The universality, profound and lasting appeal, and decorative versatility of “blue & white” ceramics is undeniable. Through centuries and across continents, blue-decorated white- or off-white-bodied ceramics are nearly ubiquitous. This is due to a combination of reasons: available materials, certain production efficiencies, and, of course, the enduring popularity of the color combination.
Generally, antique ceramics derive from local clay and materials—many of which are light in color—from bright white to dull gray. The earliest “blue” was often made from cobalt oxide, though later on, blue pigments were produced from other, cheaper, local sources—even if cobalt oxide remained the most desirable. Cobalt oxide could withstand high-temperature firing (essential for the kaolin-based ceramics found in China). Generally, it was ground and mixed with water and applied by brush to the pottery body before applying the protective glaze and subsequent firing. That the pottery only had to be fired once was a benefit— both to the durability of the decoration (since it was under the glaze) and to the efficiency of the production.
For centuries, China and other Far Eastern countries produced much of the world’s blue-decorated porcelain, and it is Chinese blue & white which is the most familiar even now. Examples of Chinese porcelain made their way to Western Europe in the 15th century, and the popularity there was undeniable. In the centuries that followed, European ceramics were decorated in blue (often in a floral or foliate style derived from the Chinese). In the late 18th century and even more prolifically in the 19th century, potteries and porcelain houses the world over were making white-bodied ceramics with blue decoration.
Throughout that time, blue & white continued to be made in China. Several now well-known patterns, including the omnipresent “Canton” were often shipped in huge volume on return trips from China by Western merchant vessels and delivered to eagerly waiting consumers throughout Europe and the United States. The popularity of these particular blue & white patterns spawned even more copycats throughout Europe (“Blue Willow” perhaps most famously), which simply increased the amount of blue & white available. By the early 19th century, potteries in Staffordshire, England, and elsewhere were in full-swing, making “transferware,” primarily in blue. They catered to specific markets, including the United States, with designs meant to celebrate American history, patriotism, and independence.
Even American potteries from New Jersey north to New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, who produced thick-walled pottery referred to as “stoneware,” decorated their wares with cobalt blue, perhaps in keeping with the decorative traditions of the past. In the late 19th and well into the 20th century, American potteries continued to produce what could still be referred to as “blue & white.” Among these is Dedham Pottery in Massachusetts, which produced ceramics decorated with wide cobalt blue rims with flora and fauna and achieved a crackled glaze inspired, as was much blue & white, by the Chinese precedent.
Interior designers (and these days, Instagram and Pinterest users) have long known the appeal and the versatility of blue & white—it is a pleasing combination. With its proliferation throughout the world and centuries, we at Skinner find blue & white in a huge variety of homes. Blue & white can stand out as a bold accent in some modern and minimalist homes, or can adorn mantelpieces and open cupboards as exhibited compendia in wood-paneled parlors. And it just as often gets stuffed into corner cupboards, emerging twice a year as the “fancy china.” Blue & white looks as good against oak and mahogany furniture in a low-ceilinged 18th century home as it does in a brightly lit seaside retreat on a white marble countertop. Best of all, the “look” of blue & white is affordable. While there are early and important examples of Chinese and European blue & white that bring huge sums, most blue & white is, as it has always been, an attainable and enduring product.