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Oriental China - Keen-Lung Period (1736-1795)

( Originally Published 1911 )

DURING the first seven years of the reign of this Emperor there was but little variation in the character of the porcelain manufacture at King-te-chin. In 1743, however, a new director was appointed to the works—Thang-ing—who continued the high quality of the manufacture of the two previous reigns, and brought the rose family to the most perfect state. Indeed, though the European influence exerted by the Jesuits may possibly have been more powerful than before, yet no European china quite reaches the glowing brilliance of these Chinese vases and dishes. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Chelsea tried to copy the rose colour, the result being the fine claret colour of the Chelsea china. Sevres came nearest with the Rose du Barri, but, after all, the lover of old Oriental porcelain devotes all his energies to the acquisition of specimens made and decorated in the old times, imitations perhaps of very early Chinese products, but perfectly Chinese in instinct and impression.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate Keen-lung china from Yung-ching in unmarked pieces before the full developement of the "rose famille," but the reign of Keen-lung was so much longer comparatively, and during the period the porcelain manufacture was so active, that it will be safe to ascribe the fine specimens of this rose family to it as well as to Vung-ching, when the invention of the rose enamel took place. In the last reign we considered, but only shortly, this " famille rose." The exquisite delicacy of these specimens lies in the combination of an elaborate, but refined, style of decoration in which the painting was most artistic, with the graceful shapes of the pieces themselves. There are other types, bolder in colour, broader in execution, and, it may be, equally beautiful. Take, for example, a vase ; its body would be covered with large sprays of flowers in rose, yellow, and other enamels, but the rose predominates and gives an effect which is very rich and striking. Chrysanthemums, peonies, irises or flags, anemones, pumpkin vines with flowers and fruit—all these were in common use with birds and butterflies, fishes and insects no less finely coloured, and, as it were, thrown up into relief by the use of black with that transparent green enamel which we have before described, and here and there a black spot is applied for the same purpose of enhancing the value of the coloured enamels. The porcelain body of the Keen-lung period is very fine and white, many of the specimens having a style of painting peculiar to the Chinese artists of this period. Flowers such as those we have mentioned—the chrysanthemum, peony, and rose—seem to be ribbed, as if when the enamel was not quite dry a .tool was used for the purpose of breaking up the enamel and in this way getting finer effects from reflected light. The porcelain itself sometimes assumed a wavy appearance, such as would be left by the potter's fingers when the piece was turned on the wheel. A similar wavy appearance is found on characteristic pieces on Bristol hard paste porcelain when turned upon the wheel.

Amongst the rarest decoration of this class of porcelain in this period is what is called " mille fleurs." In this class the whole surface is covered with a thou-sand flowers in variety painted exquisitely in enamel colours of every conceivable hue. Yet though the colours are so varied there is nothing but the most pleasing and harmonious effect. Pale lilac, reds and yellows, alternate with delicate shades of greys and blues. When the panels are left in reserves, a figure decoration is freely applied to them, and the figures depicted represent the spirits of the flowers. On the bases, which are covered with pale sea-green enamel, are found the square seal marks of the Emperor Keen-lung. It is scarcely possible to have the privilege of seeing such perfect work of Ceramic art, but the collection of the late Mr. W. G. Gulland, of Brunswick Terrace, Hove, was especially rich in " male fleurs" pieces.

The class allied to this, but probably later in date, is "mille cerfs "—that is, a decoration consisting of numberless deer ranging in a forest. The colour is not nearly as brilliant as in the "male fleurs" class, though the same wavy porcelain is to be noted. The green, bluish in tone, like the greens of the Yungching period, are harmonised with browns ; in fact, the aubergines merge into sepia or brown. The hills are green and brown with some hilltops in blue enamel. The birds are painted quite thinly in rather dull reds. This glaze could be fairly described as late "famille verte." In this period the Celadons show considerable advance. Celadons were produced late in the Ming and early Kang-he periods, and cover a range of tints which are difficult to describe, as we have seen in the case of peach bloom and "clair de lune." The " sang de boeuf" is also difficult to describe, so that a pilgrimage should be made to any Museum which has a genuine specimen. For instance, in the British Museum, Oriental Section, in the centre of a large cabinet, there is a small bottle-shaped vase which is a real "sang de boeuf,," a glaze of a brilliant colour shaded towards a deeper claret and the base shading away into a pale yellow, pink towards the lip, which retains the soft, natural tone of the body or paste. Then just below the neck the "sang de boeuf" seems to glow with the intensity of the ruby, just before it falls from the shoulder of the piece towards the base. Other colours of this period are known as pigeon's blood and chicken's blood, crimson, crushed strawberry, and so on. To nearly all of these co ours the remarks which apply to the shading of the " sang de boeuf" can be noticed upon the specimens them-selves. Here the glaze starts at the top of the vase or vessel ; there is a yellowish tinge, and the colour has several gradations until it ends at the base. These reds originated in the late Ming period, reached high excellence under Kang-he, and continued through Yung-ching's reign, and under Keen-lung maintained their high perfection.

The Keen-lung red Celadon has a somewhat blue shade when the light is reflected at an angle. [t is well to remember that all those colours which are called Celadon, or self-coloured, have the tints mixed in the glaze. Besides the reds, there are blues of m any shades, violets, mauves, &c.—in fact, any colour that could be applied in the glaze was used as the sole decoration of fine porcelain. It is true that in many of the fine vases the body is moulded with flower:; or dragons or other patterns, yet the glaze was a whole glaze and therefore Celadon. Notwithstanding this, the Celadon surface was itself frequently decorated by designs in enamel colours outlined in black. As we have before shown, it is easy to know whether a piece is decorated with Celadon or with enamel, because all enamel colours stand out from the glazed surface to which it is applied, and by passing the fingers over the decoration the enamel can be felt. This brings us to certain facts that must be remembered.

Enamels, like Celadons, may be of any colour. They are always burnt in so as to amalgamate with the cover glaze, even if that cover glaze be itself coloured and therefore Celadon. Also there are but a few colours which can be applied before glazing, that is, upon the paste or body directly. We have seen that blue and red were so applied. This brings us to the other development. The Keen-lung class of blue and red under the glaze was derived from that discovered in the Yung-ching period. Its application was developed with surprising skill by the finest workmen, so that the application of copper red under the glaze, in combination with blue, gave splendid opportunities for these artists to display their pre-eminent skill for freehand drawing in applying designs upon the biscuit porcelain before the glazing took place. If, for example, you pass your hand over a piece decorated under the glaze, you will find a surface perfectly smooth, the colour has sunk into the paste.

The next note is worth remembering, because it may be applied as a practical test to distinguish between the old and the modern blue under the glaze. This test of modern blue is to be found with the finest strokes, whereas in the old work each stroke is perfectly smooth or uniform in its outline, never laboured, never hatched, but simple strokes which plainly follow the American plan of never taking three strokes when one stroke will do. Most of the modern work reveals a tiny blue dot at the pull-off of the fine hair brush or pencil. The drawing and writing of the Chinese was always done by means of a pencil held perfectly upright by the fingers, so that by examination of the pencil marks it is quite easy to see whether the blue lines have inequality, especially at the point where the brush is removed, and our readers may detect forgeries of the old marks as well as the old drawings by noticing this blue dot at the end of the stroke. It is never found upon an old piece.

The coral red family, which belongs peculiarly to this period, is extremely pleasing, and a very fine result is secured when used with blue under the glaze, leaving the design outlined in red, so that the red, white, and blue harmonise perfectly. But the coral red was also used under the glaze as a ground colour. Then it was thickly powdered with white chrysanthemum leaves and flowers, and it had white reserves often decorated with sprays of conventional white lotus, chrysanthemums, and magnolia. The Chinese varied the colours in their decoration with wonderful effect. Blue under the glaze was, as we have seen, associated with reds under the glaze, but it was quite effective with enamels over the glaze, and we may take this as the next class of the period. The design, or any part of it, was applied to the paste, then the piece was glazed and fired so that on coming from the kiln it was simply a white porcelain piece having blue, or red and blue, decoration under the glaze. Then enamel colours were used to complete the design, such as green enamels with the blue designs showing through them and thin dull reds under the glaze, as before noted, whilst the rest of the piece was coated with decoration in yellow, blue, or even white enamel colours.

Perhaps the most — and here adjectives fail : charming, lovely, famous are words which arise in the mind—ruby, pink, rose eggshell plates really should be seen rather than described. These all belong to the "famille rose." But eggshell was not confined to this family. Dated specimens seem to indicate that the two earlier reigns had seen the origin and progress of this beautiful ruby porcelain, but there is no doubt that many of the finest of the marked pieces belonged to the Keen-lung period, though Yung-ching produced excellent specimens.

Let us give a few examples from the sale-rooms. But first we could wish that all who will read this chapter could betake themselves to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to the British Museum, to Duveen's or Gorer's in Bond Street, and see for themselves what Chinese eggshell plates really are. The Salting Collection in the Museum at South Kensington has very fine specimens, and the British Museum has similar specimens in two flat cases, which, unfortunately, do not allow the full value of the ruby back to be appreciated. At Duveen's there are two cases filled with the loveliest specimens ranged before a looking-glass, which enables the visitor to see both the design on the front of the plate and the lovely colour at the back.

It is surprising, and yet not astonishing from the point of view of the collector who will have the best, to notice the prices which have been paid for these plates, which are quite small, ranging from 71 in. to 8 in. diameter. A few examples will help in enabling us to estimate their value. One eggshell plate, enamelled with chrysanthemums and a sparrow, and with sprays of peonies round the border, on pink diaper-pattern ground, 8 in. in diameter, sold at the sale of Louis Huth's Collection for £105. The other prices realised at the same sale are no less striking. Saucer dishes, pair, eggshell, with ruby backs, enamelled with branches of chrysanthemums and peonies on a white ground, 8 in. in diameter, sold for £80, but a better pair, enamelled with cocks and peonies in the centre on white ground, with pale green trellis border, 71 in. in diameter, realised £400. One saucer dish, enamelled with a pheasant, quail and peonies in the centre, and a pale green marble border with pink prunus blossom, and three panels containing flowers, 8 in. in diameter, brought 135. The first and last of these were not pink-backed, but they were certainly beautiful.

Other eggshell plates at the same sale with ruby backs, which we will describe shortly, even at the risk of appearing monotonous, were one enamelled with ladies and children in the centre, diaper border, with three panels of flowers, 8 3/4 in. in diameter, which realised £150 ; another, enamelled with quails and chrysanthemums in the centre, with pink and green diaper borders and three panels of flowers, £155 ; another, enamelled with a lady and two children by a table, in a leaf-shaped panel, on gold ground, with border of various coloured diapers, 81 in. in diameter, £200. Two saucer dishes, enamelled with peonies and persimmon fruit in the centre, and shaped border of diaper ground, the border on green ground, with pale pink trellis edge, 7# in. in diameter, £310. A similar pair, but enamelled with ladies and children and vases in the centre, on a white ground, with pale green trellis pattern border, and three panels of black, 71 in. in diameter, fetched the same price, £310. The gem of the whole collection was a plate, finely enamelled with a group of ladies and children, vases and utensils in the centre, with seven borders of various diapers and small panel of flowers, 8 in. in diameter, £280.

The plate with the seven borders is the most famous of these eggshell ruby-back plates. The centre panel or reserve is leaf-shaped, having in enamel colours, very delicately painted, a lady seated with two boys ; near her is a table on which are books ; vases behind her and two vases on her left. This panel is surrounded by six diaper borders of various widths, of which the two chief are a deep ruby, interrupted by four reserves in blue enamel, and the other a pale lilac with four reserves enclosing flowers. Between reserves are four dragons in white. The diaper around the leaf is the seventh border. There are other diaper patterns in the five and four border plates which have in the leaf-shaped central panel a decoration which is very similar. Some, how-ever, of these eggshell plates have no diaper work, the sole decoration consisting of two cocks, beautifully enamelled, near rocks and foliage. Indeed, these birds are often found in plates with borders. Similar eggshell plates may have landscapes or flowers as the central decoration with or without diaper borders. The name ruby back is given to these plates because the whole of the back, excepting the centre inside the rim, is enamel with a beautiful ruby tint. Indeed, we may say that these plates are amongst the very finest creations of the Yung-ching and Keen-lung periods. To the eggshell china belong the delicate Mandarin vases which, probably, were made for exportation.

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