Anthony Gray: Chinese Kangxi Blue and White Porcelain

Extremely rare Chinese blue and white ewer (aftaba) Kangxi (1662-1722), made for the Islamic market. The pear-shaped body decorated with a bird and branches above rockwork, the spreading foot with flower heads and a cross-diaper band, the cup-shape upper-section grasped by the animal head terminal of the handle, the spout 'S' shaped,height: 11 1/2in., 29.2cm; The shape is derived from a Turkish or Indian metal shape. Ewers of this type were usually accompanied by a basin. It was made at Jingdezhen in south-west China at the end of the 17th century for export to India or the Middle East, where these ewers were used for hand washing. Hindus washed their hands before and after meals; the Koran commands the faithful to wash their hands before prayer. In the 17th century, the courts of India were very prosperous and had been collecting Chinese blue and white since the Yuan dynasty.  The exact shape of this ewer seems to be unrecorded but a similar ewer can be seen in the Topkapi Palace museum catalogue. Click to see other items from this period. Chinese blue and white brush pot, Bitong, Kangxi (1662-1722). Click to see other items from this period.  Chinese blue and white jardiniere, Kangxi (1662-1722), decorated with with a warrior on horse back and figures one holding a banner in a rocky landscape with trees, diameter: 8 1/4in. 21cm., height: 6 7/8in. 17.4cm., Click to see other items from this period. Chinese blue and white dish, Kangxi (1662-1722), decorated in the centre with a pair of figures on horseback with two attendants behind them carrying flags, in the background castellated wall with weapons and flags visible in the background, the foliate rim with sprays of flowers, the base with six-character mark reading 'Sheng you bao shi ya zhi 'elegantly made like precious stone for sacred friendship, diameter: 14in. 34.8cm. Provenance: Dr Edward Carew-Shaw collection no. 345. Click to see other items from this period. Extremely rare Chinese blue and white monteith, Kangxi (1662-1722), decorated with eight panels containing flowering branches with cranellated rim, diameter: 12 3/4in. 32.2cm., Our bowl it almost identical to the one in the Metropolitan Museum: see Gift of Mildred R. Mottahedeh, 1978. Click to see other items from this period.

Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain at its best is superb and rivals any other Chinese blue and white produced during the earlier periods. It may not have the simple vigour of the Yongle blue and white, or the stateliness of the Chenghua but what it does have are charming sophisticated designs inspired by all that went before it together with a great technical expertise that could produce a brilliant under-glaze sapphire blue for the painting, a fine thin attractive white slightly bluish silky glaze applied to a very white body. Unfortunately, it is very easy to gain an unfavourable impression because it was a period when due to huge demand from Europe and the home market, even very poor products were commercially viable. There were a very large number of kilns at the main centre of production at Jingdezhen producing hundreds of thousands of pieces of blue and white porcelain.

Designs were sometimes based on the usual Buddhist and Daoist themes but were more often sourced from a now plentiful supply of illustrated books. These included the ever popular Ming stories from ‘The Three Kingdoms’, ‘The Romance of the West Chamber ‘, together with the perennially popular dramas Xixiang Ji and Wui Hu Zhuan. Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain was increasingly varied and innovative in its designs. In addition to the designs already mentioned Dutch and other European shapes and designs were in evidence prior and during the Kangxi period. One example of this is a close copy of a Dutch delft ‘light-house’ hexagonal coffee pot made by Lambert van Eenhoorn, this shape in turn was based on an earlier Dutch metal shape, another are the tulip vases sometimes signed by Adrian Kocks. (These two were the most important makers of Dutch delft from the 17th century)

It is interesting to note that on Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain of rounded forms that were made for the domestic market and export, the artists did not know how to complete the decoration of figurative scenes, which usually therefore ended in rockwork and clouds or plantains. In the case of Imperial wares usually a better solution was found. To differentiate between Kangxi blue and white porcelain made for imperial use and that made for the public can be difficult unless one is already familiar with the Imperial designs, but there are some rules of thumb that are useful. Imperial porcelain is of the highest quality and is nearly always finely marked, the potting is perfect and there are few, if any, iron spots or other imperfections in the glaze. There are connoisseurs who believe that there were very few calligraphers drawing the marks and optimistically think that it should be possible to identify the writing of the individual calligraphers.

Some collectors seem to find it difficult to differentiate between Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain and the earlier Transitional wares. Once again there are one or two rules of thumb. In outdoor scenes on Transitional wares the grass is always depicted with ‘V’ shapes; Transitional blue and white often had incised ‘an-hua’ borders and some shapes were peculiar to each of the periods. In the case of the finer pieces of Transitional porcelain the figure painting is ‘tighter’ than that found on Kangxi blue and white. The former also displays a rather flatter perspective.

Until recently Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain was seriously under valued and even now with the interest from Mainland China it is still possibly undervalued although already expensive. There are still areas where collecting Kangxi blue and white porcelain is possible for comparatively small sums of money. For example Kangxi blue and white porcelain tea bowls and saucers of a very high quality can be purchased for 500 pounds or less whereas early European counterparts can be considerably more expensive.

The amateur collector has to be very wary of fake Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain which continue to appear in large numbers and are sometimes seen at well- known auction houses described as being genuine. The present day fakers are very in touch in a way that the 19th century forgers were not. They know how to write the reign marks correctly and are very adept at transferring the designs of genuine pieces onto new ones. If they hear that they are doing something obviously wrong they soon put it right. For example, recently in addition to the Kangxi fakes Wanli-type large Kraak jars were being auctioned as being genuine but as well-informed dealers pointed out that these jars should be made in two pieces and horizontally luted together in the middle. Quite soon the fake Wanli jars appeared but now made in the right way. This makes me reluctant to discuss fakes in too much detail as this website has a very large number of visitors. It can be very rewarding to collect Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain but it is necessary to be very careful.
Collectors of Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain or earlier blue and white porcelain would do well to acquire the following books:

Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, Turkey; contributors: Krahl R; Erbahar, N; Ayars, J.; 1,384 pages; 200 colour plates; 4800 black and white illustrations; in all describing 10,000 pieces dating from the Yuan to the Qing dynasties

The relevant volumes from:
Master Pieces of Chinese Art in the National Palace Museum; Taipei, Taipei. National Palace Museum; Fu-Tsung, Chiang; Taiwan

For examples of European designs including Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain:
China for the West; by David Howard and John Ayers