh and skin fused into ONE-making China ware, or porcelain.
Now this kaolin (china clay) is simply weathered down granite or feldspar. The petuntse (china stone) is also weathered down granite or feldspar plus silicate of alumina, plus potash or soda, plus some quartz (sand to us) or mica.
The petuntse fuses into the kaolin under a very high heat, making a dense tough mass, white all the way through. Before it is glazed or fired it can be decorated with incised, cut, embossed or painted pattern. After the glazing and firing, it can be enameled and gilded, refiring to fuse the decoration on but using lower heats so as not to ruin the colors.
CHINA CLAY (KAOLIN) MADE PORCELAIN
All Europe hunted and found kaolin (this strength giving ingredient) and made china. England's bone ash porcelains became famous. France turned from soft to hard porcelains, and her Sevres in "King's blue" and "Pompadour rose" competed with Meissen's fairy figures and blue and white table ware.
This got China busy producing quantities of dishes so she would not loose her East India porcelain trade. She decorated Western dish forms with blue flowers. She made "Lowestoft" with polychrome flowers and crests. She offered her own Island pattern, and England adapted it into her ewn famous Willow Ware.
After the Revolution America's converted privateer ships brought boat loads of "India" dishes from Canton and Nanking. It is said no New England housewife could bake a pumpkin pie except on a Canton plate. George Washington's every day dishes were Canton, but he had a roorn for "Sevres and other special occasion dishes."
The American Haviland family developed a porcelain for our grandmothers which we collect today. Another American in New Jersey made a porcelain much like Irish Belleek which Presidents have chosen. But whether it is Meissen plates or Sevres vases or English tea sets, Japanese Imari, China's old white Fu-kien ware, or American porcelain whose relatives have graced presidential tables, the transformation of white clay and weathered stone and quartz into the strong yet delicate beauty of porcelain is one of the wonders of the world.