Just with the phrase “antique porcelain” I can probably chase away a fair deal of would-be readers. But tarry a moment or two longer and allow me to very briefly explain how those fragile old plates with slick, finely fracturing coats of glaze, fired centuries ago, still bear witness to geographic and scientific exploration, imperial strength and eye-opening international exchange. Though delicate, prissy things, aged earthenware services continue to demonstrate the beauty of human expansion and the might of the curious mind.
Museum-quality ceramics entail a great deal of specialisation; both devils and angels dwell in the details. To streamline things I’ll focus on just one style, the pink family — la famille rose if you’re fancy.
It all began in 1650 with a Dutch chemist Andreas Cassius, who first discovered a formula allowing for the creation of pink glaze. His secret was a purple-toned mineral, known most appropriately forever since as Purple of Cassius. The colours conceived through his experimental persistence weren’t just “pink” and “purple”, but pale rose, coral red, mauve, salmon, lavender blue.
Chinese ceramists quickly (for the seventeenth century) caught wind of Cassius’ developments, and the first famille rose pieces began appearing during the relatively short reign of Emperor Yongzhen from 1723-1736. Things fully matured under his successor, Emperor Qianlong whose lengthy rule from 1736-1796 was closely knit with the profitable exchanges that took place between Orient and Occident during the era.
Craftsmen working under this later, sturdier emperor perfected the application of blushing polychrome decorative schemes to already fired vessels, and fixing the vibrancy of these captivatingly new rouged tones with a cooler second firing at 800 degrees celsius. The most frequently recurring motifs are all about flora and fauna, geometric borders and Chinese artisans’ imaginings of classy inhabitants of the continent lounging in lacustrine landscapes. Blossoms large and small, elaborate and rendered in a mere few brushstrokes are perhaps the most common, their petals ranging from fuchsia to candy floss popping against verdant bunches of leaves and stems. Dashes of yellow and gold, orange, teal and aquamarine are also often cleverly worked into the ornamentation, lending pretty contrast and rounding off a softly handsome overall aesthetic.
Enter Britain’s most illustrious sea faring enterprise, the East India Trading Company, which focused a lot of energy on importing Chinese goods and novelties — pink family porcelain included — to European markets when not waging cannon and cutlass battles against marauding bands of pirates in the Caribbean à la Walt Disney. Brittle pink home invaders, in the guise of vases, tureens, teapots and plates and platters of all dimensions, got comfy in all the best homes, as the Chinese connect was by no means hesitant to fill the demand gaping before it. Purplish hues even became known as “the foreign colours” in Chinese — Yang-ts’ai.
The famille rose went full circle, from west to east and back again, from tentative chemical inquiries to cargo holds full of dainty wares. Those droves of vases, tureens, teapots and plates and platters of all dimensions weren’t just for serving savouries, and they didn’t just look nice. They swayed tastes both patrician and of the hoi polloi, and opened the world up that much further in an age of budding Enlightenment.
Source: Marie Juliette Ballot, Chinese Ceramics, Volume 2, Paris: Albert Morancé, 1922