Lars Tharp and the Art of Chinese Porcelain

Antiques Roadshow specialist Lars Tharp holding a Chinese Imari dish

It is always a pleasure to find my friend Lars Tharp, the regular Antiques Roadshow contributor, at Toovey’s salerooms. Lars has worked at Toovey’s as a consultant specialist for more than twenty-five years with Tom Rowsell.

I find Lars in the oriental department where he is discussing a beautifully decorated early 18th century Chinese Imari porcelain dish with Tom. They explain that the dish has been entered for auction at Toovey’s on 27th January 2022 with an estimate of £500-£1000.

Lars Tharp says “Millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain arrived in Europe each year during the 1700s.”

“The Europe-China trade started from the 1300s transported at first overland along the so-called Silk Road, and later in larger quantities by sea via the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then via the English and other European East India companies.”

“This piece, for display or for a dinner service, reached Europe shortly after 1710, [it’s contemporary to] the start of the Meissen factory, Europe’s first maker of true porcelain.”

A Chinese Imari porcelain dish, circa 1720

Lars’ hand moves across the dish as he describes the decoration “The pattern is a playful trompe l’oeil-it deceives the eye with one design seemingly laid upon another. The ‘scroll’ – an all-but-empty oblong – depicts a traditional Chinese (or Japanese) ‘hand-scroll’ painting, unfurled from the left, with the already viewed portion rolling up on the right. Its exposed four corners reach the very rim of the dish and partially overlap a vigorous blue scroll strewn with gold lotus flowers. The hollowed-out fleshy scrolls are more European than Chinese in form. They are painted using a pencilling technique, typical of blue and white designs of the 1720s.”

“While the dish employs a Japanese ‘Imari’ colour scheme (underglaze blue, overglaze iron red and gold), this piece is clearly Chinese, as seen in the sharpness of the rim and underside edges as well as the clarity of the transparent glaze. It was made around 1720 when Japanese manufacturers were beginning to charge more for their wares than those emerging from the revived Chinese kilns in Jingdezhen. A tiny detail points to the circa 1720 date, the painting of the bird, it is minutely picked out in green and yellow – transparent enamels from the so-called famille-verte (green family) palette which in the 1720s was soon to be overtaken by the famille-rose palette of opaque enamels.”

He concludes “The plate wittily combines many influences and further examples of the pattern are recorded in the Mottahedeh Collection, in the Peabody Museum, the British Museum and in the Dresden Porzellan Samlung.”

Lars Tharp has always been a passionate advocate for the Art of Chinese Porcelain – a specialist field which continues to delight collectors from across the world and the market remains strong. Alongside this there are once again signs of growth as Japanese ceramics and objects begin to rise in value.

The China Trade

Circle of George Chinnery – ‘Factories, Canton’ (Junk in Canton Harbour), early/mid-19th century watercolour, titled in pencil verso

In 1757, during the reign of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong (1735-1795), Canton was the only port left open to foreign trade after all the other Chinese ports were closed.

The Chinese allowed a limited trade area for westerners to be established outside Canton’s city walls under the watchful eyes of the Co-Hong–thirteen Chinese merchants who were responsible to the Emperor. The westerners, described by the Chinese as ‘foreign devils’, were not allowed to travel in China and all their business had to be conducted through these Chinese Merchants. This system would remain unchanged until the 1841 opium war.

Most European countries established trading companies. The British East India Company was formed in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company two years later. The fashion for tea grew throughout the 17th century adding another valuable commodity to the China trade.

European demand for exotic goods in the 18th century led expanded beyond silks and porcelains to include lacquerware, enamels, furnishings, wallpapers, carvings, ivories, watercolours and paintings. By the third-quarter of the 18th century England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Spain all occupied hongs at Canton. The small early 19th century watercolour is very much in the style of the artist George Chinnery. It depicts the hongs, also known as factories, which consisted of a front building facing the river with a myriad of buildings connected by courtyards and passages behind them. Westerners’ activities were very restricted. They lived under the constant surveillance of the hong merchants and the Chinese police.

A pair of Chinese famille rose export porcelain candle holder figures of ladies, Qianlong period, each lady modelled holding a lotus bud shaped vase, the figures with brightly enamelled decoration

The importance of the Chinese export trade in ceramics cannot be overstated. It is hard for us to imagine the vast quantities of useful and ornamental porcelain imported into Britain and Continental Europe. These pieces would inform western taste. Whole industries were created to reproduce Chinese blue-and-white patterns. Even the humblest pieces of Chinese were well made.

The British East India Company’s China trade imports predominately comprised of bulk lots of blue and white including wares like plates and dishes which could be packed tightly in the hold with the ballast below the waterline. The second category of imports were important to the commercial success of the voyage for the crew and Company. This officially permitted private trade was made up of pieces of far higher quality. They included armorial, crested, figurative and colourful wares of which the Qianlong period pair of Chinese famille rose export porcelain candle holders modelled as ladies are a fine example.

The watercolour and porcelain candle holders were sold at Toovey’s for £7000 and £2700 respectively.

The company took a percentage of the private trade pieces with the remainder being shared amongst the crew. Much of these wares were sold at the Company’s auctions in London.

Finally the valuable and highly profitable tea and silks were stowed above the waterline in these leaky timber ships.

The lucrative China trade continues today as the Chinese compete with British and European collectors to reacquire items they sold to us for export in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Fascination of Chinese Imperial Porcelain

A Chinese blue and white reverse-decorated ‘dragon’ saucer dish, mark of Daoguang, diameter 7 inches

Chinese potters from the Qing Dynasty went to extraordinary lengths to copy centuries old designs. This was deeply bound up with the very nature of Chinese art which has always had a strong tendency towards antiquarianism. These qualities are apparent in the Imperial Qing Dynasty pieces of the 19th century. The artistry you can see in the pieces illustrated is at odds with the turbulent times during which they were made.

The Qing rulers faced internal rebellion as well as the increasing interference and dominance of Western and Japanese power in China. The century would witness the Opium Wars with Britain and China’s ceding of Hong Kong Island to us.

The profligacy of earlier Qing Emperors meant that Daoguang inherited a throne diminished by its depleted financial resources. Despite his personal austerity Daoguang failed to rebalance the country’s finances. The Dowager Empress Cixi came to prominence when she bore the Emperor Xianfeng (1850-1861) a son. In 1861 she assumed the role of co-regent over the six year old Tongzhi (1861-1875). When Tongzhi died childless in 1875 Cixi successfully installed her four year old nephew Guangxu (1875-1908) on the throne. She would remain in power until her death in 1908. Cixi’s narrow world view and extravagance prevented the reforms which might have strengthened the Chinese Empire and her dynasty.
The three small porcelain objects illustrated span this period and were sold at Toovey’s.

The base of the Chinese blue and white saucer dish is marked with the underglaze blue six-character seal mark of Daoguang. It is delicately decorated in reverse with a five clawed dragon writhing above a rough sea. The articulation of movement is particularly fine for this date and the dish sold for £6000.

A Chinese famille rose porcelain tea bowl, mark of Tongzhi, height 2 inches

The delicate Chinese famille rose porcelain tea bowl is finely painted with a continuous frieze depicting the eight immortals in a garden. It realised £3200. The legendary eight immortals were thought to bestow life and destroy evil. The iron red six-character mark on the base is that of Tongzhi.

A Chinese yellow ground famille rose medallion bowl, mark of Guangxu, diameter 6 inches

Medallion bowls were popular Imperial pieces from the 18th century onwards. This 19th century example, bearing the underglaze blue six-character mark for Guangxu, is beautifully decorated with three circular medallions filled with a recumbent goat, a lamb and an ox, each beneath a tree in landscapes. The fine Imperial yellow enamelled sgraffito ground is decorated with precious objects.
The 19th century Chinese Qing Emperors shared their ancestors’ fascination with the finest porcelain. These 19th century examples, discovered and sold in the heart of Sussex, are increasingly attracting the attention of international collectors including those from Hong Kong and mainland China.

Toovey’s Director, Tom Rowsell, is preparing his next specialist auction of fine Chinese porcelain which will be held on Thursday 5th December 2019. Entries are still being invited. Tom is always delighted to share his passion for Chinese porcelain with others and offer advice. He can be contacted on 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Important London Collection of Asian Art to be Sold in Sussex

Toovey’s Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, with one of a pair of rare Chinese Qianlong period cloisonné enamel elephants from an important London single owner collection of Asian Art

This week I am in the company of Toovey’s Director and Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, who has just finished preparations for the sale of an important London single – owner collection of Asian Art.

I ask Tom how the collection looked in the collector’s London home and he replies “Many of the pieces were beautifully displayed around the house, but it was when I discovered and began to unpack boxes and go through the shelves in an upstairs room that the scale and importance of this collection became apparent. The collection had remained largely untouched for 40 or 50 years. The vast majority of the pieces are from the imperial Kangxi (1654-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796) periods of the late 17th and 18th centuries.”

Tom explains how today’s Chinese collectors are following in the tradition of the Qianlong emperor who was the last of the great imperial art collectors and patrons in Chinese history. His genuine passion for art and collecting seems to have been inspired by his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and his uncle Yinxi (1711-1758).

The Qianlong emperor was prolific in his collecting applying an exceptional personal connoisseurship. His collection would number more than a million objects.

The Qianlong emperor took a personal interest in porcelain production and was an ardent patron and collector of it. Many of the types of porcelain associated with the Qianlong emperor, however, were seeded under the Emperor Yongzheng’s supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Tang Ying (1682-1756).

A garniture of five Chinese Yongzheng period (1723-1735) porcelain vases estimated at £15,000-£25,000 from an important London single owner collection of Asian Art

My eye is taken by a rare and beautiful garniture of five Chinese porcelain Yongzheng period vases. Tom comments “Yongzheng porcelain is known for the quality of its glazes, these vases are very fine quality. It’s very unusual to find a set of five still together in such remarkable condition. The finely enamelled decoration with its delicate flowers and landscapes has wonderful fresh colours. Look at the subtle, recessed panels with their moulded borders. Lovely details – these would have probably been made for an important European home.”

Tom continues “Toovey’s are one of a very small number of UK auctioneers with the ability to market online directly to mainland Chinese collectors through our working relationship with Epai Live, China’s largest mainland online auction platform for the marketing of art and antiques. This collection will certainly attract Chinese and overseas buyers as well as UK interest. We will be exhibiting the collection’s highlights at the international Asian Art Fair in London on the 4th November before it returns to Sussex to be sold.”

Today’s Chinese collectors are as passionate in their collecting as their imperial forebears and the market shows no signs of abating.

This important single owner collection will be auctioned at Toovey’s on Thursday 29th November 2018. If you would like advice on pieces in this collection or your Chinese objects Tom Rowsell can be contacted on 01903 891955, and visit www.tooveys.com to view the sale online from the 4th November.

£132,000 Chinese Discovery in West Sussex

The pair of Chinese imperial famille rose enamelled porcelain rectangular tea caddies
The pair of Chinese imperial famille rose enamelled porcelain rectangular tea caddies

A pair of Chinese famille rose enamelled porcelain tea caddies dating from the Qing dynasty have just sold at Toovey’s Fine Art Auctioneers for £132,000. They were being displayed on a window sill in a Sussex home when they caught the eye of a Toovey’s valuer during a routine visit. The result illustrates the strength of Chinese Hong Kong collectors and the benefits of the post-Brexit pound which have caused prices and competition from abroad to soar.

Today’s Chinese collectors are following in the tradition of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799) who was the last of the great imperial art collectors and patrons in Chinese history. His genuine passion for art and collecting seems to have been inspired by his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and his uncle Yinxi (1711-1758).

The Qianlong emperor was prolific in his collecting applying an exceptional personal connoisseurship not only to the acquisition of art and antiquities but also to his patronage. His collection would number more than a million objects. It included the collection of the Ming emperors (1368-1644) which was the oldest art collection in the world with a continuous collecting tradition dating back over 1600 years.

The Qianlong emperor took a personal interest in porcelain production and was an ardent collector of it. Many of the types of porcelain associated with the Qianlong emperor, however, were seeded under the Emperor Yongzheng’s supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Tang Ying (1682-1756).

Toovey’s Asian Art Specialist, Tom Rowsell, with the £132,000 pair of Qianlong period tea caddies
Toovey’s Asian Art Specialist, Tom Rowsell, with the £132,000 pair of Qianlong period tea caddies

Toovey’s Asian art specialist, Tom Rowsell, explains “The mid-18th century porcelain designers had an unprecedented freedom due to their technical understanding of glazes. This resulted in enamelled wares often decorated with dense, complex and colourful designs as you can see on the side panels of this remarkable pair of Qianlong period tea caddies from the imperial kilns. Their shape and proportion is typically well judged and shows the influence of European taste, the superb fine white bodies and beautifully ordered and executed decoration are quintessentially of the period.”

The densely decorated sides of the Chinese famille rose tea caddies, typical of the Qianlong period (1735-1796)
The densely decorated sides of the Chinese famille rose tea caddies, typical of the Qianlong period (1735-1796)

I comment on the virtuosity in the contrast between the restrained depiction of the blossoming branches and flowering stems which enfold the finely executed text, and the polychrome enamelled sides densely filled with lotus flowers and scrolling tendrils on the yellow and iron red grounds. Tom agrees and says “This technical excellence and style is explained by the production processes refined by Tang Ying at Jingdezhen. Tang Ting was the foremost ceramic expert in China. He was summoned to Beijing in 1743 to illustrate and catalogue the imperial collection and described the process of porcelain manufacture in twenty steps. This led to an elaborate division of labour at the imperial kilns so that no one person was responsible for the production of a single piece at Jingdezhen.”

Today’s Chinese collectors are as passionate in their collecting as their imperial forebears and the market shows no signs of abating. If you would like advice on your Chinese objects Tom Rowsell can be contacted on 01903 891955 or by emailing auctions@tooveys.com.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.