Nothing more encapsulates the western concept of Chinese porcelain than the notion of 'blue and white'. For more than six centuries, both Chinese and overseas owners have enjoyed the astonishing, revolutionary, high-fired, translucent, resonant ware that became widely available in the 14th century.
Traditionally associated with China's porcelain-producing capital city, Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, 'blue and white' became a Chinese craft product that enthused and intrigued buyers throughout Asia, Arabia, and finally western Europe and east coast America for centuries. It represented sophistication, attractiveness and a certain 'Oriental allure' which no other competitor porcelain could match in cost, elegance or ready availability, until English late 18th-century potters introduced new ceramic bodies and the technique of transfer printing.
The initial unique advantage of 'blue and white' was that it was, for a luxury product, very cost-effective to manufacture. This was because blue-painted products only required one firing in the high-temperature kilns that vitrified the porcelain body and the glaze. Only two pigments derived from minerals had the ability to survive the high temperature firing without becoming discoloured: a very unpredictable red derived from copper, and a rich and predictable blue derived from ground cobalt.
Both were painted onto the unfired body of a vessel, when their colour bore no indication to what the final manifestation would be. Red often misfired, burning to grey or brown, and it was used only infrequently after an initial burst of enthusiasm in the late 14th century, presumably because the wastage rate was too high. Cobalt blue, however, never lost its popularity. It was used on wares made for the imperial court during the Ming and Qing dynasties (c.1368-1911); it enriched a 14th-century banquet in the near East, it accommodated spectacular gold or silver mounts as a treasure in a Doge's palace, it brought glamour to a candle-lit dining table in fashionable 18th-century London.
Above all, it was a reliable way to decorate porcelain. Cobalt was equally useful to an imperial potter decorating an exquisite bowl for a 15th-century Chinese emperor, as to an unknown commercial potter creating a standard export-quality 300-piece dinner service for an East India Company merchant remorselessly filling up his hold with unremarkable new ceramics at Canton's Whampoa anchorage.
Bonhams Chinese Sale in November contains a number of exceptional pieces of 'blue and white', all in the most desirable 'Chinese taste' ('official wares', called by Chinese scholars guanyao). Most are display pieces; they are big and dramatic, suitable to dress a side table in a Beijing Palace chamber. Almost certainly, they were initially less expensive than the superb imperial 'coloured' wares also in this sale, which were painted in bright enamels over the clear glaze of a once-fired vessel, and then fired a second time at a much lower temperature to fix these rich patterns.
The earliest of these exceptional blue-painted wares dates from the second quarter of the 16th century, and is boldly painted all around the heavily-potted body with playing boys, an auspicious subject for a culture where male heirs are a vital concern. The blue is darker, more violet in tone, than on the outstanding 18th-century imperial vases which are also offered in this sale. Here, the medium is so well handled after centuries of experience, that the 18th-century designs are all very carefully balanced and spaced, the imperial patron accepting a loss of painting spontaneity in exchange for a display of superb technical potting skill.
This is the largest auction of Chinese art ever offered at Bonhams – some 700 pieces – and will attract a global audience of buyers whose interests span the whole spectrum of Chinese craft production.
Colin Sheaf is Chairman of Bonhams Asia.
Sale: Fine Chinese Art, including The Inder Rieden Collection
New Bond Street
Thursday 10 November at 10am
Enquiries: Colin Sheaf +44 (0) 20 7468 8237