Flashback: Identifying China By Its Paste

April 16th, 2010

This article describes how to determine whether a piece of porcelain is hard- or soft-paste, noting the differences between items produced by a wide range of potteries throughout the world. It originally appeared as a two-part series in the January and February 1942 issues of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.

Illogical though it may seem, few of the thousands of American china collectors know how to distinguish between hard- and soft-paste china. Yet the ability to make this distinction is probably of greater importance in recognizing kinds of china, especially in spotting spurious pieces, than a general knowledge of marks.

Marcolini Meissen Montieth: This piece, oval in shape and decorated with large flower groups done in naturalistic colorings, was made late in the 18th Century.

Marcolini Meissen Montieth: This piece, oval in shape and decorated with large flower groups done in naturalistic colorings, was made late in the 18th Century.

All the most sought-after English and Continental porcelains, such as Chelsea, Derby, Meissen, and Sevres, have been copied again and again, and their marks forged so skillfully that few dealers, let alone novices, can detect the difference. The expert studies the texture of the body or paste and examines the glaze. The mark serves only as a check on his findings.

It is the object of these articles to offer a ready means of detecting whether a piece is of hard- or soft-paste porcelain, and to point out the distinguishing characteristics of the pastes and glazes of some of the better-known Continental and English chinawares. Pottery or earthenware, which differs from china in that it is opaque instead of translucent, will not be discussed.

To begin with, it should be remembered that the laboratory rather than the library is the proper domain of the student of porcelain. Seeing and handling a piece of porcelain is far more instructive than reading about it. Books and monographs can only point out the salient features of various kinds of china. No real understanding of the subject can be acquired unless the student visits museums and private collections to see and feel for himself. Although few museums permit the handling of their treasures, many china dealers are collectors at heart who will not only allow the novice to finger their wares, but will share with him their whole stock of knowledge.

DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN HARD AND SOFT PASTE:

Minton Vase: With cover and handles, the background color of this piece is moss green. The reserves are of finely painted flowers. Made early in the 19th Century, the modeling is in the Louis XV manner.

Minton Vase: With cover and handles, the background color of this piece is moss green. The reserves are of finely painted flowers. Made early in the 19th Century, the modeling is in the Louis XV manner.

Hard paste is glassier in texture than soft paste. If it is fractured, the edge is hard and vitrified. One may test the hardness of the paste by filing into an inconspicuous part of the body, preferably in a spot not completely covered by the glaze. When the file has cut through the glaze, it will be found that it penetrates a soft-paste body quite readily, but makes little impression upon hard paste. The high firing temperature necessary for hard paste fuses the glass particles with other ingredients to produce a body glassy in texture.

A simpler method, but one requiring a practiced ear, is that of resting the object on the tips of the fingers and plinking an edge with a coin. The sound produced varies with the shape and thickness of the piece, but hard paste tends to utter a high-pitched, resonant ping, while soft paste usually emits a dull clunk. Hard paste china generally looks harder and less mellow than soft paste. Its glassiness often makes it appear more uniformly translucent when it is held up to the light.

POTTERIES PRODUCING HARD AND SOFT PASTES:

Generally speaking, it may be said that all English china from the 18th Century to the present day is of soft paste. The only certain exceptions are Plymouth ware and some of the productions of Bristol. On the other hand, the larger majority of Continental potteries produced hard paste. It is true that almost all Sèvres pieces made from 1750 to 1800 were of soft paste. So were the products of St. Cloud, Arras, Chantilly, Mennecy, and Sceaux in France; Tournai in Belgium; Capo di Monte, Florence, Doccia, Venice, and Treviso in Italy.

Other Continental porcelains, including almost all those made in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, and the Netherlands, were of hard paste.

SEVRES:

Dr. Wall Worcester Porcelain Plates: Scalloped shapes with decorations of flowers and exotic birds done in naturalistic coloring, the rims have cobalt-blue banding overlaid with gold. Made circa 1765.

Dr. Wall Worcester Porcelain Plates: Scalloped shapes with decorations of flowers and exotic birds done in naturalistic coloring, the rims have cobalt-blue banding overlaid with gold. Made circa 1765.

During the “Royal Period” of Sèvres china (1749-1792), when virtually every piece was of a soft white paste, a thickish, light cream-colored glaze was used. Although it presents a rich appearance, and feels slick to the touch, inconspicuous surfaces such as the undersides of plates are somewhat uneven, as though the glaze had been applied with a brush.

Another characteristic of Sèvres plates and bowls is the small hole that appears on the inside of the foot. Its purpose was to allow for expansion and contraction during the firing. Like English Chelsea, the Sèvres body shows spots, or “stars” of exceptional translucence when held up to a strong light. These are due to particles of ground glass or frit imperfectly pulverized by the hand pestles and mortars used at that time. Mechancial grinders afterwards obviated the problem.

If a piece being examined as early Sèvres shows stars and is light for its bulk; if, considering the softness of the paste, it is quite translucent, and resonant when struck with a coin, it is probably authentic. Sèvres imitations in soft paste were common both during the Royal Period and in later years. Their decoration, copied from Sèvres models, is often equal in quality to the original work, but, as a rule, the opaqueness of their paste brands them as spurious.

More difficult to spot are the white Sèvres bodies made during the Royal Period but sold afterward and decorated elsewhere in imitation of Sèvres patterns. Often the decoration was very well done. The enamel colorings fused with the added glaze and thus appeared to sink into the body. In softness and mellowness, this decoration was comparable to the original Sèvres.

Dr. Wall Worcester Crocus Pot: A fine example of scale blue from this pottery of the Dr. Wall period. It is also decorated with scenic reserves painted in naturalistic coloring. Made circa 1765-1770.

Dr. Wall Worcester Crocus Pot: A fine example of scale blue from this pottery of the Dr. Wall period. It is also decorated with scenic reserves painted in naturalistic coloring. Made circa 1765-1770.

In 1792 Sèvres abandoned the making of soft paste, so likely to warp by over-firing or be marred by the spitting of small black specks to the surface. Almost all French china after 1800 was of hard paste. It was better molded (thrown) and lighter in feeling, having a white body with a hard, slick, bluish glaze. It chipped easily, but unlike English china, rarely crazed.

Soft-paste wares made by other Continental potteries were markedly inferior to Sèvres. They were bulky and coarse in feeling, with a thick uneven glaze, mellow-looking but easily scratched. Early pieces were generally decorated with blue sprigs of flowers and lattice borders. Later designs though elaborate were weak in coloring and poorly executed.

SWISS PORCELAIN:

Two china potteries, Nyon and Zurich, were established in Switzerland during the latter half of the 18th Century. For the most part, the products of Nyon were vases and tableware, very similar in paste, glaze, and decoration to contemporary French hard paste. They are marked by an underglaze blue finish. Although the origin of the Nyon plant is obscure, it is known to have been in operation as late as 1828.

A hard-paste china was made in Zurich from 1765 to 1800. Its body was similar to that of Nyon, but the glaze was grayish and it specialized in bright-colored, well-modeled figures rather than useful pieces. Again, while Nyon pieces are fairly plentiful, Zurich is regarded as rare among collectors and accordingly has been copied by French and German imitators. An authentic piece is distinguishable less by its mark of an underglaze Z and horizontal crossbar than by its gray glaze which is less easily imitated.

ITALIAN WARES:

One of a Pair of Plymouth Figures: This is Cleopatra. The subject of the companion is Antony. About ten inches in length, with polychrome colorings, these were made circa 1773.

One of a Pair of Plymouth Figures: This is Cleopatra. The subject of the companion is Antony. About ten inches in length, with polychrome colorings, these were made circa 1773.

Italian soft-paste china of the 18th Century was generally coarser and less creamy than the French. Its glaze was dirty and roughly applied. The shining exception was Capo di Monte, which produced vases, bowls, and figures beautifully modeled and covered with a heavy soft-cream glaze. The groups of white glaze figures with amorini motifs that are generally ascribed to the Capo di Monte works are very well modeled, with fine bocages and separate baroque bases with open panels and raised masks. But their off-cream, muddy-looking glaze, thick and heavily applied, raises doubt as to their authenticity.

Of the other Italian china fabriques, that of Florence, which was established in 1580, is of interest as the first in Europe to manufacture china. Its work is exceedingly rare. The soft paste made during the early period of Doccia (1735-1821) resembled Sèvres in texture. Its later hard paste was patterned after Capo di Monte. Venice produced an inferior soft-paste body of uneven texture during the 18th Century, but later turned out hard paste. The period of Treviso soft paste extended through the first half of the 19th Century.

French and Italian hard pastes of the same periods are much alike. That made today by the Ginori works is superior to any modern French porcelain.

GERMAN CHINA:

For over two hundred years German potteries produced a fine white hard-paste porcelain with a heavy, even, and transparent glaze. The purity of both varied somewhat with the periods. Glazes in particular show changes from time to time. Some are bluish in color others have an off-white to straw-yellow tone.

An Early Meissen Piece: The design is of a woman seated beside a covered basket. The decoration is in the Chinese manner. It was made circa 1745.

An Early Meissen Piece: The design is of a woman seated beside a covered basket. The decoration is in the Chinese manner. It was made circa 1745.

Principal German works were Meissen (sometimes termed “Royal Dresden”), Royal Berlin, Hoechst, Frankenthal, Furstenburg, Ludwigsburg, and Nymphenburg. All these wares are greatly prized by collectors and fetch comparatively high prices everywhere. Even more valuable are the skillfully-wrought products of some of the smaller and more obscure 18th-Century potteries.

Most famous, of course, was the Meissen pottery, established in 1710. Throughout its history, it used a body so heavy for its bulk that it is readily distinguishable from other porcelains. Its unusual weight appears to be due principally to the quantity of material used in modeling. The bases of figures, for example, were made solid, instead of being hollowed out as were most English and Continental figurines.

From the beginning of its history Meissen produced fine, white bodies and rich, transparent glazes. Unlike its contemporaries, Chelsea, Bow, Derby, and Plymouth, early Meissen suffered little fire-cracking, flying, or spitting. Although no other porcelain has been as widely imitated as Meissen, the genuine pieces are readily identified by their weight, their clear ring when tapped, and by the body’s imperviousness to filing. Meissen paste and glaze have not deteriorated in quality from the 18th Century to the present time, but later productions are somewhat heavier and glossier.

The white glazed figures and groups of Nymphenburg, established under the patronage of the Bavarian crown, have a very rich, thick, and mellow cream-tinted glaze, the quality of which has never been excelled. Since the beginning of the present century, Nymphenburg has been frequently imitated, but the small indented shield Jon the underside generally distinguishes authentic items.

VIENNA:

Established shortly after Meissen, the Royal Vienna works produced a fine hard paste and thin even glaze. Until about 1785 its characteristics were parallel to those of its great Dresden contemporary. During its best period, from 1785 to 1830, the pottery struck out along its own paths, and from 1830 until the works closed in 1865, its paste and glaze resembled contemporary Sèvres.

Both potteries produced pieces well molded and thrown, characterized by a porousness of surface which, though smooth, was not slick to the touch. Here the similarity ceased, for while Sèvres retained its historic simplicity of design, the vogue at Vienna called for gorgeously colored and gilded borders in complicated scrolls and arabesques. Painted mythological scenes, portraits, or copies of famous pictures ornamented the centers of the plates and the panels of vases.

Late in the 19th Century the style and even the beehive mark of Vienna was copied in Dresden, but the texture of body and glaze testifies to the deception. The china is hard, cold, and not pleasing to the touch.

DUTCH CHINA:

Chelsea Figure of Justice: This piece is an example of Roubillac modeling with decoration in the style of Ranleigh. It is nineteen inches tall and was made circa 1760-1765.

Chelsea Figure of Justice: This piece is an example of Roubillac modeling with decoration in the style of Ranleigh. It is nineteen inches tall and was made circa 1760-1765.

The earthenware of Delft commands so much attention in any consideration of Dutch ceramics that little notice is taken of the porcelain made in the Netherlands. Although little was produced, it was well made and has an interesting history.

In 1765 a pottery at Weesp began to turn out tableware and some decorative pieces of hard-paste china. Within a few years, the works changed hands and was moved to Oude-Loosdrecht. Shortly afterward, another new owner removed the plant to Amstel, near Amsterdam, where it continued operations until about 1785.

The early productions of Weesp and Oude-Loosdrecht were patterned after German wares in paste, glaze, and decoration. In Amstel, the quality of the china was greatly improved. It had a creamy appearance, with a fine transparent glaze, evenly applied and pleasing to the touch. Although Amstel china is of hard paste, its texture most closely resembles that of 18th-Century Derby and Coalport, both soft-paste porcelains.

A Dutch soft-paste porcelain was supposedly manufactured at The Hague, but the weight of evidence seems to indicate that the china was actually potted at Tournai in Belgium and decorated at The Hague. Like Tournai, Hague soft-paste porcelain is only slightly translucent, with a thick, rich, and uneven glaze. Unlike the marks of most factories, the cobalt-blue stork of Hague ware was not applied to the biscuit before the glaze-firing, but was painted over the glaze. The plant flourished during the Tournai period in the 18th Century, and did not operate after 1800 as some writers suppose.

THE IMPERIAL RUSSIAN POTTERY:

Sèvres Covered Vase Dated 1782: This is one of a pair. They are of bleu-de-roi ground coloring with the bust-shaped handles richly gilded and chased. The central oval panels or reserves are painted in naturalistic colors.

Sèvres Covered Vase Dated 1782: This is one of a pair. They are of bleu-de-roi ground coloring with the bust-shaped handles richly gilded and chased. The central oval panels or reserves are painted in naturalistic colors.

Occasionally one finds an example of Russian china of the 18th and 19th Centuries was of hard paste, very similar in body and glaze to the products of the better German potteries. By far the best known was the Imperial pottery, which was established in the middle of the 18th Century and survived until the fall of the Czars in 1917.

Judging from the pieces usually seen on the market, a large part of the Imperial pottery’s output consisted of pieces made to special order for the Imperial family, frequently replacements of broken or missing pieces of Sèvres, Vienna, or Meissen services that had been presented to the court. All indicate excellent imitation of the original decoration, but the hardness of the paste and transparency of the glaze make the Meissen replicas more nearly like the original than the others.

Typical of the Imperial pottery’s original products were huge Empire style vases with a gold ground enriched with chasing, and skillfully decorated with picture friezes, reproducing famous paintings or depicting Russian battle scenes.

An Englishman named Gardner founded a pottery in Moscow toward the end of the 18th Century. His utilitarian pieces were somewhat like contemporary French hard-paste china, but slightly heavier, and the glazing was less white and clear. The decoration too was very like the French. Gardner’s figurines of Russian peasant types were artistically modeled. So well have they survived the passage of years that their appearance today belies their age. Incidentally, without intending to imitate Gardner’s work, a modern English factory is producing figures and groups similar in modeling and glaze.

ENGLISH HARD PASTE:

Of all the English china manufacturers, only Plymouth made hard-paste china exclusively. Bristol experimented with both hard and soft pastes. All other potteries appear to have confined themselves to soft-paste wares. Some authorities consider Lowestoft and New Hall to have been producers of hard paste, but the probabilities are that all hard paste emanating from Lowestoft was actually potted in China.

Large Chamberlain Worcester Covered Urn: Done in bleu-du-roi as the color of the background, it has a highly embossed design of figures, grapevines, and twig handles finished in flat burnished gold.

Large Chamberlain Worcester Covered Urn: Done in bleu-du-roi as the color of the background, it has a highly embossed design of figures, grapevines, and twig handles finished in flat burnished gold.

It will be recalled that in the 18th Century, the Dutch enjoyed a virtual monopoly of trade with China and Japan. As Lowestoft was on the coast of Norfolk opposite the Hook of Holland, it was a convenient port for the unloading of Chinese ware. Some was both potted and decorated in China; some was decorated at Lowestoft. The soft-paste ware potted, as well as decorated, in Lowestoft had little translucence and a bluish-gray glaze.

The ware of New Hall at Shelton in the Stoke district is similar in many respects to Lowestoft and is frequently mistaken for it. Therein may be the reason for hard paste’s being attributed to the New Hall works. Whether it actually fired hard-paste porcelain is a moot point, complicated by a disposition to experiment on the part of New Hall potters. During the early period, they produced a white paste and a clear creamy glaze. Between 1810 and 1820, the New Hall body was inferior in quality, the glaze grayish and subject to crazing.

Plymouth hard paste has a good ring when it is struck with a coin, and resists filing. The glaze is bluish gray and presents an uneven appearance. Many pieces, particularly modeled items, show spitting and fire cracks due to hard firing poorly controlled. Although the decoration is well done, the colors lack sheen and evenness. Despite its defects, Plymouth is keenly sought by collectors, not entirely because it is rare, but because it shows originality and character.

Bristol, operating from 1772 to 1782, manufactured hard paste almost exclusively. It produced a semi-translucent body of a good milk-white tint. Because of hard firing, the glaze seemed to fuse with the body into a very hard, vitrified mass. As a result, colored decorations were flat and dull in appearance, for the enamel firing was not high enough to fuse them with the glaze. Bristol bisque pieces in relief were of a fine texture with every detail sharply defined.

ENGLISH SOFT PASTE:

A Crown Derby Dessert Service: The decoration is in the Imari style. The panels are underglaze, done in blue, ferro-red, green, light blue, gold, and other colors. This service was made circa 1800.

A Crown Derby Dessert Service: The decoration is in the Imari style. The panels are underglaze, done in blue, ferro-red, green, light blue, gold, and other colors. This service was made circa 1800.

The Bow and Chelsea works, both established about 1745 to 1750, and the Derby pottery, founded a decade later, manufactured glazed and decorated figures and groups as well as vases and tableware. In addition, Derby turned out a large assortment of figures and groups in bisque. All three employed a similar paste, milk-white in color, rather opaque, and covered with a thick, somewhat uneven glaze. Figures and modeled pieces tended to be fairly heavy owing to the liberal use of paste by the modelers.

Chelsea glazing is often crazed more than the others, so that Bow and Derby are usually smoother and glossier in appearance than their contemporary. Both Bow and Chelsea were frequently fired badly, and as a result are likely to be warped and twisted. Both were frequently marred by large fire cracks, especially the earlier Bow figures. All three potteries used a soft, easily filed paste. This fact, together with the comparative bulkiness of the pieces, causes them to emit a dull sound when they are struck.

The Worcester works of the Dr. Wall period, beginning from 1750 to 1755, was engaged in the production of vases and useful items. It employed a soft-white paste, similar to Bow and Chelsea, but the glaze was harder and thinner, with an off-white tint. Items decorated in underglaze blue exhibit a decided bluish discoloration.

Swansea, Nantgarw, Caughley, Thomas Minton, and Coalport, all founded late in the 18th Century, produced wares very similar in the composition of paste and glaze. All made a fine white body of medium hardness and a rich, glossy glaze, easily scratched. Coalport, because of the stresses developed within the china during the firing, was wont to fly or crack of its own accord at the time or even years afterward.

One of the most celebrated china works of the latter half of the 18th Century was that of Josiah Spode. It turned out vases and useful pieces with a fine white body and a rich milky glaze, evenly applied but rather less glossy than that of contemporary English porcelains. Spode china was unusually durable and seldom crazed or flew. It is still being made in England by the Copeland family, who entered the business in 1827.

English china of the 19th Century included Coalport, Crown Derby, Minton, Chamberlain Worcester, Davenport, Ridgway, and Rockingham. All are characterized by a clear, glossy glaze, evenly applied and easily scratched. Although they are of soft paste, all are very translucent and emit a high, clear ring when they are tested with a coin.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

2 comments so far

  1. Kay Travers Says:

    We have 2 Chamberlain Worcester plates (6.5″ in diameter) includes both Chelsea birds and lotus flower from the Imari pattern. Done in full colors, circa 1825. Back has stamp of “Chamberlains’ Worcester. Manufactured to Her Majesty. W. J. Kerr Philadelphia.”

  2. Sandra Vosper Says:

    I have an Italian table lamp, it’s 12″ high. The stamp on the bottom is a triangle with 1.AST. Treviso and the number 501 outside the triangle. It isthe figures of harlequin and columbine dancing. It maybe soft paste but to be honest I don’t really know. Would just like to know a little bit about it, I was led to believe my father brought it back after the war. Many thanks if you could tell me a bit about this.


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