Chinese Republic Porcelain in Sussex

The Forbidden City, Beijing

Mercantile trade was at the heart of British prosperity and overseas interests from the 18th to the 20th centuries. By the 18th century Britain had become the greatest European power in the East. This success was predominantly bound up with the government-licensed British East India Company, which had become the leading trading and political force in India.

A Chinese famille rose porcelain vase, early 20th century Republic period, auctioned for £76,000
A Chinese porcelain vase, early 20th Century Republic period, auctioned for £650
The Great Wall of China

In the late 18th century attempts were made to establish official relations with China by Lord George Macartney. The lavish embassy sent to Beijing as part of this British Government-backed mission was interpreted as humble tribute-bearing by the Chinese. The response to George III from the Qianlong Emperor noted that trade was out of the question, since Britain possessed nothing for which China had the slightest need. There were, however, many Chinese traders who were prepared to do business unofficially with foreigners. The trade in opium from India, the Opium War and ensuing British military expedition in 1840 resulted in the Qing government ceding compensation, Hong Kong Island and the opening of five ports to British traders. Twenty million people died in the bloody Taiping Rebellion in southern China, a massive civil war against the ruling Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1850 to 1864. Invasion by Japan in the late 19th century and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 left the Qing dynasty severely weakened. A Chinese army rebellion in Wuchan sparked a series of mutinies culminating in the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, which would last in a series of guises until 1949. The last emperor, Puyi, was allowed to remain living in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The formation of the Chinese Republic brought to an end the Qing Dynasty and 2000 years of imperial rule.

As invasion and revolt continued to blight China during the early 20th century, porcelain of the most extraordinary quality continued to be made in Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province. Some connoisseurs note this period of porcelain manufacture for its revival in quality, which they attribute to a number of schools and artists that emerged at this time. Chinese porcelain objects from this period often have inscriptions, usually in black enamel, which may include a combination of a poem, a signature or a cyclical date. Private workshops proliferated and flourished. The wares produced imitated designs from earlier periods, interpreting imperial designs to feed demand from American and British collectors like Sir Percival David. David’s collection includes many original examples of Chinese porcelain from the imperial collection, which can be seen at the British Museum in London.

We often discover Republic period Chinese porcelain in Sussex, which is finding increasing favour amongst collectors because of its quality. The early 20th century Chinese famille rose porcelain vase illustrated is from this period. The elongated ovoid body and flared neck are painted to one side with three birds perched on blossoming branches, to the other side with a gathering of children, elders and attendants beneath a pine tree. Note how these decorative panels are surrounded by lines of black text and red seals, typical of the Republic period. The vase is believed to have been painted by two leading artists from Jingdezhen. Measuring 60.5cm high, the vase sold at Toovey’s for £76,000.

Not all Chinese porcelain of this period is so highly valued. The smaller Republic vase shown here, height 17cm, sold for £650. It is enamelled with a riverscape with a fishing boat by an island and has the typical text on the reverse.

This flourishing and revival in Chinese porcelain manufacture in the early 20th century allows us to once again glimpse the energetic and creative gifts of the Chinese people, which has gained them cultural prominence over millennia. Perhaps it is a rediscovery of these gifts which is allowing a revival of Chinese interests in the world today; only this time they are looking out into the world and reacquiring their cultural heritage.

Toovey’s Chinese porcelain specialist, Tom Rowsell, is always pleased to offer advice, whether you are interested in selling or acquiring Chinese objects in this boom market. He can be contacted at our offices.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 29th January 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Delicacy and Brilliance, Chinese Doucai Porcelain

A Chinese doucai porcelain jar
A Chinese doucai porcelain jar

By the mid-18th century, Chinese porcelain produced for imperial appreciation was at its height. The Qianlong period (1735-1795) overlapped with the reign of our own King George III. As the Industrial Revolution grew under the Farmer King in Britain, the processes and techniques of porcelain manufacture in China reached an advanced stage. This found expression in restrained decoration, characterized by delicacy and brilliance.

Among the favourite wares chosen by Chinese potters of the 18th century for inspiration or copying were those of the 15th century from the early Ming and Chenghua reigns. That they chose to copy earlier styles is reflective of general trends in Chinese art, which display a tendency to antiquarianism. Balancing this was the desire of Qing rulers to validate their own sovereignty and status through associating themselves with earlier reigns by invoking these earlier styles in the designs for their own imperial porcelain.

The Qianlong period seal mark
The Qianlong period six-character seal mark

On my recent visit to China I was fortunate to visit the Imperial Summer Palace, which was reconstructed after the ravages of the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The gardens were originally commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1749. Today, the gardens are enjoyed by thousands of Chinese and some foreign tourists. In the palace are rooms furnished with Qianlong period furniture and porcelain of the finest quality. They give an insight to the genius and restraint of Chinese imperial taste in the 18th century.

The piece illustrated is a Chinese doucai porcelain globular jar bearing the six-character seal mark of Qianlong. The body is decorated with slender stems of lotus, alternating with narcissus, over a lower frieze of the eight auspicious Buddhistic emblems, which include symbols representing eternal harmony, knowledge, purity and enlightenment. The third and lower tier is of flowers. All these decorative elements communicate with each other between a frieze of flame-like lappets and a ruyi-encircled rim. All are finely outlined in underglaze cobalt blue.

Rupert Toovey at the Summer Palace in Beijing
Rupert at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Doucai decoration first found favour during the Chenghua reign (1465-1487). The delicate cobalt-blue outline to all the coloured enamels defines doucai decoration and unites them with delicacy and brilliance. It can be difficult to discern the age of these doucai pieces. The specialist and connoisseur will look for differences in the cobalt blue of the outline, which often has a softer appearance on earlier objects. Later examples also fail to capture the charming ivory tint to the glaze of 15th century examples. Qianlong period examples, however, are celebrated for their translucent enamels, alive with colour, which are set off by the precision of the cobalt-blue outlines. We are left with the impression that they are at once fragile and precious.

These qualities are much in demand, particularly in imperial pieces. 18th century examples, like this jar, command high prices, especially when they bear their true reign mark, rather than copying an earlier reign mark. Measuring just 9cm high, this doucai vase sold at auction for £32,000 in a specialist Oriental sale earlier this year.

It is this combination of harmonious design and restraint, combined with the shear quality of the painting and execution, which never fails to delight me. Delicate and brilliant, doucai pieces take some beating in any century!

View Toovey’s Specialist Sales of Oriental Ceramics and Works of Art by clicking here.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 8th May 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

The Chinese Influence Today

Chinese famille rose punch bowl
Chinese famille rose porcelain punch bowl, Qianlong period

I am fascinated how much we can learn from history and how objects speak across the centuries, providing us with a narrative for our own times. In the first of these columns I will be exploring the extraordinary impact of a resurgent Chinese economy in the collectors’ market in recent years and how its roots are in the 17th and 18th centuries.

We in the West should perhaps be unsurprised by the growth in the Indian and Chinese economies. Together these two economies account for some 14.7% of the global economy’s gross domestic product (GDP). The extraordinary progress of the Chinese economy in particular has made it a major player in markets as diverse as raw materials and antiques. Values for all things Chinese and collectable has mirrored this growth, transforming markets as prices have soared.

In the 18th century an East India Company Indiaman ship would order 30 tons of china of a standard and repeatable pattern. These bulk purchases were often of standard blue and white but provided important ballast just above the waterline, with tea and silks being stowed higher in the ship. There were strict regulations connected to these official imports.

Chinese famille rose vases
Pair of mid-19th century Chinese famille rose porcelain vases

More important were the private trade pieces, purchased on behalf of the crew by the company representative. They were of finer quality and included specially commissioned armorial, crested and initialled porcelains. Private order pieces also depicted European figures, like this Qianlong period bowl (pictured above), circa 1750, depicting hunting scenes, which I discovered in a collection in the west of Sussex two or three years ago. These items were purchased either to fulfil private commissions or would be sold through the East India Company’s auctions in London.

It is still these refined pieces which carry most favour among discriminating collectors in the market today and they are still being sold at auction, like this pair of mid-19th century Chinese famille rose porcelain vases, which realised £20,000 last year. Today, however, these objects are increasingly returning to China.

Demand from China on collectors’ markets is already having a profound effect. Imagine if, together with India, they recover their historic economic position. Between 1500 and 1850 AD, China and India accounted not for 14.7% but between 50% and 60% of the world’s GDP. It will be intriguing to see how their tastes develop and affect our market in the future.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 20th March 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.