Porcelain of The East India Company
( Originally Published 1911 )
AFTER having passed in review the different pro-ducts of purely Chinese taste in which the shapes, the style of decoration, and the painting were all local and national, we will examine another class of porcelain holding for us considerable interest, because it includes a whole series of pieces made in vast quantities for the European market. It is usually known under the name of the "porcelain of the East India Companies." By what aberration of taste or by what commercial necessity had the representatives of the famous East India Companies—English and Dutch—sought to impose new models upon Chinese potters ? Here was a people with the highest technical skill in potting, endowed with a sense of decoration equally pure and developed, set to imitate examples which were considerably outside the sphere of their proper work. It was the fashion during the eighteenth century for noble families and their imitators to possess a service of porcelain made in China or Japan, the decoration of which consisted of coats of arms or crests. Other reproductions of the period included copies of engravings by men who threw away treasures of patience and ability without understanding what they had to execute. They simply imitated, and therefore never produced real artistic work except when, as sometimes happened, they painted grotesque figures instead of the persons whom they were supposed to copy on their porcelain. Still, apart from this criticism, there are many interesting pieces amongst these copies. England, France, and Holland were all eager for such Chinese specimens. Even the figures such as "The Dutch Skipper and the Chinese Lady" were exceedingly interesting if somewhat uncommon. Then there is a set of five small statuettes representing Louis XIV. (1643– 715) and four members of his family. The Chinese artist had probably only an engraving to guide him, from which he had to produce a portrait figure of a great monarch. In his ignorance he translates the Marshal's baton into the sacred role of the Buddhist divinities. Grotesque as these figures are, they are none the less remarkable because of the richness of the costumes, though the ugly little heads and the general wide-awake air seem somewhat ridiculous. The Dauphin, for instance, with his mouth wide open, has certainly an uncommon manner, yet one feels a pleasure that these five little good-tempered men were able to stand upon their legs, even if it was with difficulty. Such statuettes are rare. By far the greater part of the East India porcelain is decorated with coats of arms, crests, figure subjects, or monograms surrounded by roses. On the plates and dishes were reproduced " The fables of La Fontaine," which are found side by side with scenes from the Old and New Testament, such as the Nativity and the Crucifixion. Then there are decorations taken from mythology, allegories, celebrated personages, fetes galantes, Sze. Though sometimes failing in colour, the great majority of the decoration being drawn in Indian or Chinese ink with very indifferent hatchings for the shading, these plates and dishes show the care-fulness of the Chinese decorator. Even in unfamiliar surroundings, the figures may be, and are, deplorable, and how they suffer by contrast with the borders and the ornaments which surround them, which have all the perfect taste, admirable composition, and brilliant execution which distinguish the native work !
The East India Companies brought to Europe much porcelain in white, which was meant to be decorated notably at Venice, Delft, and perhaps at Chelsea. Such decoration had then nothing Oriental about it. This explains why some specimens with Chelsea decoration have a hard paste. The decoration only is Chelsea, quite typical of that factory, but the form and body are Oriental.
Another method of ornamenting Chinese porcelain was practised at the end of the eighteenth century, mainly in Holland, which consisted in the removal of the glaze in parts, as in engraving upon glass, so as to design elegant arabesques and garlands in which the white of the china or body itself appeared through the thickness of the colour glaze, the white being tinted more or less according to the depth of the cutting.