Antiques: Persia porcelain info


A. Lafayette plate, a platter with the arms of the state of Delaware, or any of the wide variety of pieces of blue-and white ware decorated with United States scenes or depicting events connected with its history seem as American as the Hudson River itself. And that was the intention of the English potters of the early nineteenth century who produced them. But the use of a rich indigo hue did not originate with the Englishmen who employed it so successfully. They were, so to speak, fourthhand imitators of a technique that was old in its native land before Omar Khayyam, poet and astronomer, wrote his Rubaiyat, which combines love and tavern songs with mysticism and Eastern fatalism.

How blue of this shade came to be, and how it gradually made its way from Persia to America, is the story of a number of roundabout trade migrations that took, not mere years, but centuries. Pottery of blue fascinated men from the first, but until the eighth or ninth century A.D. the best the potters could produce was a blue of greenish cast made by using a copper oxide glaze. And they could not be sure even of that since it was most temperamental in the firing and often came out a fine, rich red instead. Finally, an unknown potter discovered a blue that would remain stable when fired.

This happened in the then highly civilized country of Persia sometime between A.D. 700 and 900. The new colour called for the use of a new pigment, an oxide of cobalt, and the result was a clear blue of indigo hue that was both stable and uniform in the firing.

Persian potters made much of this colour. And the china they decorated with it, alone or in combination with black, reached a high point in ceramic art. Just when pieces so decorated began to leave their native land is, of course, not known, but emigrate it did. Then, as now, trading caravans crossed and recrossed Central Asia.

Following such routes, Persian pieces, done on a white background with decorations in blue, eventually reached China. With them travelled the knowledge of how such china was made, and soon the late Sung dynasty potters were producing blue-and-white china for their countrymen. There it was known as Mohammedan blue in acknowledgment of the fact that it had come from that part of the world where the belief that "Allah is great and Mahomet is his prophet" held sway.

Once this new blue became known to the Chinese potters they adopted it as their own. Through the years of the Ming dynasty and into those of the K'ang Hsi, they developed it further and further. During the Ming dynasty the arts of peace were to the fore, and commercial intercourse with European traders from Spain, Portugal, and Holland was encouraged. Canton was the chief port for these "foreign devils." There they found a china with a white background decorated in a clear blue that delighted them. So, late in the fifteenth, or early in the sixteenth, century, these traders began to bring back home what they called blue-and-white Canton ware in honour of the place where they found it.

It was accepted in Europe 'almost at once and much sought after, for the Western potters were still crude craftsmen producing little but dull-bodied, salt-glazed earthenware. These superior pieces from China caused a sensation. Therefore, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, traders (particularly those of Holland) brought back large consignments of the ware in their sailing vessels. These little boats plied down the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the Pacific to the Chinese trading ports. Thus, too, did the term "china" (signifying a pottery of fine white clay decorated in colour) get its name.
No one knows how much of this Chinese blue-and-white ware went to the bottom of the sea in ships lost on hazardous voyages or how much got safely to the other side of the world to filter into Europe, but for two centuries there was a steady flow and few wealthy homes lacked a good supply. As for cargoes lost, a few years ago the wreck of an early Dutch trading vessel was found in Table Bay Harbour at Cape Town and from it was salvaged a large quantity of Chinese blue-and-white china fragments.

In England the Restoration opened for this ware another big market that was further increased when William and Mary, who were Dutch in their ways of living, succeeded James II. It was then that the English vogue for Chinese blue-and-white ware reached its height. However, the expense of bringing china cargoes back from the Far East was large and so the ware remained too costly for any but the rich. About this time European potters were moved to attempt a native ware that imitated the Chinese. In Holland this resulted in the famous Delft pottery. Here they used a native yellow clay and coated it with a tin oxide. After it had dried, and before it was fired, they decorated it with the cobalt blue. The result was a product that bore distinct resemblance to the Chinese.

In fact, the artists who did this decoration seemed, by careful study of the Chinese examples, to have mastered the Oriental idea of decoration. These Delft renderings of Chinese scenes were actually Chinese in spirit even though done half across the world beside the Zuyder Zee.

Nor were the English potters far behind. They, too, felt the urge to try their skill at imitating this popular blue-and-white ware. Besides, they disliked the idea of so much good English money going over to Holland. About 1725, potteries in all sections of England began to bring forth pieces of the coveted ware. There was, for instance, English Delft; this was really a copy of a copy, and made definitely to compete with the Dutch potteries of Delft and elsewhere. Then, using the finer days of England, certain potters made skilful imitations of the Chinese originals. Such were the products of Bristol, Lowestoft, and Staffordshire.
The next step was the invention of transfer printing. This is a process whereby, with a copperplate, the decoration could be applied to the unfired clay much as paper is impressed from type or an engraving from the copperplate. A whole book could be written on the introduction of transfer printing, but, to put it briefly, the evidence seems to be that about 1750, John Sadler, a Liverpool printer, and Guy Green conceived the idea of printing the design on unfired earthenware and in less than six years had a working process.

Thus began the long years of the blue-and-white print wares that the Staffordshire potteries followed so successfully until well into the nineteenth century. It remained, however, for a man in Shropshire to give the real Chinese touch. He was Thomas Turner of the Salopian potteries at Caughley, known today as Coalport. Here, in 1780, he designed his famous willow pattern, a distinct effort to be Chinese in feeling. When this is studied beside a plate from Canton, it proves to have been inspired by it in both composition and arrangement.

The Turner pattern was a new departure and highly popular from the start. The public liked this Sino-English effort and entire dinner services of it found a ready market. Needless to say, other English potters copied the design and the willow pattern soon became what it remains today, one of the standard designs of all time.

With the beginning of the nineteenth century these Staffordshire potters sought to develop more and more new markets, among them that of the lately lost American colonies. The War of 1812 came and went. It was nothing to these potters. In an ever-increasing volume they kept making blue-and-white dishes for Americans, decorated with American views and devices, as well as pictorial presentations related to American history. That it was all highly profitable, with gratifyingly large sales, is evident from the quantities of the ware that have survived. Practically every well-appointed home had a fair supply of blue-and white dishes, especially those of the willow pattern. Families migrating westward from the Atlantic seaboard carried these cherished dishes along with them. A few years ago I saw all that had survived of a household supply shipped overland from Philadelphia in Conestoga wagons to southern Ohio. The present owner was fortunate in possessing letters and receipted bills proving that her family china had made this wagon journey in 1831. About half of these dishes were of the willow pattern.

It is well here to leave this account of the hegira of the ancient Persian blue for, as the Victorian years came along, something happened to the blue of these English importations. It became pale and still paler until at length its washed-out quality could claim little kinship with the original hue that had travelled so far, in both time and distance, to reach this country.

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