A wucai lobed saucer dish Yongzheng six-character mark and of the period
Lot 254
A wucai lobed saucer dish
Yongzheng six-character mark and of the period
Sold for £ 39,650 (US$ 52,361) inc. premium

Fine Chinese Art

10 Nov 2011, 10:00 GMT

London, New Bond Street

Lot Details
A wucai lobed saucer dish Yongzheng six-character mark and of the period A wucai lobed saucer dish Yongzheng six-character mark and of the period
A wucai lobed saucer dish
Yongzheng six-character mark and of the period
The saucer divided by nicks in the rim into five lobes, each painted on the underside in blue with cloud scrolls around yellow, green and iron-red flying four-clawed dragons divided by flaming pearls, the interior plain.
15.5cm (6 1/8in) diam.


  • Provenance: J.Dearman Birchall, no.41A

    Imperial porcelain from the Birchall Collection, formed in England in the late 19th century

    From about 1860, English collectors of Chinese porcelain were offered a new perspective on what they were buying. Although the peak of their collecting ambitions remained the fine, richly-painted Kangxi-period blue and white wares, now essentially very second-hand decorations bought 150 years earlier in the Netherlands and England as 'new' house decorations, suddenly this material was presented by contemporaneous 'philosopher-aesthetes' like D.G.Rossetti, J.M.Whistler and Oscar Wilde as masterpieces surviving from a precious era of Chinese porcelain production. These new fashionable social commentators saw in these old ceramics a massive and timely aesthetic contrast with the tawdry industrial ceramics they saw in daily use around them; the transfer-printed Staffordshire, the ungainly Minton. Inspired by their writings, and the way these self-parodies of aesthetic dandies were lionized by the rich and famous, a number of newly-rich industrialists followed the siren calls of a few imaginative London and regional dealers who could find sufficient quantities of this Kangxi blue and white at home and abroad to fill up sumptuous new 'palaces' like the Lever mansion at Port Sunlight.

    One such devotee was J.Dearman Birchall (1828-1897). He was born in Leeds, the son of a successful Quaker wool merchant with roots in manufacturing and retailing local tweed. A successful innovator and merchant, Dearman led his family firm to prizes for their cloth at the International Exhibitions in London (1862), Paris (1867), Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Paris again (1878) and Sydney (1879).

    All the time he was trading cloth, he was also acquiring Chinese porcelain and Persian fabrics. His diaries note that in 1875 and 1877 he bought from, and sold porcelain to, the Dutch-based dealer Joel Duveen, the first Duveen to make a base in the United Kingdom in 1866, opening a shop in Hull (Barnett and Duveen, 49 Waterwork Street). By 1890, both his collection and Duveen's domination of the Chinese porcelain market had expanded vastly. As Dearman aged, in 1892 Duveen offered to buy back his whole collection to ship out to his insatiable new 'robber baron' clientele in New York, collectors like Henry Clay Frick and J.Pierport Morgan. But the collection survived this tempting offer, and remained on open display in Dearman Birchall's home, where he could indulge his Leeds business skills in more congenial surroundings and support a variety of charitable and philanthropic causes which rightly gave him considerable local prestige.

    However, this appreciation of the subtle qualities of 'sapphire blue' Chinese ginger jars, especially the legendary 'hawthorn' jars, did not normally involve much knowledge about Chinese reign marks. Nor did the early collectors, except a few enlightened ones educated by scholars in the London museums, have either the opportunity or the knowledge to acquire genuine Imperial reign-marked ceramics made for the Chinese domestic market. The finest Kangxi was apparently largely made for the Export trade, and Birchall was even asking Duveen to find it for him in Holland. However, at some point before the 1890s, Birchall was enabled to buy some ceramics which fell way outside the well-beaten collecting taste of late Victorian England; and, as his inventory records, to his credit he knew what date these famille rose and wucai pieces were.

    The selection of reign-marked porcelain offered here are very unusual survivors of an early moment in collecting Chinese porcelain in England. It is frequently claimed that scholarly Western knowledge of Chinese Guanyao (official) wares only began to be disseminated after about 1910, when such Imperial porcelain became available. But Dearman Birchall knew exactly what date these Imperially-marked wares were; the evidence is in the fine 'Collection Inventory' compiled by him probably in the late 1880s, and with pieces from the Collection well illustrated by him in watercolour. It is interesting that the watercolours all show his 'blue and white'; none of these genuinely Imperial lots in this collection are illustrated, though all are fully recorded (frustratingly, without his purchase date or the price paid).

    These lots are therefore a tantalising window into a vanished world of collecting in London, Hull, Liverpool and elsewhere in late Victorian England. Unknown industrialist-collectors did not merely wax lyrical over the 'sapphire-blue' of the best 'hawthorn ginger jar'; they were also able to read and transcribe the reign-marks, and date the porcelain accurately, The Chinese ceramics expertise, at least in Dearman's case, was significantly greater than current scholarship would have us believe.
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