Chinese Ceramics, Pt 2 – Am Glad I Was Not Born Before Tea!

Taking Tea

The first Manchu Emperor of China Kangxi (1662-1722), was a patron of classical studies, a poet and calligrapher. He was also vigorous and reforming and during his reign China’s exports and industries, boomed.

In 1682 he ordered the reconstruction of the ceramic kilns at Jingdezhen, partly destroyed during the early troubled years of the dynasty.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century, trade with Cathay (China) was always, seemingly, far more important to Europeans than it was to Chinese rulers who prided themselves on their nation’s self-sufficiency.

It is often said Ming wares lacked the precise finish of the porcelains of the later Ch’ing dynasty.

However they were made to cope with the hazards of transport by ship, or camel caravan and their continuing appeal has meant a demand ever since by both European and Asian collectors and connoisseurs.

A typical feature of Kanxi porcelain was the paste, which was often sandy and gritty on the surface and on the glaze.

Sang de Beouf Vase with over painted decoration

During the reign of Emperor Kangxi technological advances allowed for splendid decorated and coloured wares.

Painting in cobalt reached new heights of artistic and technical achievement, the colour having an almost luminescence quality while the techniques attached to rendering the decoration both over, and under the glaze, were further refined.

A rich blood-red glaze was also developed using copper oxide in the formula followed by firing the wares in a smoky, reducing atmosphere. Sometimes known as ‘sang de beouf’ (literally, blood of the ox in French), this method was highly unpredictable, and the result by no means a foregone conclusion.

It still is so today, red glazes are the bane of any potter’s existence.

Ming emperors were highly discerning, and anything not measuring up to their expectations was rejected. A literal mountain of wasted pieces exists outside of Jingdezhen, where the best of the kilns were sited. Contemporary archaeologists have had a field day.

Ming-Blue-&-WhiteA description of the manufacture of porcelain written in 1713, by French Jesuit priest Father D’ Entrecolles a resident in Peking at that time describes the seeming magic connected with the firing of blue and white porcelain ‘a beautiful blue colour appears on the porcelain after having been lost for some time. When the colour is first painted on, it is pale black; when it is dry and the glaze has been put on it, it disappears entirely and the porcelain seems quite white, the colour being buried under the glaze. But the fire makes it appear in all its beauty, almost in the same way as the natural heat of the sun makes the most beautiful butterflies, with all their tints, come out of their eggs’

During the late and high Middle Ages in England and Europe elite members of society, whose circle was expanding rapidly, fashioned themselves according to what they believed were ideal patterns for living.

Country-House-Viewing-18th-CenturyThese consisted, not only of good manners, but also were an expression of what was considered good, and in the eighteenth century this was visually expressed by an appropriate display of ‘correct’ aesthetic taste.

These precepts satisfied their own internal adornment, while manifesting themselves externally in bodily ornaments that reflected the fact their possessors belonged to a unique rank in society.

It was one that everyone else was clamoring to emulate, or join.

Charles II was restored to the throne in England in 1660 with the accompanying surge in, and a delight of, new fashions. He and his wife Catherine of Bragazna would set a style for the taking of tea.

Taking Tea together

Taking Tea together

Taking tea was first recorded in 1660 in the diary of English Naval Administrator and Member for Parliament Samuel Pepys who sent for his first cup of this ‘China drinke’…and in the most well to do families, tea was drunk in the Chinese manner out of Chinese porcelain. With an assorted assemblage of wares being used for the tea ceremony in England imports of tea alone multiplied some forty times between 1723 and 1830.

In the western world from classical Greece and Rome onward the fashioning of a human identity was an ever evolving process. One of the outward symbols of having made it in society was displaying a coat of arms; which originally was quite literally a linen or silk surcoat worn to protect a knight and his armour from the sun’s heat, dirt etc…on to which each knight or noble had his heraldic arms embroidered.

Chinese armorial porcelain plates from 1735 and 1740

During the eighteenth century in Europe families in Europe or England who sought to emulate the aristocracy wanted ‘China’ (porcelain wares) decorated with their own ‘coat of arms’. They would record their instructions re colouring or about the design in English and these along with the design were faithfully copied by Chinese workers who had no English and so didn’t understand their instructions.

Services also frustratingly took years to arrive so eventually after the invention of hard paste wares in the west the English were able to turn to local factories like Worcester to supply an alternative. Personalised services were even made for people with historic coats of arms such as Tzar Alexander I, The Duke of York, King George III, King William IV, The Duke of Clarence and the Marquis of Buckingham.

Why did the private trade in armorial wares at this time in history prove so popular?

Emperor Ch’ien-lung painted by Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione he introduced perspective into Chinese art

Emperor Ch’ien-lung painted by Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione he introduced perspective into Chinese art

The Emperor Ch’ien Lung (1711 – 1799), a noted patron of the arts was very interested in western culture. There is no doubt he more than likely encouraged the making of many pieces based on the design of French articles sent as presents to Peking from the King of France, or ordered from Paris by the Jesuits at the command of the Emperor.

As Jesuit priests had lived at the court of the Chinese Emperors and were trusted, their influence went a long way.

Despite the risks involved on the high seas traders made huge profits for their companies, themselves and their countries.

England’s East India Company, popularly known as John Company, was the most powerful commercial enterprise of its day. Based in Leadenhall Street, London, the English East India Company had their own coat of arms.

They presided over the creation of British India, founded Hong Kong and Singapore.

Employing Captain Kidd to combat piracy, they also established tea in India and held the former French Emperor Napoleon 1 captive on St Helena.

Its products were the subject of the Boston Tea Party and the red and white horizontally striped flag, more than likely inspired the design for the American Flag.

Initially however it made little impression, because it could not establish a lasting outpost in the East Indies.

View of the Western Hongs of Canton. Oils on fine linen

View of the Western Hongs of Canton. Oils on fine linen

The so-called China Trade flourished for two centuries. It was a risky venture. Taxes, tributes, bribes and deceptions were rife. Storms, pirates, disease and rival traders were a constant threat during the two-year round trip voyage to and from Europe.

Most went well but sometimes disaster struck – and wrecks are still being found with marvelous porcelains still intact, such as the Longquan.

It was found in 1996 loaded with superb celadons, although since much of its other cargo has been lost or destroyed by fishing trawlers.

The terms famille rose and famille verte were first coined by Albert, I JACQUEMART, 1808-1875, and Edmond LE BLANT, 1813-1897 in their work Histoire artistique, industrielle et commerciale de la porcelaine.

It was published at Paris by Techener, 1862.

Famille, meaning family and wasmeant to describe an enamel palette with one predominant base colour, developed for use on porcelain during the second half of the seventeenth century.

These included rose, verte [green], jaune [yellow], or noir [black] porcelains. Today they are highly sought after by collectors

God of Double HappinessI went to dine
With a friend of mine
Who dined off porcelain plates
Of a kind so rare

That it stirred your hair
To think of their possible fates

For some were Ming
and others were Ch’ing
(Whatever those names may be)
And the food was divine

And the wine, the wine
Intoxicated me

There were ices – those
were of famille rose,

and coffee of famille noire
and a choice dessertof famille verte
Preceded a choice cigar.

God of Happiness 3But alas for the end
Of dinner and friend

For he happened his eyes to raise
As I started to rub
The burning stub

On a bit of his finest glaze.

He was perfectly nice,
But as cold as ice,

As he rang for my coat and hat,
For Ming is a thing,
And so is Ch’ing,

That mustn’t be used for that *

View of the Western Hongs of Canton. Oils on fine linen

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Dutch East Indian ships plied their trade at Boston, New York and up the Hudson River to Albany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Williamsburg and Charleston in the Americas.

Initial contact was at New Amsterdam and the first Williamsburg settlement as early as 1620.

A considerable volume of porcelain was bought at auction in Europe by China wholesalers and shipped to flourishing cities on the East Coast, where they adorned many a fine table and the distribution point for ‘China’ became one of the causes of complaint leading to the War of Independence in 1775. Of all the wares traded those that catered to the new craze for tea were the most popular.

China Trade Dinner Service for the American Market

By the eighteenth century two varieties of tea dominated the trade. Bohea, a black tea originally the choicest grade until the turn of the eighteenth century when Hyson, which translates to “Flourishing Spring“, then became the luxury tea. (Green tea is made from the steamed and dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, a shrub native to the mountainous regions of Asia. Black tea is also made from this plant, but unlike green tea, is made from leaves that have been dried and fermented).

Tea mania swept England, as it had earlier in France and Holland. Tea imports rose in weight from 40,000 pounds in 1699 to an annual average of 240,000 pounds by 1708. Hyson was so highly favoured during the eighteenth century the British Tea Tax was levied at a higher rate for it than any other variety.

All was mayhem when on April 1, 1774, a posse of Bostonians, greatly deplored at the time even by George Washington, disguised themselves, not too convincingly, as Mohawk Indians and merrily dumped cargoes of Hyson tea into Boston Harbour and

The waters in the rebel bay
Have kept their tea leaf savour

Our old North Enders in their Spray
Still taste a Hyson flavour…

The mood that moonlit night was jubilant. One merry maker exclaimed, “Boston Harbor a teapot tonight! Hurrah!” But the morning after was sobering. The party was over and to give up their beloved, ancient tea, made of cured dried Camellia sinensis leaves, posed a practical problem: what to drink instead?

Boston Tea Party from an engraving by Currier, coloured

After all, wrote Samuel Johnson, the average colonist, including himself, was “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker’ and forsaking the ritual and comfort of a nice cup of tea was sure to be difficult.

‘Thank God for Tea! What would the world do without tea. How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea’ and, to own a fine ‘China’ cup to drink it from.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

*Anonymous poem found ‘typed’ on a piece of paper and inserted into an nineteenth century publication on Ceramics by Carolyn McDowall in 1997

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