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Canton Porcelain - The Rose Medallion family 1840-1880

Nic Saintey, Head of the Ceramics Department, writes about Canton Porcelain and its decoration as well as the export economics that shaped its development.

An impressively large pair of Canton vases nearly 80cm high.

An impressively large pair of Canton vases nearly 80cm high.

For many years, Canton porcelain had rather been looked down upon both by Western and Oriental collectors alike. Distinct in its busy and profusely decorated schemes rendered in a largely famille rose palette within rather florid green and richly gilded grounds. Extremely popular throughout much of the 19th century, it probably rather fitted into the Victorian aesthetic, but fell from grace as the century came to an end.

A Canton decorated vase of typical form with chilong and kylin, but in a very unusual palette.

A Canton decorated vase of typical form with chilong and kylin, but in a very unusual palette.

Like much Chinese porcelain, it was produced, fired and glazed in Jingdezhen, but unlike the bulk, it was then sent down to Canton (a town up river from Hong Kong and Macao known as Guangzhou) for subsequent decoration.

Produced entirely for export, which probably explains why it wasn't initially popular with Chinese buyers, much of the decoration is largely a variation on formulaic patterns generically referred to as Rose Medallion or Rose Mandarin. The former being the most common include multiple panels or medallions, with the inclusion of flowers, (more often peony), copious scrolling foliage, fruit, birds and butterflies – the latter being broadly similar but with the addition of figures within garden landscapes.

The prolific use of the mythical Chilong and Kylin as handles or shoulder decoration are a frequently occurring feature with the odd appearance of elephant or more rarely pelican or antelope masks.

A pair of 'Chinese' shape Canton porcelain vases with elephant mask handles.

A pair of 'Chinese' shape Canton porcelain vases with elephant mask handles.

One can only assume that Cantonese was seen as 'off the shelf' Chinese porcelain for foreigners, as whilst some celadon ground wares with rather sparse decoration were produced, there is little deviation from the typical palette and schemes and certainly very little influence, if any, from the West, apart from a small volume of armorial wares.

An exception to the rule a Canton warming plate made after a European prototype.

An exception to the rule a Canton warming plate made after a European prototype.

My guess is that the export market had largely declined from its heyday in the mid-18th century because flourishing European porcelain production made it decidedly uncommercial, so 'production line' decorating of blanks bought from Jingdezhen was the only way of finding a commercial niche in a declining competitive market.

A detail of a Cantonese vase showing some of the typical florid elements.

A detail of a Cantonese vase showing some of the typical florid elements.

Also, in retrospect I can see that these were often in 'Chinese' shapes or forms as they were originally intended for domestic consumption, which would provide some appeal almost in spite of the decoration. The only conundrum that remains is whilst European manufacturers were adept at making porcelain in the Chinese idiom they either couldn't or chose not to mimic Cantonese wares.

Tags

  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Porcelain Auctions
  • Canton Porcelain

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About the Author

Nic SainteyNic Saintey
Ceramics and Glass

Nic Saintey has been a director of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood since 2003 and heads up the Ceramics and Glass Department. He is part of the team specialising in Chinese ceramics and works of art.

Nic's first career was in the Armed Forces where he served both as a military parachutist and paramedic. He joined a firm of Somerset auctioneers in early 1995 and Bearnes during a period of expansion in June 2000.

His effervescent nature, sense of humour, broad knowledge and experience has seen him appear as an expert for BBC television programmes. He undertakes regular talks to both academic and general interest groups talking on subjects as diverse as Staffordshire pottery and pop culture, Chinese porcelain and the troubled relationship between Britain and the Orient, the English drinking glass and the Donyatt potters.

He is an occasional contributor of articles for national and local publications and is equally fascinated by the stories attached to pots as he is about the objects themselves.

His personal interests include Oriental and domestic pottery, but especially that produced in the West Country.

Accompanied by his Lurcher Stickey, he is a keen Moorland walker (but only in the winter), an increasingly slow runner and a chaotic cook who always eats his own mistakes and, yes of course, he collects pottery!