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Oriental China - Decorated With Coloured Enamels

( Originally Published 1911 )

THE section of porcelain which deals with decoration in colours is a revelation of the ingenuity, art, and industry of the Chinese potter. The difference between the Chinese productions and European china are striking ; in fact, they cannot be compared. With the Chinese, the porcelain manufacture was a matter of custom, almost of religion. The gift of a piece of porcelain marked every solemn ceremony—the new year, the birthday, the marriage never passed without the presentation of a cup or vase which bore an inscription or a symbol of good wishes, or a character meaning either longevity or earthly happiness. Indeed, the visitor to the Chinese home could see not only cups and vases, but teapots, dishes, and plates with varied decoration and brilliant colouring, each telling its own story. Sometimes the teapots were made in the form of Chinese characters. On some pieces were the familiar scenes of the home life or of the public life which give us glimpses of the manners of a people, still imperfectly known and less understood, who for centuries opposed the strongest barriers to the curiosity of Europeans. On other pieces were depicted subjects drawn from the sacred legends or from the principal scenes of well-known wars.

Then the birds and animals each with its meaning, each a symbol! The peach blossom, the lotus, the dragon of the Emperors or of the princes appear side by side with the kylin, the Korean lion or dog or Fo, the sacred Ho-Ho birds, or Fong-Hoang, &c. On the plates and dishes specimens of the Oriental flowers were spread out in all the glory of vivid colour—peonies and chrysanthemums, lotus and azalea, with insects and butterflies no less gorgeous and certainly no less emblematical. Other specimens had for decoration rocks and trees with birds of rich plumage, and fishes with scales of golden hue.

Amongst these dazzling enamel colours four are most attractive and seem to dominate over all the others. Arranging them in families and placing them in order of age, we should take the black family, the green family, the yellow family, and the rose family. These all show the brilliant tones of a perfected production, and singularly enough they were, with one exception, ascribed to the Tsing dynasty ; they began to be made in the Kang-he period of that dynasty. Such was the generally received opinion. Further investigation has shown that, with the exception of the "famille rose," most of these were trade during the Ming dynasty, and attention is being drawn to this fact more and more as time reveals many undoubtedly fine pieces of the older dynasty. It may be objected that these fine pieces are liter Chinese copies with the old dates, and the objection has certainly some grounds, but we must remember that the invention of translucid porcelain and its decoration was quite fabulous with regard to its antiquity, and we must further bear in mind that the regulations of the social and political life of the Chinese, the organisation of the family, which scarcely permitted the son to follow any other profession than that of his father, perpetuated the trades of a calling or trade. The routine practice, if this expresses the idea better, forbade all initiative in the mere worker. Inspiration creating new forms and colours depended upon the genius who presided over the Imperial manufactories. These and other causes brought this result, that art and industry rested almost stationary, reproducing the same types, the same forms, the same decoration, which responded to the demands, habits and customs of a people whose needs scarcely varied. Under these conditions, which furnish food for reflection, when we inquire, " Is this old china or not ? " we must note that the mere inspection of hard porcelain made of kaolin, which is almost unalterable with time, will never reveal to the most expert the date of its creation. It is true that certain pieces bear an inscription indicating this or that date, but the number of these is very limited, for the use of date marks does not appear to have been adopted by the Chinese before the end of the fifteenth century. Although it may be objected that these marked specimens are later Chinese copies, and that similarly decorated specimens have simply the old dates recopied, it is quite possible that many of them which are thought to have been imitations may be really old. It will be difficult even for the expert to be certain in his differentiation between fine old Ming and Kang-he.

Coming in the same period as the three Kang-he enamel colours are the two underground glaze grounds powder-blue and coral-red. True powder-blue is Kang-he, but it has been copied, and badly, right on to our own times, whilst in coral red—"rouge de fer"—the later Keen-lung specimens can fairly be said to rival those of the earlier period. It is doubtful whether this rivalry would apply to any other class of porcelain.


This magnificent production, of which we give examples in our illustrations, is usually ascribed to Kang-he, possibly it may be earlier. Its characteristic quality was a black ground covered with almost in-visible green glaze. The body of these pieces was decorated with flowers in yellow, green, and white, and with butterflies. A common form of decoration —if any can be called common in dealing with such a rare product—was that the panels were decorated with emblems of the seasons. A tree of peony with green, white, and grey blossoms appears to us to be fantastic, but the peony in China grew to the height of 12 ft. The chrysanthemum with flowers of similar colours formed a second panel, the guelder rose with green and white blossoms made the third, whilst the fourth had the lotus flower with tall green and grey flowers growing at the foot of green rocks at the edge of a green lake. The prunus blossom in white or pale green was often used for floral decoration, and yellow finches with green wings, white storks, white butterflies and bees are often found. So, too, is a green-faced dragon with a long brilliant green body in coils, sporting itself in mid-air. Reference to our illustrations will bring out other forms of decoration treated at some length.


This rare class, which is well exemplified by the fine specimens in the Salting Collection in the Museum at South Kensington, seems to have had the decoration applied in outline or in colour to white porcelajn, and then the black ground was filled in. The black is thin and the tint is not intense. The decoration may be left white, or "famille verte " or " famille rose," &c. In these respects it differs from the modern ware, in which the enamel is thick, and the painting of the flowers and insects is far from being brilliant. Such pieces have no value.

The illustration shows a rare pair of hexagonal Teapots, divided into six pierced panels, which are decorated with hawthorn blossom, bamboo plant, and the peach-tree, on each side; the ground of brilliant black enamel. Springing from the base are acantha leaves, decorated in rouge de fer, in high relief; the base decorated with a light traceny design on apple-green ; the necks divided into six panels in apple-green, bright green, and yellow, on which are Joo-e-heads in aubergine on various shades of green. The covers reticulated with design of hawthorn and branches; the stems in aubergine on green and rouge de fer. The handles are formed as dolphins; the head of each is in aubergine, the back in rouge de fer, and the body in yellow. The spouts are seen issuing from monster heads, the latter in aubergine, the former in brilliant yellow. Kang-he.


A very artistic octagonal-shaped Bowl, divided into four panels, on which are represented the flowers of the four seasons, decoraled in green, white, and aubergine, on a brilliant black background. Dividing the panels are four sections of a diamond diaper design in green and yellow ; at the base of each of these is a Joo-e-head in green and black. Surrounding the whole of the panels at the base is a light tracery design in black on yellow ground. At the bottom of the intenior is an octagonal panel, decorated with rocks, flowers, and foliage in green, aubergine, and yellow, on black ground. Inside the rim is decorated with four panels of diaper design in green and yellow, in the centre of each of which there is a small reserve containing flowers in various colours on black ground, the outer portion of each having an aubergine border. Dividing these four panels are four small reserves, containing flowers in various colours on a seeded yellow ground. Sup-ported on a carved wood stand. In this piece the diaper decoration, in green and yellow, which distinguishes early Ming and Kang-fe, is again prominent. These diapers are largely used in borders too. Many of them can be traced in our illustrations, such as the key pattern, the T, the swastika, Joo-e-head, trellis, triangle, herring-bone, honeyc omb, ring, diamond, as here, plain, sometimes it is flowered ; lozenge, coin, scroll, fish-roe, octagons and squares, net-work, petal-work, speckled-work to imitate fish-skin, scale, curl, Y-work. They should be studied. Kang-he period.


The pair of square-shaped tapering Vases of brilliant black enamel. Three of the four seasons are shown, in which are depicted the flowers of the seasons in green, yellow, white, and aubergine. On the shoulders there are flowers in similar colours, whilst each neck is decorated with peonies in green, yellow, and aubergine, all having the same brilliant black ground. On the vase showing a single face there is the spring scene of peach-trees with flowers and birds. The rocks are conventional in form, whilst the branches and trunks of the trees in aubergine show the darken markings in sepia. To the left of the other vase we find the summer flower, the lotus, in full bloom, with storks wading in the water ; to the right the autumn flower, the chrysanthemum, bears a gorgeous display of bloom. In the top left corner, a butterfly—emblem of conjugal felicity—is flitting round the flowers. The fourth season—the plum and early rose—is not shown.

The black glaze used here must not be confounded with that which was invented in the Keen-lung period, because the Keen-lung glaze was applied in one process. The Kang-he black was a dull black glazed oven with green. The painting of the flowers, &c., was first carried out in proper colours, then the black was applied to block out the design, and finally the thin but brilliant green was painted over the black. Variations in the colour scheme may be found. Some have the flowers, &c., left in white upon the black ground. Others have similar drawing white with black ground, only the green glaze was carried all over the piece, so that whilst the ground remained black the decoration was all coloured green. The examples are of the Kang-he period.

BLACK FAMILY—"FAMILLE NOIRE" A pair of large-sized pear-shaped Beaker Vases.

This quality of old Chinese porcelain is very rare and valuable. The two vases are so shown as to exhibit the usual method adopted by the Chinese in decorating two objects similar in shape. The European style is to decorate the two objects making a pain in precisely the same way. The Onientals reversed the patterns so as to give a right and a left view of them. In these vases the tree trunk and the floral pattern on the one vase takes an opposite direction in the other, so that when they are placed side by side, as in the illustration, they make a balanced design. These are most extraordinary examples of the rare " famille noire" porcelain, and of their kind are undoubtedly the finest known specimens. The background is of a brilliant black, decorated with rocks in bright green, and two birds in various briliant colours. Coming from the back of the rock is a peony, exquistely drawn and brilliantly enamelled in yellow. The flowers on the coresponding side to this are bright green with white stalks. The reverse has peonies. The base and the upper part is almost covened with white hawthorn in a brilliant vitreous white; the neck decorated with sprays of flowers and hawthorn in white and brilliant coloured enamels. A great feature of the body of the vase is the branches of trees on either side, carried out in aubergine in the most perfect gradation of colour. The designs are opposite in each vase, and thus form a complete pair. The vases are in perfect condition, and of the Kang-he period. Extreme height, 27 inches; height of stand, 3 1/2 inches. Value, £10,000.


(a) A small oviform bottle-shaped Vase, with expanding neck, decorated with rocks, prunus blossom, and branches, in various greens, white, aubergine, and yellow, on a brilliant black enamel ground.

(b) An oviform beaker-shaped Vase decorated with prunus blossom and branches, similar to the above in colour. Birds in brilliant colours. Black ground. Neither M. Jacquemart nor Franks nor Gulland give very much information about this class of porcelain—black ground covered with an almost invisible green glaze. As in the blue and white class, there are found sprays or branches of white prumus with the " ascending " and the " descending " stem in what has been so long miscalled the " hawthorn pastern." The diffenence is, of course, one of ground colour. The blue in the one is under the glaze, and in the other the black is painted on the white china in its biscuit state when the other decoration has first been burnt in. The process appears to be this. First the white or coloured pattern is burnt in, in the first firing in the kiln, leaving the ground white. To this the black ground is applied and again burnt in. Over this black ground the green wash is painted, and at the same time coloured decoration added where necessary, causing another visit to the kiln. Finally the whole is covered with a fine transparent glaze and receives its final firing. It seems that unless a process similar to this wene adopted the smoothness and beauty of the magnificent decoration could never be attained. Note in one illustration the "ascending" stem and in the other the stem is " descending " over the body and ascending in the neck. Both pieces are Kang-he.

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