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Blue And White Porcelain
Hardly anything is so decorative in a house as Chinese porcelain of blue and white, especially when placed against dark walls or oak furniture, and yet, oddly enough, it had not been collected in serious fashion in England until after the middle of the nineteenth century. A pioneer in this direction was a Frenchman named Bracquemond, who began to collect it in 1856. In 1862 he persuaded a certain Frenchwoman, a Madame Desoye, to open a little shop for the sale of blue and white porcelain and Oriental prints in the Rue de Rivoli, and Whistler, the famous artist, was one of the earliest purchasers at that shop. He introduced the love of blue china to Rossetti, and from these two artists, helped as they were to obtain fine examples by Murray Marks, the famous dealer, who was far in advance of his times in respect to the appreciation of blue porcelain, we owe the existence of a desire to collect such porcelain.
At first a great deal of it was wrongly dated. It was declared to be the production of the fifteenth century, instead of the seventeenth century, and even now there are many persons who, seeing the date mark upon Chinese porcelain that belongs to the period of about 1465 to 1487, believe that this date mark corresponds with the period at which the porcelain was made. The Chinese have always, however, been amazing people for counterfeiting, and thinking that the European customer would value their commodity for the same quality that made it so esteemed in China, dated it back a century or so.
Now we know better than the early collectors, and we understand that the beautiful vases decorated with the prunus blossom, generally called the hawthorn, although it really represents the bloom of the meihua, or winter-blooming plumtree, belong to the reign of K'ang-Hsi (1662-1722) and not to that of Chia-Ching (1522-1566).
It is not, by the way, always recognised that the decoration of these so-called hawthorn ginger jars conveyed a dainty allegory concerning the coming of spring. The blue which covered the surface of the jar represents the cracking of the ice, and the blossom is that which opens out as the ice begins to pass away, and spring is in view.
These beautiful jars were used for the conveyance of costly gifts of tea or other delicacies intended for the beginning of the New Year. The jar from the Huth collection, for which Mr. Huth is said to have given under a hundred pounds, sold at his sale for L5,900, the record price of a jar of that kind. It was of course the very finest that had ever come into the market, although it has been stated by collectors that there are still two finer ones to be found in the possession of a Dutch family in Friesland, who imported them generations ago, and have preserved them ever since.
An almost equally beautiful jar came to the British Museum from the Salting collection, and another one, also in the same museum, was bought for a price under three hundred pounds, and, in the eyes of some connoisseurs, rivaled the superb example from the Huth collection. The Huth vase was at one time in the possession of Mr. Murray Marks, and several of the best of these jars, that are now in various great collections, passed through the hands of this eminent and well-known dealer.
He was responsible also for the name "Mussulman blue," or "Mahometan blue," and is said to have suggested, in conversation with Dr. Bushell, that having discovered that the original Chinese name of the blue indicated that its origin was outside China, this was the suitable word to apply to it, and collectors have adopted it accordingly.
There are numbers of hawthorn ginger-jars all over the country, and the majority of them are quite unimportant. They are in the windows of various dealers in tea, and are often to be seen in ordinary houses. The Chinese soon found out what a demand there was for a jar of this particular colour, and they set to work to produce scores of them for the market. Still, there are chances for a collector, amongst all this variety, and the possessions of some of the early collectors have never yet come into the market, so that jars as fine as any of those in the museums may even yet be discovered.
The ginger-jars are not the only famous pieces of blue. There are tall vases in sets of three or five. There are the long-necked vases known as sprinklers. There are the plates which bear upon them designs representing tall and graceful Chinese ladies, which the Dutch traders called "Lange Lijsen," and which Whistler paraphrased into "Long Elizas"; and there are cups and saucers, pots and jars, and all kinds of other pieces that belong to quite good periods, and are beautiful in decoration.
The Dutch were the people who first of all introduced them into Europe, and long before the English or the French appreciated their beauty, Dutch merchants understood the charm of blue and coloured Oriental ware, and gave substantial prices for the finest pieces.
It is to the work of Dr. Bushell, who for nearly a quarter of a century was attached to the British Legation at Pekin, that we owe the credit of clearing up the subject of the dating of Chinese porcelain, and he was the first person who wrote about it with authority, and cleared away a great many of the errors which had hitherto surrounded its history. His book was undertaken at the request of that energetic collector Mr. W. T. Walters of Baltimore, and it was responsible for readjusting the whole subject of blue and white porcelain, and of the coloured porcelain that was almost equally important, and in the eyes of some connoisseurs even more decorative.
The earliest piece of Oriental porcelain that we have in England can be seen in New College. It is a bowl of what is known as celadon green, and used to belong to Archbishop Warham (1504-1532). It is mounted in wonderful silver gilt work, and there are other mounted pieces to be seen in different English museums and country houses, although not quite so old or important as this. Chinese porcelain mounted in Elizabethan silver is of course exceedingly rare and very precious, and the aim of every great collector is to obtain a specimen of it.
The finest collection of blue and white porcelain that was ever brought together was that which belonged to Mr. Pierpont Morgan, and was sold after his death for L800,000 to Messrs. Duveen. It embraced the Marston-Perry and the Garland collections, and contained one superb vase, decorated with the prunus blossom in red on a black ground, and at the time of its purchase the only example known of this particular design. The Garland collection had sold for L120,000, and Mr. Morgan had bought it all, and added it to what he already possessed. There are other great collections.
Lord Leverhulme has splendid pieces, both in London and at his museum; there are magnificent pieces belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, some of the finest of which came from the Altmann collection; there were the Lee and the Bennett collections, that which belonged to judge Gary; and some very fine pieces, including many in what is called powder-blue, were once the property of Mr. G. L. Bevan, who happened to be an excellent judge of porcelains. The Salting collection added some splendid pieces to the possessions of the British nation, and at South Kensington, in Dresden, and in New York, this fascinating ware can be studied with great advantage, because in these museums are some of the best examples of it that exist in the world.