The Enduring Charm of Blue and White Porcelain

Blue and White Porcelain Bowl (circa 1600 - 1624)

The charm of blue and white porcelain never ceases to captivate us. It remains one of the most coveted styles of ceramic art not only for the collectors, but also for generations of ceramic artists.

You are not the only one to adore these beautiful pieces of ceramic art. If you dig into history you will find some curious tales of peoples’ fascination with blue and white tableware, vases, figurines and more.

For a brief while, let us journey back in time.

It is 1760 and Maria Theresa is the reigning empress of the Habsburg dynasty. The only woman ruler of the powerful Habsburg dynasty is busy working at her office in Schönbrunn Palace. The walls of the room are entirely covered with blue ink paintings resembling the blue and white Chinese porcelain. The room is popularly known as the Porzellanzimmer or Porcelain Room and justly so.

That’s not all. Walk slightly away from this room. Step inside the oval room that among many other things have a couple of Chinese lacquered console table. Once again survey the walls of the room. See how it is decorated with floral stucco motifs the branches of which hold a great collection of blue and white vases. These are the most prized collection of the Empress. These are real porcelainware from a faraway landscape.

We can trace back the origin of blue and white pottery to China, where during the reign of Tang dynasty, blue and white porcelain started gaining attention. This happened at some point in time in the 9th century CE.

Chinese Blue and White Porcelain Vase (circa 1740 - 1760)
Chinese Vase (circa 1740 – 1760)

However, evidence suggests that the actual origin of blue and white pottery predates this period. It is generally believed that the potters of Basra, in the present day Iraq, used to decorate the stoneware with blue and white motifs. This was a legacy of a much older Mesopotamian civilisation.

Blue and White Porcelain of Jingdezhen

Blue and white porcelain reached perfection in the hands of the Ming era (1368 – 1644 CE) ceramic artists. Kilns of Jingdezhen, a major city in Jiangxi province in China, became the trustworthy producers of blue and white porcelain.

Jingdezhen retains the title of the porcelain capital of the world even today. The city is blessed with the natural sources of high-quality kaolin, the raw material needed for fine pottery. Modern ceramic artists of the city follow the paths of the revered masters of the bygone era and produce exquisite pieces of Chinese porcelain.

Even today, each piece of porcelain undergoes 72 elaborate steps. This explains the quality and intricacy of the porcelain produced in the kilns of Jingdezhen.

The Early Days of Chinese Blue and White Porcelain

Chinese Kilns imported cobalt pigments (Cobalt Oxide) from Persia to achieve the required intensity of the blue the colour. The motifs were influenced by the designs of the Persian vessels to some extent. Traders of Persia or modern day Iran helped in the import of cobalt in China and the export of Chinese porcelain to the other parts of the world.

Chinese Blue and White Porcelain Dish (circa 1700 - 1724)
Chinese Porcelain (circa 1700 – 1724)

Merchants living in and around Guangzhou became engaged in this work. But soon the cost of importing cobalt started affecting the local business. The kilns were forced to search for the sources of cobalt locally. This was found eventually. However, the troubles with the production of Chinese blue and white porcelain did not end there.

The early Ming emperors were not too fond of the blue and white pottery. So the production of such tableware and vases were discouraged for the time being. With Zhu Zhanji’s ascension to the throne in 1425 CE this changed.

Zhu Zhanji, also known as the Xuande Emperor, was very fond of the blue and white porcelain. His interests brought the blue and white beauties back under the spotlight.

Production of Blue and White Porcelain Starts in Japan

The production and export of Chinese porcelain came to an abrupt halt in the mid-17th century. Rebellions and wars between the dynasts were the main reason behind the sudden closure of the ports and ceasing of the trade activities.

By this time the popularity of blue and white porcelain had grown manifold and spread beyond the borders. The demand from Europe had to be met. Under the circumstances, the Chinese and Korean ceramic artists stationed in Japan, and already perfecting the art of ceramics there, started supplying the blue and white porcelain to the European traders.

Japanese Blue and White Vase, 19th Century
19th Century Japanese Blue & White Vase

The kilns in and around Arita became the new home of blue and white porcelain. They remained in the forefront of the porcelain export till mid-18th century. The enamelled motifs hand drawn on the pottery became richer and even more delicate. Those produced during the Edo period (1603 – 1868 CE) were especially rich in their designs.

Blue and White Porcelain in Europe

For years ceramic designers of Europe were busy decoding the secrets of high-quality blue and white porcelain. The artists of Delft seized the opportunity of producing porcelain during the period when the export of Chinese porcelain had nearly ceased.

Between 1640 and 1740 CE, the ceramic designers of the Netherlands, or more particularly Delft, produced an enormous amount of tableware, jewellery, figurines and tiles. Many of the pottery makers tried to closely match the style and motifs of the Chinese and Japanese ceramics.

The pottery produced this way was sold as a cheaper alternative to Chinese and Japanese porcelain. Eventually, Delftware did make a name for itself. The quality improved and the connoisseurs started appreciating Delftware for its own beauty.

Delftware Plaque with Chinese Scene (1680)
Delftware Plaque with Chinese Scene (1680)

Delftware inspired the British ceramic designers to come up with their own version of blue and white pottery.

The Birth of Meissen China

The credit for unravelling the secret of porcelain manufacture in Europe goes to Johann Friedrich Böttger. In 1708, he directed the production of the first white and hard paste porcelain which was truly in line with the Chinese porcelain.

Two years later, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory was inaugurated at Albrechtsburg Castle in Meißen, less than 30 km away from Dresden. The German porcelain manufacturer has produced over 3000 separate designs for Meissen c
+3hina in more than 300 years.

Schloss Linderhof, one of King Ludwig II’s most famous palaces, was embellished with some of the most intricate works of Meissen porcelain. King’s dining table was decorated with a large porcelain vase full of porcelain flowers and foliage. His bedroom had two console tables made of Meissen china. The largest porcelain chandelier in the world, also designed by Meissen, decorated his room.

Meissen Porcelain Teapot (circa 1750 - 1760)
Meissen Porcelain (circa 1750 – 1760)

Despite all its glory, Meissen is most famous today for its Blue Onion porcelain tableware (Zwiebelmuster).

Blue and White Pottery in the Rest of the World

The use of Chinese blue and white pottery became common in other parts of the world as well. Royal patronage helped Korean artists fine tune their craft. Though the reign of Joseon dynasty (1392 – 1897 CE) is marked by the flourish of white porcelain in Korea, a small amount of blue and white pottery was also produced during the period.

The traders of the region introduced Chinese porcelain in Vietnam in the 15th century. Local potters started learning the tricks of the trade soon.

By this time, Persian pottery was already at a highly evolved stage. The ceramic artists of the region popularised arabesques in blue and white pottery. Their motifs also influenced the Chinese pottery designers.

The artists of Iznik and Kütahya came up with their versions of very ornate blue and white pottery in the late 15th century. Apart from the characteristic cobalt, the artists of the region introduced turquoise in the clay mixture.

Ceramic Dish from Iznik, Turkey (circa 1550 - 1555)
Ceramic Dish, Iznik (circa 1550 – 1555)

The style started becoming widely popular across the other porcelain centres of the Ottoman Empire including Istanbul, Adana and Bursa. Ottoman emperors were also among the most enthusiastic collectors of porcelain art.

In his book Fourteenth Century Blue and White, John Alexander Pope suggested that more than 10,000 pieces of blue and white porcelain were collected by the Ottoman emperors between 16th and 18th century. Many of these pieces can now be seen in Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.

Look closely at the ragmala painting (1796) below. You will find the woman in front drawing water from a couple of blue and white Meiping vases. This aptly showcases the popularity of blue and white porcelain in India.

Indian Ragmala Painting with Blue and White Vases (1796)
Ragmala Painting with Blue & White Vases (1796)

Why is Blue and White Porcelain So Popular?

China was instrumental in producing a wide variety of porcelain, both in terms of design and colour. The word ‘China’ became synonymous with high-quality porcelain. The appeal of blue and white porcelain remained consistently high over a period of time. It became an icon of delicate craftsmanship and remains so until this date.

Importing valuable pieces of porcelain was difficult and only a few could afford it at the time. This made blue and white porcelain associated with pride and prestige. Eventually, when the European manufacturers started producing porcelain, they too tried to meet the high standards set by their Chinese counterparts.

They had a plentiful supply of blue and white porcelain to take inspirations from. So they played their part in making the blue and white versions widely popular across Europe. The charm of this combination – cool blue and neutral white – is not lost on today’s ceramic connoisseurs.

Japanese Charger Plate (circa 1830 - 1843)
Charger Plate with Japanese Map (circa 1830 – 1843)

How to Decorate Your Dinner Table with Blue and White Tableware?

Treating your friends and family members with a selection of blue and white tableware would speak highly of your sophisticated sense of style. But you should be very careful about your table décor.

  • Blue and white tableware are decorated with very detailed motifs. Complement them with a tablecloth in solid colours. Colours like cobalt blue or white work fine for this purpose.
  • If you have a natural wood table with intricate designs or a glass top table, avoid spreading a tablecloth completely.
  • Don’t forget to decorate the centre of the table with fresh flowers in a beautiful blue and white vase.
  • You may also decorate the centre of the table with a blue and white tea caddy, chic centrepieces or porcelain figurines.
  • Combine white or solid blue pottery with your blue and white tableware. Such kind of mix and match always helps to introduce an element of positive surprise.

Serve with a smile and cherish the whole experience.

Image Courtesy:

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Walters Art Museum