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Oriental Pottery And Porcelain

Oriental pottery and procelain was made principally in China, Korea and Japan. The wares made in these countries, and in those bordering on the first two, resemble each other superficially, and both beginner and expert suffer confusion. A proportion of the old wares was marked, usually under the base of the article and in underglaze blue, but just as the shapes and colours of earlier periods were imitated in succeeding centuries, so were the marks.


Many people talk about, and others wonder about, the dynasties and emperors of old China. It is as well, therefore, to preface this section with a list of those most likely to be of use:

Chou About 1122 to 249 B.C.
Han 206 B.C. to A.D. 220
T'ang 618 to A.D. 906
Sung 960 to 1279
Ming 1368 to 1644
Ch'ing 1644 to 1912

Hsiian Te 1426 to 1435
Ch'eng Hua 1465 to 1487
Wan Li 1573 to 1619
K'ang Hsi 1662 to 1722
Yung Cheng 1723 to 1735
Ch'ien Lung 1736 to 1795
Chia Ch'ing 1796 to 1820
Tao Kuang 1821 to 1850

From before 200 s.c. little pottery has survived. The custom of burying pottery vessels and figures with the body of a dead person, and the reopening of undisturbed tombs, has enabled students to gain an idea of the wares of the Han dynasty. These mortuary pieces show that a green glaze containing lead was commonly in use, and that decoration, where present, consisted of painting in unfired colours, or of attractive incised patterns. It is argued that the tomb wares, intended for the use of the deceased in a future life, were made perfunctorily, and that the hitherto-unidentified domestic pieces must have been of better workmanship and of a higher artistic quality.

Then followed a gap of four centuries during which no appreciable advances were made, but the years lost in strife and artistic stagnation were amply made up for by the brilliance of the T'ang dynasty. The large tomb figures of horses and camels, splashed with glazes of orange-brown and green, are among the bestknown objects made at the time. Time and interment have given the glaze a silvery iridescence that lends an added attraction. Dishes and other pieces of the period are less familiar to many, but are artistically important in many instances. Stoneware was brought a stage further forward by giving it a white body, and the pieces known as Yueh (abbreviated from Yueh Chou, a district in Chekiang province where they were made) with their fine celadon glaze, were produced.

In the succeeding Sung dynasty, many further styles were introduced and older ones developed. Carved and incised designs are found, and pale-coloured glazes of great beauty were used alongside the popular celadon green which is found on pieces exported to the Near East countries. All these delicately modelled and coloured wares were copied in later Ming times, but apart from differences in finishing, the early pieces were made of a stoneware and the later of true porcelain.

The coming of the Ming dynasty saw the emergence of Chingte-chen, to the south-west of Nankin, as a centre of manufacture. Here, in the fourteenth century, was organized the series of factories making the porcelain that spread the fame of China throughout the civilized world. The rare pieces decorated in underglaze blue of the reigns of Hsiian Te and Ch'eng Hua are the forerunners of the vast quantities later made for export to the West, and of which examples are still relatively commonplace. Another esteemed type are the 'three-colour' wares, usually in the form of vases, with the design outlined in raised threads of clay and filled with coloured glazes. These latter date from the reign of Wan Li, when the combination of underglaze blue, and overglaze red, yellow, green and aubergine (brown-purple) was used with effect; a style that led to the well-known famille verte of the reign of K'ang Hsi. A smaller factory at Te-hua, in the south of China, was producing the fine white ware, known as blanc-de-chine (Chinese white), which it continued to copy continually in succeeding centuries.

By this date, about 1600, exportation to Europe was beginning to take place, although `blue and white' (or Nankin, as it is often called) probably formed the bulk. It was towards the end of the seventeenth century, in the reign of the emperor K'ang Hsi, that this export trade assumed enormous proportions and the types of porcelain with which Europeans are familiar were made in quantity. The most popular is the so-called famille verte (green family) with its predominating bright greens and red. All manner of articles were decorated in this style, from sets of vases to figures of goddesses. Large vases were sometimes painted in other colour-combinations: famille jaune and famille noire, in which the ground colour was yellow and black respectively. Examples of these were never numerous, and are now extremely rare.

The single-colour (monochrome) glazes and enamels produced in the Ming dynasty were not only copied, but extended in range during the eighteenth century. A variety of reds and browns was developed, and some of these were controlled skilfully in the kiln to produce unusual effects. Other colours, including yellows and greens, were devised, and a rich ruby red was used sometimes on a class of wares made for export. It occurs on the backs of thin `eggshell' plates of the Yung Cheng period, and as a ground colour on vases and dishes of the same date. A further innovation in combination with panels of famille verte was the appropriately named 'powder-blue'. This was made by blowing powdered cobalt through a gauze screen, the panels being protected by pieces of paper, the resulting powdered ground vibrating with colour under the smooth glaze in the best examples. Pieces were sometimes enveloped entirely in powder-blue, and decorated over the glaze with designs in the thin and dull gilding used by the Chinese.

By this time, Jesuit missionaries from France had established themselves in China, and were sending back notes of what they could learn of the processes of porcelain making. Of these men, Pere d'Entrecolles was the most successful and his letters, when they were published eventually, had a great effect on the art in Europe. In the reverse direction, Europeans of all the nations then established in trade with China, were sending to their agents in the East pieces of silver, pottery and other articles to have them imitated in the wonder material; at the same time, they sent engravings and drawings to be copied as decoration. These tasks were performed by the Chinese with great skill, and resulted in a constant flood of goods in both directions throughout the eighteenth century.

A further stimulus to the trade was public interest in teadrinking, and the sending of increasing amounts of the leaf from China. The beverage being new to the West, no drinkingvessels entirely suitable were available, and the Orientals obligingly sent porcelain cups and saucers and teapots. Many of these travelled packed in the holds of East Indiamen with the tea above, so that the bilge-water would not ruin the latter.

The first teapots sent from the East were made of a hard red stoneware, known as Yi-hsing pottery, and the legend quickly grew that tea could only be enjoyed if poured from a red pot. It will be found that many of the first teapots made in Europe (other than those of silver) were of red stoneware in imitation of the imported ones.

With the discoveries of Bottger and the making of porcelain in Europe, the Chinese monopoly was broken, but the novelty of having something from far Cathay was sufficient to ensure a market. In addition, the Chinese wares, in spite of the expenses of packing and transport, were cheaper than European-made ones. One early effect of European research was that just as the Chinese had copied the cobalt blue of the Persians, so they imitated the pink colour used successfully at Dresden. In the reign of Yung Cheng this was employed extensively, and completely changed the prevailing tone of decorated porcelain. The opaque pink gave its name to the type of colouring: famille rose, which lasted for the rest of the eighteenth century through the reign of Ch'ien Lung.

The transmission of designs continued, and one popular feature was the ordering of complete dinner services painted with the coat-of-arms, crest or initials of the European owner. Punchbowls, mugs, teasets, and innumerable other articles were ornamented in a similar manner and are sought eagerly today. About 1800, America was also importing from China, and there remain in the United States many examples of old porcelain with the insignia of their former owners. An outstanding punchbowl given to the City of New York in 1802 bears a view of the city, and is inscribed with the date of presentation as well as the name of the Chinese artist who painted it.

By many people on both sides of the Atlantic much of this eighteenth-century porcelain exported from China is called `Lowestoft'. It was given this name mistakenly a century ago, and although the error was corrected soon afterwards the name has stayed.

Although a large quantity of old Chinese porcelain was made for export, there was a certain amount for the supply of the home market. In many instances this was made to much higher standards in both modelling and painting, and was generally very carefully finished: On the whole, it was sparsely decorated and relied as much on the beauty of the shape and surface of the ware as on the actual brushwork. This ware, known as being in the `Chinese taste', is rarely found out of China but is sought eagerly by collectors.

With the advent of the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century styles continued but the quality of both painting and porcelain fell off. In the Tao Kuang period was introduced the manner of painting the entire surface of a piece with flowers and butterflies against a green ground; this is known generally as `Canton' ware.The Chinese have always been careful copyists, and their work in porcelain is no exception. It has been mentioned that Yueh ware of the T'ang dynasty was copied in the Ming period, but the same process has been continued down to modern times. Twentieth-century imitations of K'ang Hsi are often convincingly done and only experienced collectors can tell them from the originals. Equally, the clever reproductions of Samson of Paris and of the Herend factory in Austria must be guarded against.

Chinese porcelain is a life-time study, and a fascinating one. New discoveries are being made continually, new theories brought forward, and the wares have an unequalled international interest. There is no short cut in learning how to differentiate between old and new: experience gained from handling and studying pieces is the only way. Although copies of early examples may seem convincing, a careful examination will reveal that subtleties in shaping and colour have been lost, and the collector must aim to discern this at a glance.


Korea is situated to the north of China, and is a peninsula adjoining Manchuria and pointing south towards Japan. The pottery and porcelain made there has strong characteristics of its own both in shape and decoration. The finest wares were made in the Koryu period which lasted from A.D. 936 to 1392, and was roughly contemporary with the Sung period in China. In the following Yi period, the making of many of the earlier types of wares continued.

The most typical Koryu pieces are of a hard stoneware with a celadon glaze. Decoration took various forms: incising under the glaze is common, but the most interesting is the use of inlay. The pattern was cut into the article with a tool, and the incisions filled with black or white clay. The Koreans were very skilled at this work, and it is possible that they were the first to perfect it. Distinctive features of many of the Korean celadons are that where the bare clay is exposed it shows a red colour, and usually the low footring and convex base is glazed all over. Most bases show also three or more small marks where they have stood on `stilts' in the kiln; the `stilts' being used to prevent the melted glaze from sticking to the floor or to any other piece being fired.

To many Western eyes Korean wares have a refreshing and attractive character that reveals no trace at all of the European influences so common in Chinese pieces. Apart from the celadons, little is known about other types of ware found in both Korea and China, and which may have originated in either country.


The majority of Japanese porcelain to be seen outside that country is ware that was made purposely for export. Little, if any, porcelain at all was made there before the sixteenth century, but by the seventeenth century kilns were in operation near Arita, in the province of Hizen.

Probably the best-known wares, apart from nineteenth-century Satsuma, are the dishes and jars decorated in the so-called `Imari' style, from the name of the port near Arita whence they were brought to Europe by Dutch traders. This Imari porcelain is painted on a heavy bluish-toned body with a mixture of flowers, scrolls and panels in dark blue, red and gold. At the time it was brought to the West it was highly esteemed, and although it has been copied extensively (Crown Derby is a familiar example) it is less popular today.

The other Japanese ware that had an influence on Western porcelain is that known as `Kakiemon', after Sakaida Kakiemon, one of a family of Arita potters. Pieces with this style of decoration derived from the Chinese, are sparsely painted in red, green, blue, turquoise and yellow, and they were copied closely at Dresden, Chantilly, Chelsea and elsewhere.

Some of the Japanese potters imitated closely current Chinese wares, and these are easily confused. Many Japanese pieces have small marks under the bases where they stood on clay `stilts' when being fired. Many, also, show a reddish-orange colour on the unglazed edges.

Other porcelains and styles of decoration were current in Japan at the time that these export pieces were being made, but comparatively few specimens have left the country.