Chinese Export Porcelain
By Karen Parr-Moody


If you were among the more fashionable early American colonists, you would have sipped your tea and taken your meals via a collectible dinnerware called Chinese export porcelain. Such wares were a way for colonists to bring a European style of living to the New World.


Canton and Nanking are the two patterns which were most commonly made in the rich cobalt blue and white colors that became popular in the late 1700s. At the original GasLamp, Showcase S-131 is filled with pieces of such porcelain in the pattern Canton, circa 19th century, including items such as this hog-nosed pitcher in the photo, above right ($250).


Both Canton and Nanking have a similar look, but each is listed within its own category of the larger category of Chinese export porcelain. Chinese export porcelain had been popular with Europeans since the 14th century, when many pieces were gilt-edged to underscore their worth and featured a range of overglaze polychrome enamels in colors including pink, purple, green, iron, red, blue, and black.


The piece of Chinese export porcelain in the photo, left, is decorated with a coat of arms. It was produced circa 1743 and is for sale at Sotheby’s, which expects it to fetch $3,000 to $5,000.


Chinese export porcelain was incredibly popular in the American colonies. In the home of Elias Hasket Derby, who was among the wealthiest early merchants and America’s first millionaire, almost every corner "was adorned with Chinese pottery, while one closet contained china estimated as worth $371." (Information from E. Singleton’s book, Furniture of Our Forefathers.)


Prior to the American Revolution that took place between 1765 and 1783, American colonists received their Chinese wares after they had been shipped through England or Holland. Following the conflict, America was eager to develop new trading partners and officially entered into trade with China in 1784. A large amount of Chinese export porcelain was brought to America aboard the ship called the Empress of China.


A set of Chinese export porcelain in the Nanking pattern arrived at Mount Vernon in September of 1786. It was a 302-piece dinner and tea service that bears the winged figure of Fame carrying the Eagle insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati. Washington was the only person to order the full service of this pattern, but it was available to other members of the Society. In the photo, right, is a plate from the pattern for sale at Sotheby’s with an anticipated bid ranging from $30,000 to $50,000.


Nanking porcelain is generally considered to be of a higher quality than Canton, as it is typically more elaborately and carefully painted. But Canton is one of the most widely-recognized Chinese export porcelains in America. One characterization is the several variations of a border pattern. In the platter found at GasLamp, photo left, you can see an outer crisscrossed lattice border with an inner border of scalloping that is often called the “rain and cloud” pattern ($145).


In the photo, below right, is a rare, six-lobed Canton bowl found at GasLamp. Look at its center and you will see more of Canton’s familiar blue-and-white “hills and streams” landscape decoration ($625). Like all Canton ware, it was hand-decorated with Chinese scenes by artisans living in the port city of Canton (known today as Guangzhou). Willow trees, bridges, pagodas, boats and islands were motifs used to create the various pieces of Canton ware.


In the photo, below left, you can see a small dish with a much simpler Canton design than the others featured here ($30).


After a successful run of four centuries, the China trade suffered a series of blows in the 19th century that resulted in its decline. From natural disasters to war – and the increased availability of European porcelains – misfortune struck the trading companies.


Today Canton ware can range in price from $20 to several thousand dollars, depending on the rarity of form and the condition of the item.


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