Friday, 23 December 2011

The East in blue and white

The Far East remained mysterious and unknown throughout the eighteenth century, viewed as a distant land of wealth and splendor. Even with the busy trade of the East India Company, Europeans were forbidden to wander farther than the city walls of the only Chinese trading port, Canton. This literal distance and lack of knowledge of the East led to the creation of an exotic and fanciful interpretation of what countries like China and India really were like.

This fascination for the East led to the artistic term chinoiserie which refers to architecture or decorative arts created in the West but with a stylised Oriental theme. Popular blue and white porcelain is a clear example of this.

Originally all porcelain was imported from China through a monopoly held by the East India Company. In fact, in the 1777/8 season the East India Company imported 348 tons of Chinese porcelain! This was then sold to dealers wholesale at huge auctions, before being displayed in their individual shops.

East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c1817

Chinese porcelain was made using a substance called kaolin and hand-painted in China using designs solely for the export market. In fact, specific requests were made by the East India Company for suitably West-friendly exotic designs and shapes. Meanwhile potters in Europe tried but couldn't work out what the mysterious ingredients were that the Chinese used in order to create this mystical substance themselves.

Finally, after much experimentation across Europe, the production of hard-paste porcelain (i.e. like Chinese porcelain) developed, the Meissen factory being one of the first. (Funnily enough, the man who made this amazing discovery was a chemist at Wittenberg University called Johann Boettger who had initally been given the impossible task of trying to change base metals into gold.) In Britain, the first potters to make porcelain focussed on copying Chinese designs, which had been popular with shoppers for decades. Interestingly, the development of home-made porcelain took off at the end of the century, co-inciding with the dramatic decision of the East India Company to stop importing Chinese porcelain.

Plate showing The Two Temples, by Miles Mason, c1805
held at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Technological developments meant that, unlike Chinese porcelain which was hand-painted, British items could be mass produced. Indeed, it was in the second half of the eighteenth century that patents were taken out for transfer-printing, starting a revolutionary and labour-saving process in ceramic production. Now Chinese images could be printed easily onto porcelain, using designs engraved into copper plates. These copper plates could be sold to many factories meaning that different potters were creating products depicting identical images. Possibly the most famous image is the Willow pattern, created in England, for British consumers, and based on an original Chinese design. The charming story behind the picture however is likely to have been invented as a clever marketing tool.

The famous Willow pattern

Into the nineteenth century, developments in transfer printing led to the use of other colours, and we start to see other exotic elements coming through, including Indian scenes.

Plate depicting Wild Sports of the East, by Spode, c1815
held at the Victoria & Albert Musuem