To tell the story of Imperial Chinese porcelain is in some ways to tell the story of China itself. Fascinating, vibrant, richly varied and a beautiful artform that has beguiled, intrigued and captivated the rest of the world for millennia.
Chinese Imperial porcelain, often known as Imperial ware in China (Guan yao), is porcelain specifically manufactured for the Chinese emperor and the Imperial household. The first Imperial kiln was founded during the second year of the Ming dynasty (1369) in Zhushan (Pearl Hill) in the southern city of Jingdezhen.
The official kilns making Imperial Chinese porcelain in Jingdezhen were established in the fourteenth century and pieces of Chinese Imperial porcelain produced at the factory were marked with an official nian hao, or reign mark. The marks were applied to the pieces by a very small number of highly specialised craftsmen, some of whom spent their entire working lives painting the same nian hao.
A Chinese imperial cloisonné bottle vase with rounded body and ribbed cylindrical neck, the body decorated with stylised lotus flower heads amongst leaves and scrolling branches, beneath stylised peony flower heads and further lotus flower heads beneath the rim, all on a turquoise ground, two of the raised ribs with a dark blue ground, the foot with scrolls and jewels.
Chinese imperial porcelain blue and white jue stand on four bracket feet, modelled with a central ‘mountain’ decorated on the sides with rocks and billowing waves with a peach and leaves on the flat top, encircled by four cranes in flight amongst ruyi-head clouds, beneath a flat everted rim painted with triangular diaper, the underside with stylised lotus flowerheads and scrolling branches.
A pair of Chinese imperial porcelain famille rose enamelled fencai saucer dishes, each brightly painted with the bajixiang, ribbon-tied with flowering branches in green, blue, pink, turquoise, white, aubergine and iron-red enamels encircling a stylised central lotus flower head and interlinked flower heads in lime green enamel, all within gilt rings, the underside with branches of stylised lotus, peony and peach flowers, with a peach and bud on elaborate scrolls.
Chinese imperial porcelain blue and white palace bowl, wan, deeply potted with a gently flared rim, the exterior with five stylised lotus flowerheads on a scrolling branch, amongst arrow-head leaves, scrolls and foliage, all above a band of stylized lotus petals, the interior painted in the well with a lotus flowerhead amongst arrow-head leaves, scrolling branches and foliage encircled by five further flowerheads in the cavetto.
Over the centuries, the royal court generated massive demand for Chinese Imperial porcelain, now highly collectable antiques. Imperial China had main palaces and residences and the royal princes had subsidiary regional courts. There were also many regional temples that required Imperial ware. In China, each household rank was entitled to a very specific collection set out in a written list. The last of which was produced in 1899 and specified that:
The Empress Dowager Cixi received 821 pieces of Imperial yellow Chinese porcelain, the Empress received 1,014 pieces, a concubine (first rank) received 121 pieces of Imperial yellow Chinese porcelain with a white interior and a concubine (second rank) received 121 pieces of Imperial yellow Chinese porcelain decorated with green dragons.
As more and more Imperial ware from China made its way into international collections, especially the cobalt blue designs from the Ming dynasty, Chinese Imperial porcelain developed a major influence over the world’s most famous design houses, most notably Delftware from the Netherlands.
The Kangxi Emperor (1661 – 1722) revived the Imperial Chinese porcelain factories in Jingdezhen after a 60-year period of dormancy. Under his reign, and of his successors Yongzheng and Qianlong, the Imperial Chinese porcelain factories flourished. Not only did they take inspiration from their predecessors, they combined it with amazing developments in production techniques to make exceptionally high quality Imperial ware. China, for example, led the way in the development of many of the techniques still in use today, including the development of opaque overglaze enamel colours that allow artists to create a much broader range of shades and hues.