Thursday, 17 October 2013

Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe

Porcelain is ubiquitous in the 21st century from the crockery on our kitchen tables to the bathroom basins we wash our hands in. Nevertheless, high quality porcelain is still valued for its smooth, shiny surface, translucency, fineness and resonance. It remains a luxury good which is used for prestigious dining and fine interior ornament. Yet, for almost a thousand years, from around 600AD, the production of porcelain could only be achieved in China. The quest to replicate the Chinese model eventually led, in the 16th century, to the invention of soft-paste porcelain, under the patronage of Francesco de' Medici. However, it was not until the 18th century, under the support of Augustus the Strong, that production of hard-paste porcelain was achieved in the West. Furthermore, industrialization and mass production of porcelain in Europe was not widespread until the 19th century.
As well as being the best known and arguably the most beautiful product of China’s potteries, Ming porcelain was the first porcelain to arrive in bulk into Europe. The scale of the shipping trade to Europe increased dramatically in the 16th and 17th centuries, initially through the Portuguese and Spanish, but later via English and Dutch merchants. Such porcelain which was largely blue and white was much admired, and inspired the manufacture of copies in local inferior materials. Trade was sustained in the Qing period. Chinese enamel decorated decorated porcelains, painted in the famille rose and famille verte palette were similarly replicated and improved upon in the West. Europeans became fascinated by the Orient and a fashion for all things exotic and eastern developed.  

The above article was written by Jessica Harrison-Hall, the co-author and contributor to a number of publications by the British Museum, where she is an Assistant Keeper in the Department of Oriental Antiquities.

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