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History of Porcelain

A Brief History of Porcelain

Following was adapted from an article in the Compton's Encyclopedia 2001

Pottery and Porcelain. The craft of ceramics, or making clay vessels, is one of the oldest arts in the world. The word ceramics comes from the Greek keramos, meaning "potter's clay," and refers to both the material and the product. It usually means pottery and porcelain, both useful and ornamental.

Porcelain, from the Italian porcella--meaning "little pig," a name given to a smooth, white cowrie shell--was developed much later. The first known specimens of true porcelain were made in China in the 6th century AD. The term porcelain appears in the writings of Marco Polo, who visited China in the 13th century. Porcelain, unlike pottery, is translucent. A strong light shining near the plate can be seen through it. The unglazed body, or basic structure, of pottery is known as biscuit.

The potter must first find the proper clay, then purify and cure it to make it usable. Raw clays or kaolins are washed in large vats called blungers to remove such foreign matter as pebbles, sand, and feldspar. These settle in the washing process; the clay remains in suspension in the water and is poured off. This washed clay is known as slip.

In China a porcelain object was dried in the air after it was shaped and before decoration or glaze was applied. If it was blue and white ware, the blue cobalt was painted on the air-dried body, the glaze thinly applied, and the whole object finished with one firing at intense heat. The European soft-paste porcelain body was fired first at a fairly high temperature, then glazed and fired again at a lower temperature. Firing the body is called bisque firing; firing the glaze is called glost firing.

In underglaze decoration the design is painted on the body before firing if the piece is to be fired only once, as in China. Otherwise the design is painted on after the first firing and before the glazing and second firing. Overglaze decoration is painted on after the glaze has been fired. The decoration is then fixed to the glaze by another firing at a relatively low temperature.

Porcelain gradually evolved in China, probably during the T'ang Dynasty. It grew out of earthenware by a process of refining materials and manufacturing techniques. This true porcelain, sometimes called hard-paste porcelain, was a combination of kaolin, or China clay, and petuntse, also known as feldspar or China stone. These ingredients were called by the Chinese the body and the bone of the porcelain.

The principal porcelain factory in China was the imperial plant at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. Pottery and porcelain probably were made there long before Jingdezhen became the seat of the imperial potteries under Emperor Chen Tsung about AD 1004. The Jesuit missionary Pere d'Entrecolles later described the city and the art of porcelain making in two letters written in China in 1712 and 1722. These brought to Europe for the first time a detailed account of Chinese porcelain manufacture. He described the great porcelain-making center of Jingdezhen as holding approximately a million people and some 3,000 kilns for ceramics. With the end of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, the long history of Chinese porcelain making drew to a close.

Japanese Porcelain

In 1510 the Japanese potter Shonzui paid a visit to the Chinese imperial porcelain factory at Jingdezhen. He stayed perhaps as long as five years studying the art of porcelain making. On his return he brought back Chinese materials, including some of the Muhammadan blue coloring matter. He set up business near Arita and made porcelain until his stock of Chinese materials ran out. Later both China stone and China clay were found in Japan. In the 17th and 18th centuries many factories sprang up, making a very fine quality of porcelain. Best known among these are Arita, Nabeshima, and Kutani wares.

The Japanese style of porcelain decoration had a greater influence on European taste and styles than even the Chinese. Later on Chinese decoration itself was influenced by the Japanese style. Most significant was the delicate work of the potter Kakiemon. His spare and stylized paintings on porcelains of a few blossoms or a flowering tree, with a bird or a legendary animal, were copied by the Germans, French, and English. These nations were captivated by the Japanese porcelains imported by the Dutch traders. Another heavier decoration was the Imari, or brocade, pattern made for export. In modern times much good but inexpensive porcelain for home use has been made in Japan.

The importation of Chinese porcelain by Dutch traders began in the 17th century. Soon the Europeans began to imitate the prized Chinese porcelains in a fine tin-glazed earthenware. 

European Porcelain

The beautiful and delicate porcelains of China and Japan were taken to Europe after the opening of trade with Asia. They created such an intense desire for fine porcelain with the ruling classes that it was called a "china mania." Kings vied with each other in attempts to discover the secret of true porcelain jealously guarded by the Asians. The espionage and competition surrounding the race to produce porcelain was akin to the espionage surrounding the development of the modern day nuclear bomb. The nobility were no longer satisfied with vessels of opaque earthenware, and even gold and silver services gave way to the more highly prized porcelains. They wanted easy, inexpensive access to porcelain and were willing to pay dearly to get it.

As early as 1580 Francesco de' Medici had manufactured in Florence a ware with a translucent body called porcelain. This was not the true Chinese porcelain but a soft-paste porcelain made of various mixtures of white firing clay and glass, or frit. The manufacture of this soft-paste porcelain spread through France, Italy, and England until it was finally displaced by true, or hard-paste, porcelain, when the secret of manufacture became known in Europe.

Augustus II the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, wanted to make porcelain in Saxony and thus put an end to the spending of large sums of money for Chinese porcelains. He had in his employ a young alchemist, Johann Friedrich Bottger. Augustus was convinced that Bottger would be able to bring him great wealth if he knew or could find the secret of turning base metals into gold. He had Bottger held as a virtual prisoner while he paid him for his work. When Bottger failed, the king's patience was exhausted. He had him imprisoned in a fortress at Meissen, near Dresden.

There in 1706 Count von Tschirnhaus, a Saxon nobleman, got the king's permission to have Bottger help him. Bottger soon developed a red stoneware so hard it could only be cut on the jeweler's wheel. About this time a true kaolin, such as that used by the Chinese, was discovered in Saxony. In 1709 Bottger developed--independently of the Chinese--a true hard porcelain with this clay. From this discovery grew the great Meissen porcelain factory, often known as Dresden, which had an unbroken existence to World War II. At first the valuable secret was guarded carefully at Meissen. In 1718 a runaway workman carried the formula to Vienna. There its manufacture flourished under a great manager, Claude du Paquier, who was responsible for much fine porcelain in the baroque style. 

In the meantime soft-paste porcelain factories had sprung up in France, Italy, and England. Principal among the French factories were St-Cloud, Vincennes, Sevres, Chantilly, and Mennecy-Villeroy. Vincennes and its successor Sevres were under the personal patronage of the kings Louis XIV and Louis XV. Other French porcelain factories were subsidized by lesser nobles. For a time none but the royal factory could make use of gold in decoration.

Madame de Pompadour was a patroness of the royal factory. For her the factory created beautiful and naturalistic porcelain flowers mounted on branches of bronze. The magnificent and often ornate creations of the Vincennes and Sevres artisans in soft-paste porcelain reflect the splendor of the French royal court of the rococo period. The Sevres factory produced hard-paste porcelain beginning in 1769, when the secrets of its manufacture became known in France. The factory continued to turn out soft-paste porcelain until 1800.

In Italy soft-paste porcelain was made by the Doccia, Venice, Capo di Monte, and other factories. Capo di Monte was started in 1743 by Charles III, king of Naples. It was moved to Madrid in 1759 when Charles ascended the throne of Spain. There it was known as Buen Retiro. Genuine Capo di Monte porcelain is extremely rare. The ornate wares with designs in low relief falsely called Capo di Monte are poor imitations made in Italy and France from the 18th century until modern times.

Excellent hard-paste porcelain was made at Copenhagen, Denmark, during the last quarter of the 18th century. The royal factory executed the Flora Danica service for Catherine the Great of Russia. It was probably the most famous and most elaborate dinner service ever made. Work on it was started in 1789 and not finished until 1802. This service, numbering 1,602 pieces, was decorated exclusively with Danish botanical subjects. In the second half of the 18th century, both faience and soft-paste porcelain were made at Marieberg, Sweden.

These continental factories were usually sponsored by kings and nobles. In England the development of porcelain was left to private enterprise. Probably the first English soft-paste porcelain factory was one founded at Chelsea in about 1745. It grew to prominence under Nicholas Sprimont, a French silversmith. From its start until its close in 1769, the Chelsea factory, catering to the tastes of the nobility, produced some of the most valuable porcelains of all time.

The soft-paste bodies made by these factories were impractical because of their inability to withstand extremes of heat and cold and because of the high waste caused by warping in the kilns. The first true porcelain factory in England was founded at Plymouth in 1768 by William Cookworthy. It was transferred to Bristol in 1770 by Richard Champion. Most makers of fine English porcelain did not remain in business long, and only one or two lasted beyond the end of the century. Some delicate soft-paste porcelain was made in Wales at Nantgarw and Swansea early in the 1800s. By then porcelain had declined as a fine art, giving way to mass production.

Although bone ash had been used as a soft-paste porcelain ingredient at Bow many years before, Josiah Spode the younger developed the first English bone-china body. The firm of Copeland & Garrett took over the pottery operated by three generations of Josiah Spodes. About 1845 it developed a body known as Parian porcelain that resembled white marble. It contained kaolin, feldspar, ball clay, and flint glass. This was an improvement on the old biscuit, or unglazed porcelain, for figure modeling. Productions in Parian ware, however, have little artistic merit.

Modern European pottery and porcelain is no longer a handcraft, except for some very expensive one-of-a-kind pieces. Nevertheless it has maintained a high standard of quality. The fine porcelains of the Copenhagen factories and the Belleek factory in Northern Ireland are especially noteworthy. Belleek ware is eggshell thin, with a highly translucent body and a soft, ivory-colored lustrous glaze. The Copenhagen factories and Nymphenburg and Rosenthal in Germany are noted for their excellent figure modeling.

Note: KCIC Ornaments are imported from China and Taiwan. Owning one is like holding a little piece of history.