This article discusses the history of porcelain known as Oriental Lowestoft, detailing its notable characteristics, available colors and designs, and the differentiation between periods. It originally appeared in the August 1938 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Through sheer longevity and persistence, the term Oriental Lowestoft has become the designation for all Chinese porcelain made expressly for export. It covers a broad field and extends over two centuries and a half of time.
Not only do the ramifications included under this all-embracing name seem endless but some of the pieces bear little outward resemblance to the type of porcelain commonly recognized as Oriental Lowestoft. Yet, after one has allowed for the inevitable exceptions to the rule, it is possible in a general way to determine the approximate age of the various examples of this porcelain. Within reasonable limits, two factors tell the story, quality of material and decoration.
The latter naturally falls into several main divisions, each bearing a definite relation to a certain period of production. However, let no one hope for a neat pigeonholing of designs. They may vary between widely separated extremes in a particular division; the same general design may be found in more than one division.
It is the manner in which the decoration is executed, the amount of it applied, the colors and technique employed, that must be observed. Nor can an exact date be assigned for the beginning or end of one of these periods because there was a great deal of overlapping. So, although decoration gives the first indication of the age of a given piece, quality of material must also be studied before any approximate date can be set.
Here “the later, the poorer” is a good slogan to remember, since it is well known that there was a gradual but steady deterioration of the ware. The foreign traders in Canton were responsible for this. In the race to undersell their competitors at home they exercised a never-ceasing pressure on the Chinese hong merchants for a cheaper and still cheaper article of the same general appearance.
The first porcelains carried to Europe by the foreign merchants had, of course, been produced originally for domestic consumption. Decorated in the native manner with dragons, Chinese figures, flowing floral scrolls and similar designs, they were true Chinese ceramics of the Kang Hsi period and the few surviving examples can hardly be considered Oriental Lowestoft. We do not know in just what year the celestial craftsmen produced their first porcelain for export but specimens exist which were undoubtedly made in the decade between 1690 and 1700. Probably the first armorial plates were made about the turn of the 18th Century.
These rare early pieces may be considered as belonging to the first period of Oriental Lowestoft, since almost without exception they are in underglaze blue and white. The porcelain is of excellent grade, clear, white, thin, and quite homogeneous when held against a strong light. The color being underglaze is evidence that it was applied at the potteries at Ching-te-Chen and, as in the case of all Chinese porcelains of the period, the decoration is elaborate. Plates invariably have designs on the underside of the rim and, in general, the pieces compare favorably with those made for use in China.
Perhaps plates with flat rims were first made for the foreign trade. If so, their production began at a very early date. With this exception, making of other pieces in shapes then fashionable in Europe apparently did not begin before commercialization appeared about 1715. After that, copying of western models was a pushed actively, so that by 1730 almost all European contemporary styles were readily obtainable in Canton.
The next distinctive period begins soon after the turn of the 18th Century and continues until about 1730. It consists of a group of heavily decorated pieces on which the overglaze enamels of the famille verte series predominate.
Many specimens have large heraldic devices or monograms closely surrounded by designs characteristic of the Kang Hsi and Yung Cheng periods. The painting is always beautifully executed and the porcelain of high quality. In this group may also be found many pieces of fine egg-shell porcelain decorated with figures evidently intended to represent Europeans but Chinese in effect.
However, few examples of these first two decorative groups could have reached the American Colonies. It seems safe to assume that the first Lowestoft brought here from England arrived after the famille verte enamels had been superseded by those of the famille rose type, a transition which began during the reign of Yung Cheng (1721-1725). The earliest examples in the famille rose colors exhibit the same profusion of decoration as is found on pieces of the preceding group. The design covers most of the embellished surface, and frequently all of it; European motifs are surrounded with typical patterns of the Yung Cheng and early Chien Lung periods. Many pieces have elaborate floral scrolls or heavy diaper borders, beautifully and carefully painted, often picked out with gold.
But commercialization was having its effect; the porcelain not quite so good as that used before. This lowering of quality is plainly evident in Lowestoft dating about 1750, or the year it began to reach the American Colonies. From then on, decadence of ware in comparison with that made for the better Chinese trade is evident. Most noticeable is the characteristic bluish tint by which Lowestoft is commonly recognized. This was undoubtedly due to the employment of inferior materials. By transmitted light the porcelain has a cloudy yellowish cast, quite different from the clear white of an earlier period, and exhibits bright spots, often called “moons,” due to imperfect mixing of clays. Occasionally, pieces are found which were evidently warped or otherwise injured in the firing, and pits and pinholes in the glaze are common.
By this time the ware was being sent in the white state from Ching-te-Chen to Canton where the designs intended for the foreign market were applied in overglaze enamels and the pieces then refired at comparatively low heat in order not to harm the original glaze. Here again the cheapening process is apparent in a sparser use of decoration. The designs are smaller, less elaborately detailed, and cover a decreased proportion of the surface. Generally, the work is well done. The coloring is superb, lovely pinks and purples, a celestial blue, clear light yellows and greens. Borders and diapering are meticulously drawn and gold is used in the majority of cases to enhance the effect of the design. Pieces decorated in the Chinese taste, with and without borders, are still seen, and in the portrayal of European subjects, the subsidiary designs remain essentially Chinese. Probably there was no great amount of Lowestoft in America before the Revolution. Since the British East India Company did not allow it to be brought directly from China, it had to be purchased in England. The little so bought was owned exclusively by families of exceptional prominence and by wealthy sea captains who bought it in England. Such possession was regarded as a sure sign of social importance, a point of view which persisted and was one of the reasons for its great popularity later on when American ships were free to trade at Canton.
During the Revolution and for a year or two thereafter, there was naturally a halt in its importation. It seems well established that the style of decoration which everyone regards as typical of Lowestoft, and which is best exemplified by the familiar blue and gold, was first introduced about 1786, the year “The Empress of China” made her first voyage from New York to Canton. From this time appear the pieces having narrow borders with small central devices in the form of medallions, little sprays of flowers, shields with monograms, and a hundred and one variations so dear to Americans.
Blue and gold is the predominating color scheme and is undoubtedly the most popular among collectors; but pinks, rusty reds, sepias, and various other colors with and without the enrichment of gold are reasonably common. Even a remarkable orange enamel was sometimes employed. But ordinary Lowestoft is too well known to need any particular description; it is mainly where the color scheme is basically pink that there is apt to be any confusion between pre-Revolutionary pieces and those of the later period. However, on the later product the size of design has been still further reduced, generally to tiny sprays of flowers with very narrow borders and a minimum of detail. The painting is poor in comparison. Where diapering exists the work is decidedly uneven and rarely picked out in gold. Nor is the color so good as in the earlier period; the pinks and purples especially have lost their purity and the blue has an entirely different hue.
To this group belong the pieces with rough and uneven glaze, often described as curdled or orange peel. Undoubtedly this well-known characteristic was caused by too heavy a coat of the glaze. It is oftener found on large pieces, such as platters, but sometimes occurs on smaller articles as well. Such pieces seem to date between 1800 and 1820. Pierced ware was made during these years also, but much of it appeared still later.
It will be evident that a great deal of the differentiation between the various periods,
whether in materials or workmanship, is due to the deterioration resulting from the commercial exploitation of the ware. However, up to a comparatively late date porcelain of a very high order of excellence continued to be made in China and could always be obtained when the trader was willing to pay the price.
Occasionally, in later years, customers appeared who were not concerned with price and, on special order, pieces of really surpassing fineness were obtained for them. If their history were not known, these would be considered as belonging to a much earlier date. But such examples are almost invariably confined to important pieces, so that as far as the Lowestoft ordinarily encountered is concerned, exceptions to the general rule from this cause may be disregarded. But artists varied in skill; there was a certain amount of overlapping between periods, especially after 1800. Hence, in spite of all indications, there is always a possibility of error in fixing the age of any particular article.
The next distinctive group of Lowestoft had its beginnings perhaps as early as 1800, although it did not appear in any quantity until a few years later. For a long time it ran concurrently with the preceding period. In it the decoration once again spreads generally over the entire surface, but it is done with a new technique. Coarse executed designs in blue portraying bold scenes, take the place of the former fine brush work. It was style favorable to the employment of cheap painters and undoubtedly before long much of the work was being done by children. From it the wares which became known as Nanking, Willow Pattern and Canton, with their variants, although the designs themselves were often of great antiquity. Several of these pal-i-terns are still made at the present day.
While originally all the porcelain was made at Ching-te-Chen, much of this later china comes from other potteries. Nanking is generally considered the best and comes from the old neighborhood; Canton, probably the least desirable, is a product of the southern Chinese potteries in the vicinity of the city of Canton. When first made, all these wares were of a reasonably good quality and excellent Nanking could be obtained as late as the 1860s. But debasement was steadily practiced and in the case of Canton ware, for example, late pieces are warped, twisted, and out of shape; they are thicker and heavier, due to the use of inferior clays; the color is dingy and the decoration decidedly crude.
Such examples are quite undesirable. There is one particular type of Lowestoft known as “rice” china, produced probably as early as the middle of the 17th Century, which has continued to the present day. This is the ware in which small perforations in the shape of grains of rice are made in the surface, or small pieces of glass of the same shape are set into the clay before firing, so that when a piece is held to the light, the thinner spots appear in geometrical designs. This porcelain is usually found in blue or in blue and gold. The early examples of it found in this country date between 1800 and 1820, and are especially lovely and rare. The usual deterioration appears in later pieces and they are easily distinguished by the lack of detail in the decoration and the carelessness with which it is executed.
There was also a late type of Lowestoft which was made during the second quarter of the 19th Century for the Persian market. It can be readily distinguished by the variations in design, the purplish cast to the blue decoration, and the heaviness of the biscuit.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.