China’s Colourful Porcelain

A Chinese Yongzheng period (1722-1735) famille rose export porcelain tea service, finely enamelled with panels of a lady and boy seated in an interior

The reign of the Kangxi Emperor saw a renewal in the manufacture and decoration of porcelain with a huge shift from the five colour schemes of earlier wares to more colourful enamels and new designs.

The emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661-1722) was the longest in Chinese history. He re-established the imperial porcelain factory at Jingdezhen. Foreign trade with Britain and Europe reached new heights.

Three dimensional porcelain objects were transformed with narrative compositions of exceptional quality and complexity which reveal themselves as the piece is turned. The tradition of the gradual unwinding of the hand scroll was transposed onto porcelain where the stories were depicted in vibrant colourful enamels or underglaze blue.

Famille verte is identified by its vivid green overglaze enamels often combined with other polychrome enamels.

The repaired Kangxi period famille verte rouleau vase was sold at Toovey’s for £13,000 and is a typical example. The body is finely painted with a continuous narrative scene of figures in and outside a pavilion complex beside a river, rocks and trees.

A Chinese Kangxi period (1661-1722) famille verte porcelain rouleau vase, the body finely painted with a continuous narrative scene

It was during the Kangxi period that figures became central to the decoration of porcelain marking a significant aesthetic change. The narrative compositions are often hierarchical leading the viewer’s eyes to the central characters. But this artistry and attention to detail informs every aspect of the decorative scheme. Even the minor figures and details are beautifully depicted.

Eggshell porcelain is an extraordinarily thin pure-white Chinese porcelain of very fine quality. Eggshell porcelain called t’o-t’ai in Chinese, meaning bodiless, was first made in the early Ming Dynasty, probably during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1403-1424).

The later Chinese eggshell porcelain famille rose tea service dates from the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor (1722-1735) and realised £18,000 at Toovey’s. Each piece is finely enamelled with panels depicting a lady and boy seated in an interior with a female attendant and furniture, reserved against a blue cell diaper ground incorporating butterflies and flowers.

Chinese famille rose porcelain is characterised by the decorative use of pink overglaze enamels. It would reach its heights in the 18th century and was predominately made at Jingdezhen remaining popular into the 19th century.

China’s colourful porcelain delighted British and European connoisseurs in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Today this porcelain is still celebrated by international collectors from China and across the world, and prices remain strong.

The Brilliance of Yongzheng Porcelain

A large Chinese famille rose porcelain circular dish, Yongzheng period, diameter 38cm © Toovey’s 2018

The Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735) reigned over China between 1723 and 1735. He restored a functional imperial court and good government based around Confucian principles rooting out corruption.

He encouraged the development of the arts in China. He was particularly interested in the imperial porcelain factory at Jingdezhen where he appointed Tang Ying (1682–1756) as director in 1728.

The Yongzheng period would see the production of some of the world’s most delicate porcelain and enamelled painting with the Emperor choosing artists and providing commentary on their work.

During this period exports of famille verte porcelain were overtaken by the famille rose palette.

Yongzheng porcelain is of the very highest quality and its brilliance remained unsurpassed in later periods. These pieces are often superbly decorated with harmonious scenes of birds in branches, long-tailed pheasants, flowering plants and fruiting branches like the £4,500 famille rose charger.

A rare Chinese famille rose enamelled export porcelain jar and cover, 18th century, Yongzheng period, height 42.5cm (restoration to rim of cover) © Toovey’s 2021

Family scenes with children and adults are also typical of the Yongzheng period. The restored vase and cover with its beautifully conceived baluster body is decorated with a scene of a boy lighting a firecracker as a group of twelve other boys and four maidens watch on. One of the boys puts his hands to his ears. It sold at Toovey’s for £10,000. Like a scroll painting the scene reveals itself as you turn the vase.

The clear white porcelain made an ideal surface for the fine painting you see on these two examples. The decoration is more restrained and less crowded than later pieces which sought to answer Western tastes for richer designs.

Whilst famille verte pieces continued to be decorated where they were manufactured famille rose pieces were often decorated and re-fired in muffle kilns at places like Canton where Western companies established trading posts.

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.

The Chinese market continues to rise as European and Chinese collectors remain 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 Toovey’s Chinese specialist, Tom Rowsell, can be contacted on 01903 891955 or by emailing