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The Best Old "Blue And White"
( Originally Published 1913 )
YOU may read book after book about Oriental porcelain without gleaning much general conception of what the authors are driving at ; on details, they are excellent, but not on general conceptions ; they, and consequently you, cannot "see wood for trees." And yet a "general conception" is the beginning of all wisdom in collecting-in collecting anything. The collector must know what to look for, and how to know it when he sees it.I suppose not one person in a thousand looks at a great picture with really instructed sight, and that is truer still of looking at the best porcelain. Not until one possesses a general idea of what to look for can one see what ought to be looked for, and what is eminently worth being seen.
Experts who write learned books on "Oriental" seem either unwilling or unable to explain their lore lucidly. I have a shelf which simply groans with books on porcelain, that yet tell the beginner next to nothing of what he wants to know and ought to know, and do little to help him to possess a seeing eye. The fact is, that men of letters - men who know how to write, men who can make words into pictures, and by description conjure up a vision of the thing described seldom write about the subjects now in question. But when they do.
Let me translate what Edmond de Goncourt, for instance, wrote about Chinese porcelain, in "La Maison d'un Artiste." "Chinese porcelain!" he exclaims,
"What is Chinese porcelain, do you ask ? Why, it is the finest porcelain in the world, it is the porcelain which, for centuries all over the world, has enlisted more passionate collectors than all the other branches of collecting can do. It is earthy matter, but fashioned into an object full of light and soft colour, which shines like a precious stone." And now let the beginner gaze seeingly into shop-windows and collection-cases until he perceives a piece of " old Oriental " which answers to that ; then he will know the old ware and its beauty, from the trashy, commercial new.
Chinese Blue-and-White.-Of all Chinese porcelain, blue-and-white is the most collected, and the most collectable, for it is widely dispersed, and exists in quantities everywhere. But you must distinguish between old blue-and-white and new. Blue-and-white is the chief as well as the best defined class of Chinese porcelain. Even among old Chinese blue-and-white there are variations of quality, but into these it would be confusing now to go. Let us try to get a " general conception " of the very best of the old ware, so as to be able to pick it out when we see it. It must be full o f light and soft colour, and shimmer like a gem.To be of the best quality for collecting, old blue-andwhite Chinese china should show the following features, some or all.
1. The white of it must be a pure white, not cloudy, smeary, or tinged. It is rather creamy than milky white; but it is so individual and unlike other whites that the French call it blanc de Chine. A Chinese historian says that there are three porcelain whites of flour, of snow, and of the moon.
2. The blue must be a pure blue, the product of cobalt, but with often a sapphire tint. Cobalt-blue, or lapis-lazuli blue, or sapphire blue, darker or lighter, it is always pure, not muddy, thick, or opaque. It is a blue which is bright, pleasing to the eye, and even brilliant. It is not a violet or periwinkle blue, or a purplish blue, or a grey blue or indigo blue. It is not like the blue on Dutch delft, or on old Worcester (though that came near it), or on Bow or Lowestoft. In fact, it is a blue like nothing but itself, that one sees with a pleased surprise and admiration. It is not a cold blue, it is a blue that cheers the eye.The secret of that blue has long been lost, no modern kiln can reproduce it.
3. The design and drawing of the ornamentation, painted in blue upon the lovely white, or in white on the beautiful blue, must be clean and clear and fine in outline, and it must leave a fair balance of parts, between the blue and the white. What designers call " proportion " has been duly observed-there is as much blank or white as ornament or blue.4. The shape of the jar or vase, or whatever the piece of china may be, must be graceful; it must also be simple. And it must be suited to its purpose.
5. The glaze must be brilliant, shining "like a precious stone." It must be satiny. It must be translucent. It must lie thinly on the surface. It must not have come off in places. The Chinese word for " glaze " means " oil." That suggests the Chinese idea that the glaze should lie like oil or lacquer. The beauty of a porcelain surface comes from the fact that the glaze has been united with the paste under the heat of the kiln. The glaze of a piece of fine old blue-andwhite seems like a polish upon the material, rather than a separate layer.It suggests the polish of marble,
The Supreme Example. All these qualities and characteristics of the best old Chinese blue-and-white were conjoined in the prunus-blossom vase called a ginger-jar, which belonged to Mr. Huth, and was sold at Christie's, when the Huth collection came under the hammer, for no less than £6,195. This oviform (or egg-shaped) vase only measures 10 inches in height. It is decorated with branches of white prunus-blossom, upon a ground of blue which looks as if marbled. It is an instance of the white upon blue, not the blue upon white. The first collector of it bought it for Us. 6d. So that it is at once the supreme example of beauty in old blue-and-white, and of the profits which collecting may bring.