Chinese blue and white porcelain has an appealing charm that has long been recognized among art collectors and ceramics aficionados. Many elements contribute to this, but the most prominent would be the cobalt blue color. In China, the use of blue pigment on ceramics began as early as the late Tang dynasty. Still, it was not until the late Yuan dynasty that blue and white porcelain gained popularity, and production started in sizable quantities. Imported from Persia, the cobalt blue was prohibitively expensive. It was used sparingly on vessels created for Imperial use only at established venues. One of them is Jingdezhen—a kiln site that soon became the mecca of Chinese blue and white porcelain production.
Cobalt blue differs in material composition, thus resulting in color variations after being fired. The early cobalt blue extracted from Persian ore is rich in iron oxide, bestowing a hint of purple and the so-called “heaped-and-piled” effect with darker spots on the glazed surface. Later, a softer and clearer blue was achieved from China’s manganese-rich cobalt blue, and another domestic azurite blue, called shiqing, was available in the late Ming period. The somewhat dull shiqing blue was mostly used at local kilns and yielded various blues, it was mixed with other domestically available blue pigments, ranging from silvery to purplish blue hues.
Along with the advent of cobalt blue, rapid development in surface design also occurred. Painters began to play an integral part in the production process, which was previously the potters’ domain. The painter’s influence was most visible in the subjects and patterns. The cobalt blue designs became more delicate and complex; in less than a century, subject matter varied widely to include landscapes, figures, every sort of flora and fauna, and auspicious symbols and intricate patterns. Previously, high-class ceramic design was limited to the forms and glaze variations found in the Song dynasty’s ceramics.
Given the rulers’ patronage, Chinese blue and white porcelain strongly reflect the Imperial tastes of the times. The bright blue on a warm white ground was prized throughout the Xuande, Chenghua, and Zhengde eras, and remained attractive well into the Kangxi era of the Qing dynasty and beyond. The earlier deep purplish blue with darker dots was also revived during the 18th century, particularly by the emperors of Yongzheng and Qianlong, his fourth son.
Of all the ambitious emperors who strove to excel in the ceramic legacy of the Song and Ming dynasties, the Yongzheng emperor was the most influential. Known for his dedication to excellence and an unyielding interest in innovative technology in ceramic production, he controlled the quality of Imperial ceramics himself, frequently visited the workshops at court, and gave his orders and demands to the supervisors as Tang Ying. Yongzheng paved a way to the heyday of all types of Chinese ceramics, including blue and white porcelain wares. In form, the emperor showed keen interest in ancient vessels and an insatiable appetite for the quiet elegance and subtlety in design. All his ceramics display his refined scholarly taste, as demonstrated in this blue and white seal paste box, sold for $95,000.
In October 2020, Skinner offers a group of superb blue and white porcelain that demonstrate the experimental sprit of the Yongzheng and Qianlong eras. The most representative example is a lotus-mouth bottle vase (Lot 100, Estimate: $600,000-1,200,000). This robust yet elegant vase is a refined mixture showcasing the tastes of the Han of Ming and the Manchu of Qing. The shape emulates bronze garlic-mouthed bottles of the Ming dynasty, but with the added elegance of the Qing court in design.
The deep cobalt blue shows the “heaped and piled” effect of Ming and the “orange peel” glaze, which has been arguably known to be used as a decorative element in the blue and white porcelain of the Yongzheng and Qianlong eras. Most amazingly, the garlic mouth of the previous Ming is replaced in the most elaborate manner with a lotus pod, a symbol of fecundity most popularly loved among the Manchu people of Qing. Also, the pair of lion masks that often decorated the sides of a censer in the Ming period are applied and painted in blue above the incurving shoulders. The blue and white bottle vase was descended in the family of the current consignor through Ward Thoron (1867-1937), the paternal grandfather of the consignor. Mr. Thoron has family ties not only to the Endicott and Peabody families (two prominent New England families, the latter with well-established links to overseas trade), but also William Ward, a prominent shipmaster and merchant who sailed extensively throughout Europe and Asia before settling in Medford, Massachusetts.
Other important blue and white porcelain items in the auction came from the Mary Andrews Wolff collection in Massachusetts. Particularly noteworthy are a snuff bottle with Yin-Yang inlaid wood stopper (Lot 92, Estimate: $1,200-1,500) and a water coupe decorated with Kangxi-style figural landscapes (Lot 89, Estimate: $400-600), both boasting the beauty of Ming design combined with the spirit of the Qing emperors.