Japan is a fascinating nation with a rich and diverse history, mythology and culture. A Palaeolithic culture emerged from approximately 30,000BC and even though the nation was still millennia from producing Imari porcelain, archaeologists unearthed clay vessels from the Jōmon period (around 14,500BC) which are amongst the very first known examples of human-made pottery.
From the mid-fifteenth century, the increasing popularity of tea ceremonies cemented an aesthetic appreciation of fine ceramic ware and the Japanese used imported ceramics from neighbouring China which, like Imari porcelain and antique Imari china today, became valued as works of art. This demand resulted in a surge of creativity and many hundreds, if not thousands, of kilns were set up during the Momoyama period (approximately 1573 – 1603) with each region developing their own styles.
Towards the end of the Momoyama period, skilled Korean potters who learned their trade in China came to Japan and many settled on Kyūshū island. It was there they discovered the famed kaolin clay in the city of Arita and the production of Imari porcelain (named after the port of Imari from where it was shipped) began.
The famous blue and white Imari porcelain was so popular that many Europeans copied it on tin-glazed earthenware, most notably Delft from The Netherlands. Later in the 18th century, the kakiemon overglaze enamel decoration style of Imari ware was exported from Japan and copied in Europe by many of the leading manufacturers of the day.
A Japanese Arita porcelain octagonal bowl with lobed everted rim, painted on the exterior in coloured enamels; green, yellow and turquoise, iron-red, gilt and underglaze blue, with continuous aster flowers and scrolling branches of foliage, the interior well with a large chrysanthemum bloom on a circular branch within a double ring, all below eight alternating panels of flowering chrysanthemum and daisies, below the everted rim with a band of triangular gilt branch with single bloom on a blue ground, alternating with coloured and gilt branches of flowers, the base with an underglaze blue double-ring.
A Japanese Arita porcelain petal shape circular bowl, painted in green enamel, iron red, gilt and underglaze blue, on the exterior painted with a pine tree and another flowering tree beside branches of peonies, the interior well with a large chrysanthemum bloom within an underglaze blue double ring and below branches of flowers, the base with a running fuku mark within a double square, all within a single ring.
Japanese Arita porcelain large plate with flat everted rim, painted in underglaze blue with a central medallion with a flowerpot with flowering plants in a terrace scene, surrounded by eight petal shaped medallions, each with flowers, all on a dark underglaze blue ground heightened in gilt and red enamels, with decorative scrolling leaf pattern, overall heightened in gilt, red and orange enamels.
Further information on Imari Porcelain
Japanese Imari plates and all forms of Imari porcelain took design cues from textile manufacturers and included beautifully exotic landscapes, trees and flowers, elegant long-winged birds and courtesans in their stunning kimonos, a marked difference from the early Imari ware, known as ‘shoki imari’ manufactured before around 1650.
Early Imari ware was usually small and very sparsely decorated, painted with a blue underglaze and bought and sold exclusively within the domestic market.
From shoko imari came ko-kutani, a more mature style of Imari porcelain that added vivid greens, purples, blues, reds and yellows. That developed into the kakiemon style of Imari ware and Japanese Imari plates characterised by beautifully intricate detail and eventually by gold enamel.
After 214 years of sakoku (the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy of isolation), the Japanese began exporting Imari porcelain to western markets in the nineteenth century. The craftsmen revived the older style of Imari ware and Japanese Imari plates although the quality wasn’t as high as that of the Japanese porcelain that had come before. That said, some mid to late nineteenth century Imari ware, particularly the elegant vases from the Fukagawa factory have become highly sought after Japanese Imari china and commands high prices at auction.