Orietnal China - Chinese White Porcelain
( Originally Published 1911 )
M. GASNAULT, the friend and pupil of M. Jacquemart, has put on record the results of their united work in the Museum at Limoges. The collector is able to see how he has tried to reconcile and combine the elements of a complete history of Oriental china, how he has collected specimens of all the manufactures, even the smallest, how Oriental porcelain holds the first place in the collection, being represented by most remarkable specimens of industry which in the Celestial Empire to-day is on the decline, after having had a brilliant career through so many ages, that it seemed as if nothing could have led to its failure.
If the Chinese have not yet returned to that state where they have forgotten entirely the art of making porcelain, at least they have lost the secret of those admirable productions—the forms so pure, the glazes so marvellous, the enamels so sparkling, the decoration so diversified, and the paintings so exquisite—which remained with us as monuments of an age when there must have been such art in the Ceramic world as has never been seen since. It will be advantageous to say something about the collections at Limoges and the lessons we may learn from them. The first place in the collection is given to the white china known throughout the world as "blanc de chine." This kind of porcelain was highly esteemed in France, and the Oriental artists and potters from a material which seemed to offer but little resource proceeded to work wonders. By the side of the small sacrificial cups destined for religious uses with the glassy glaze and a tone which recalls that of wax or ivory, in the form of the horn of the rhinoceros or of the flowers of the lotus, which was the plant pre-eminently sacred, one is able to admire examples perfect in execution of which the texture is so thin and fine that it seems dangerous even to touch them. The greater part is decorated with ornaments in white or in white slip, which by a few simple strokes, or by a delicate tracery, almost inconceivably beautifies the limited surface. Garlands and detached bouquets of flowers have been engraved upon the wet or the dry clay so finely—indeed, so exquisitely, that they cannot be seen unless held up to the light. Here the sacred dragon winds round the cup as if he wished to defend it from profane hands, and a Buddhist god only appears when a coloured liquid is poured into the cup, which then shows up the lines, before invisible, engraved in the paste.
Again, we find little bottles decorated with dragons and symbolical dogs of Fo or Buddha cut deeply into the paste with a patience and an art unequalled in the productions of the Western Hemisphere. The statuettes of the gods and goddesses are also made in this white porcelain, amongst whom is one to whom we have before referred, Kwan-Yin, a mysterious being, the personification of mercy and goodness, who protects the sailors and saves them from ship-wreck, who takes pity on those who suffer in hell and intercedes for them. She also gives children to those who are sterile.
Kwan-Yin has many attributes and emblems. Sometimes she has a diadem on her head ornamented with images of Buddha, or she rests seated on a throne of lotus in memory of the miraculous bridge which the gods constructed to enable her to cross the sea. The god of riches is often found as a white statutette, so is Poutai, the god of contentment, with a broad smile and round, uncovered stomach; Cheou, or Chow, the god of longevity, with an enormous bald head. Other figures of emperors and empresses are all of the same type, with the accompanying Ho-Ho birds.
Amongst the finest white porcelain is one kind having a hard and compact paste which lends itself easily to the mould, but is not suitable to the turning wheel. Nearly all the pieces of this ware are moulded into figures, incense burners, &c., and on looking into the interior the roughness and unevenness of the paste can be easily seen, even the marks left by the fingers of the workmen are quite plain, whilst the bottom always preserves the imprint of the canvas on which these pieces are placed after having been moulded. Then there is a white biscuit class, very rare, often having two walls or divisions, of which the outer one only is biscuit, reticulated or pierced with a fine network or trellis of various patterns, through which the interior wall can be seen. Amongst the trellis many Chinese characters are to be found, such as the emblem of longevity, the mark called Cheou, Chow, or Show. We shall have more to say of reticulated porcelain later on, but here we may mention that the reticulation on the outer wall is often elaborate, and the cover glazes give a variety of colours equal to that found upon ordinary china. The whole white porce lain family, whether we consider the beautiful creamy ivory ware, or the dead white, or the blue tinged white, is rarely marked, and when a mark is used generally it is a seal character moulded or cut in the paste. A very rare form of decoration is met with in white, but only occasionally. The surface is covered with minute white points like the points shown in shagreen, only it is not green, but white. Such china has been termed " chair de poule," or chicken skin. It may be noticed that these points are not enamelled, either because they were applied upon the glaze or because the enamel ran off them in the firing.