China in perspective

Porcelain and Pottery

Scallop-shaped covered bowl with a leaf-shaped stand with dragon in a bright aquamarine colour

It’s easy to forget that even the simplest object often conveys a long and interesting history. That can certainly be said of china or porcelain pottery. Hard or ‘true’ porcelain is obtained by mixing ground petuntse (stone) with kaolin (clay) and firing the paste at extreme temperatures. The sculpted object then hardens while retaining a translucent quality: a unique combination of characteristics that made Chinese pottery coveted around the world from very early on.

Glass reverse painting showing the process of creating china

Porcelain production blossomed as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907), after which export to the West soon took off via the Silk Road and Tea Horse Road trade. Soft-paste porcelain was made in the West as early as the 16th century, but the secret of true Chinese porcelain would only be discovered 200 years later.

A striking parallel between Chinese and western porcelain production are the blue-and-white pottery ranges. The blue colour obtained from cobalt – originally imported into China from Persia – is very effective as an underglaze paint, due to its resistance to high temperatures. Because of this quality, it was used for decorating Chinese pottery from the 14th century and on.

Porcelain plate painted with vases and Buddhist symbols in underglaze cobalt blue

From China, the underglaze blue style spread around the world and blended in with local traditions. One of the most iconic is that of Delft in the Netherlands, where an explosion of gunpowder destroying industrial brewery buildings allowed local potters to expand their businesses. The demand for Chinese pottery was high at the time: ‘Kraak ware’ - china produced for the export market - had become hugely fashionable, but trade with China was hindered after the death of the Wanli emperor (Ming dynasty, 1620).

A ceramic container in Chinese blue-and-white style, with several ceramic nozzles out of the top for holding individual flowers. The water reservoir keeps flowers fresh. The decor is a combination of European hunting scenes and Chinese motifs such as dragons with open mouths

This was a golden opportunity for Delft craftsmen to fill in the gap and produce thin earthenware, resembling Chinese porcelain but offered at a much lower price. To cater to a market where orientalism was still very much en vogue, potters decorated their Delftware with Chinese patterns well into the 18th century.

blue and white glazed ceramic vase, formed in two stacked butterfly shapes
blue and white enamel christian holy water font, with a small reservoir at the bottom, the letters 'IHS' in relief at the top, flanked by two cherubs.

Chinese porcelain is much more than just a range of functional products. Cups, dishes, vases and vessels are often exquisitely decked out with painted decorations and sculpted ornaments, mostly referring to motifs and themes related to nature.

Rhinoceros-horn shaped cup in porcelain, decorated with dragons in moulded relief and with flowers in painted famille verte enamel

In many collections of Chinese porcelain, fanciful figurines, devotional objects, even complex, multidimensional landscapes can be found. One of the most astonishing porcelain ranges, however, must be that of the sculptural headrest. This ceramic pillow was believed to support a healthy body position and to help the mind refresh, as it allows the head to be continuously cooled by circulating air. Form and function, arts and crafts, physical and spiritual wellbeing: all touch in these remarkable objects.