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Introduction To Oriental China

( Originally Published 1911 )

THIS book does not pretend to do more than to indicate to the collector the lines on which collections could or should be made, for " Chats on old Oriental China" scarcely imply a scientific treatise. Incident-ally one point will lead on to another, but with always this object in view, to send the collector to the museums to train his eye as well as his under-standing and to bring him in touch with all that makes for beauty in Oriental porcelain, a porcelain teaming with mythology, having decorations saturated with that mythology, full of emblems of all that concerns the best and highest life of the Chinese, pointing, we may say, to a religion which, although feebly understood in Europe, has been for centuries a real moving factor in the national life of the Oriental peoples. Hence, when we find the earliest European copies framed on Chinese mythology, and birds and flowers and beasts all unknown to the Occidental mind figuring upon vases at Dresden, at Chelsea, or at Sevres we are struck with the incongruity of the association. All European factories, at the first, strove to imitate that porcelain which had been in existence in China long before history in Europe had begun its accurate chronology.

There are collectors of the European productions who revel in the delights of fine Dresden groups, of marvellous Chelsea or Worcester vases, of Bristol figures and the other magnificent productions of the European factories in earthenware and porcelain, but we may safely say that the collector who takes up the study of Oriental porcelain relegates all these European productions into oblivion, and has only one desire, to secure the best possible specimens from the land of far Cathay.

The collection of Oriental porcelain is not easy, especially with regard to the finer productions. The old figures, vases and dishes made hundreds of years ago, decorated with taste and skill beyond all comparison, these can be purchased only by the few. But there are many genuine old pieces still unrecognised, but valuable, each telling its own story, and that story one that can be learnt. We said that there were dangers to the collector, and this is true ; for centuries the Chinese and Japanese have reproduced with minute accuracy the early productions —the Ming and the Kang-he—and the European factories have, in these later times, poured out upon the market many marvellous forgeries which would deceive, possibly, the very expert. The German imitations are passable, but those produced in France, especially in Paris, are so excellent that it would be well for buyers to judge of them, by daylight only—in fact, in buying any fine porcelain this rule should be adhered to. Remember this, there is no forgery existing which would deceive an expert worthy of the name, as there is, without exception, always a failure in some point, either in the colouring, glazing, paste, or drawing, which betrays the copy to a thorough student of Chinese porcelain. The best imitations are those made in Hungary about forty to fifty years ago ; the German copies by comparison are very inferior and weak. Never buy by artificial light, for " colours seen by candle-light do not look the same by day." Marks on porcelain should always be ignored, except when the piece bearing the said mark is beyond doubt ; it is an added interest to have a mark of the proper period. Not alone are patterns forged, but marks are forged ; hence when pattern and mark both agree with the old example, something more is required than a mere superficial knowledge of pattern and mark—that is, the paste or body has to be known, and more, the eye has to be trained so as to distinguish the special character of the piece—in fact, it is the tout ensemble which to the finest judges is the surest guide. They cannot tell why they know, but by a look they do know. It may be that the atmospheric influences extending over long years has softened and modified the colours and taken from them their boldness, so that when paste and glaze and colour all please the trained eye the purchase may be made in safety. And here we should advise our readers rather to buy from a respectable dealer than at auction sales. In the excitement of auction sales higher prices may be paid than would be prudent, or, indeed, it may be that the quality of the specimen bid for is not exactly that which the buyer requires, and the difficulty of changing it is accentuated when the purchaser buys at an auction. In fact, to a beginner with money to spend, no advice can be better than that he should put himself in the hands of a respectable dealer, informing him of his wants, telling him the price he is prepared to pay, and leaving him to deal squarely and fairly. Not only is there danger of the marks being forged and the pattern copied, but really old pieces of Oriental porcelain are often redecorated, so that upon an old piece is found the most elaborate decoration. This to the collector is most puzzling. He sees the porcelain is rare, and, as we have said, really old, and that the pattern and colour of the decoration is what he has been accustomed to either at Exhibitions, such as those in the National Museums, or in illustrations as given in the best books, yet the specimen is not right and it can be tested. The enamel decoration on a re-decorated piece produces a different effect from that upon an old piece. In the latter the enamel colours do not stand out like modern oil painting, but they lie flat and agree in general character and tone with the porcelain itself. Sometimes, in these re-decorated pieces, traces of the old decorations, covered up under the modern enamel decorations, may be found.

Amongst other hints to the collector of old Oriental porcelain must be one with regard to cracked and mended porcelain. By this we mean not alone those pieces which are built up as far as some particular part is concerned, and which can be tested by striking the various parts with a coin, when the difference between the ring of the original part and the dull sound from the composition used in mending may be easily detected. Further, the sense of smell may be brought into play. Generally, the composition used in mending old porcelain in this way smells of oil or turpentine. The third test may be applied by means of a magnifying-glass which will at once reveal the difference between the smooth original glaze and the varnish glaze added to cover the mend. But this is not all. Some mending is done at the factories, where a piece of porcelain of the same tone and colour, with the same decoration, is built and fixed on to the sound piece in such a way as to leave no trace that can be detected by sound, sight, or smell. In this case it really matters very little, as the character of the old porcelain is so well preserved that the piece may be regarded as being perfect. A very simple test for detecting a repair in porcelain is to pass the point of a pin, not too heavily, over the suspected part, when if the original has been at all interfered with, scratches and marks of the pin will be easily seen.

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