Why is blue and white so popular?
Blue & white has been popular for hundreds of years, with its fresh appeal never being out of fashion. It’s interesting, but when we speak of blue and white, we nearly always think of blue and white “china” i.e., pottery and porcelain. The evolution of this ever popular, blue and white, is a fascinating story….
The Chinese first discovered porcelain during the Tang dynasty, 618 AD – 906 AD. By the mid 14th century, during the Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen had Imperial patronage and was the most important centre for the production of porcelain in the world. It was, in fact, the only place that could produce “true” or, hard paste porcelain.
The “secret” of blue and white is cobalt, a natural mineral ore, then confined to Persia, today’s modern Iran. Persia, or rather, Kashan, located near Tehran, held a monopoly on the valuable cobalt, mined in the low hills surrounding Kashan.
The Persians used cobalt for the decoration of white, tin glazed earthenware and, in fact, Kashan was an important centre for the manufacture and distribution of ceramics throughout the Middle East. Here, we are speaking of a 9th and 10th century world, totally unrecognizable to us today with our instant everything and with every part of the world, just hours away! At this time trade between countries was slow, dangerous and arduous, a trading caravan, typically taking a year for the round trip.
Trading caravans from Persia first introduced the Chinese to Persian cobalt; soon to be know in China as “Persian Blue”, the cobalt ore ground to a fine dark blue to black powder. Chinese potters were excited and thrilled with this new product and trading began in earnest with bolts of pure silk exchanged for small packets of Persian Blue.
This trade between China and Persia undoubtedly propelled the Chinese decoration of ceramics into a new direction, with the first truly blue and white porcelain made around 1290 AD.
It was at this period that ceramic decorators were experimenting, especially with the firing techniques, as the cobalt could be unstable with the effect of over or under firing which is one of the reasons that this very early class of Chinese blue and white painting is sketchy with the blue being washy and rather pale.
The term “hard paste” porcelain really refers to the “hard fire” or, high temperature, requiring kilns capable of raising temperatures up to 1250° C / 2300° F in order for the porcelain to vitrify with the hard, white, translucent result we call porcelain.
Whilst porcelain was in its infancy in China, tin glazed earthenware was being produced throughout the Middle East. This was glazed, (a glassy coat over the surface of a ceramic body), with a lead / tin oxide mix which gave an opaque white ground, perfect as a canvas for decorating with cobalt blue. The wares were painted in typically Islamic style with geometric patterns, stylized palms, Arabic script and flowers. Syria was famous for its beautiful blue and white tiles and Turkey for its stunning blue and white Iznik pottery.
Turkish blue and white is known as “Frit ware” and is believed to have been discovered at Kashan, in Persia. Frit ware was a type of artificial, or “soft paste” porcelain, soft paste referring to a “soft fire” or cooler temperature. Iznik blue and white is freely painted in tones of blue with naturalistic subjects of fruiting vines, birds and animals.
Both the Turks and Persians greatly admired the blue and white porcelain imported from China and many of today’s surviving examples of Frit ware are decorated in Chinese style.
By the early 17th century, blue and white Chinese porcelain was “discovered” by European traders and it was the adventurous, seafaring Portuguese trading fleet that shipped the first cargo of blue and white to Amsterdam. The first recorded shipments were in 1602 and 1604. The Portuguese merchants were shocked to find that their cargo was sold out before they knew it and realized they could sell as much porcelain as they could ship!
This early 17th century market demand was so high that it completely rearranged the production and decoration of European pottery. We should remember that at this time porcelain was not being made outside of China and Europe went “porcelain crazy”, fascinated with this exciting new product from this exotic place that hardly anyone knew anything about.
The standard European domestic ware of the time was earthenware, in its variety of forms. Tin glazed earthen ware was known as Delft, from Holland, the same in France, but known as Faience and called Maiolica in Italy. In England, tin glazed ware was also known as Delft, i.e., London Delft, Bristol Delft etc and the finest of all, Irish Delft. These European pottery works were made up of many, very small, potteries usually involving a family, or with one or two employed potters.
With the “secret” of porcelain being discovered in Saxony in 1703, by the middle of the 18th century, many small to large European factories were producing porcelain and by the close of this century, a level of mass production had been achieved.
In England, porcelain making began at Worcester and in London’s Chelsea from about 1748 with most of the following manufacturers producing blue and white decorated in Chinese style. This was based on the fact that the market was, by now, so conditioned to the imported Chinese blue and white that workshops soon started to feel the pressure from the imported Chinese porcelain. This stimulated the potters to decorate their wares in the popular Chinese styles given that manufacturers simply had to produce what the buying public recognized. Today we can admire these sometimes, very sophisticated “Chinoiserie” decorations.
In 1792 -1796 government import duties were increased to reduce the volume of imported wares and this gave great stimulation to the local market. This boost to the ceramic industry resulted in the development of new techniques to increase production.
The English pottery industry was now centered in Staffordshire where hundreds of factories operated. It is also at this point, toward the end of the 18th century, that we see the introduction of transfer printing in under-glaze blue on earthen ware pottery and the newly introduced stoneware.
The technique of transfer printing involved an image lifted from an ink loaded, engraved, copper plate, the image being “transferred” onto a tissue. The ink wet tissue was then placed on to the white pottery surface and the image transferred.
The tissue was then carefully lifted away or alternatively, the pottery piece was fired and the tissue burned away in the kiln.
Josiah Spode is given the credit of inventing underglaze transfer printing, with his earliest trials going back to 1784. His first trials involved printing over the glaze, but the prints began to wear away. Eventually, Spode refined his technique by transferring the print onto the unglazed surface, firing, to fix the image, glazing and refiring! The results were dazzling and the way was then open to one of the most successful episodes in ceramic’s history.
Most of the late 18th and early 19th century prints retained their earlier Chinoiserie characteristics, with Chinese river views, pagodas and Chinese landscapes. This transitional period produced a combination of very fine prints. Not only were these in a purely Chinese manner, but also developed into a “Chinglish” style, resulting in some amusing combinations e.g. an English couple strolling through a Chinese landscape. By about 1835, however, prints were predominantly English / European, with British views, country houses, farm scenes, birds and flowers.
By the 1840’s blue and white printed earthenware was a well established process and the demand for printed wares had the manufacturers working to keep pace. Vast new export markets opened to the industry in America, continental Europe and India.
As the 19th century progressed, the story of blue and white begins to change direction. As with all forms of artistic expression, whether ceramics, art or music, the further removed from the original, the greater the changes become.
Mass production and the drive for export markets certainly reduced the quality, with production geared for fast output and less attention paid to artistic merit. As we move through the second half of the 19th century, we see the overall decline in the quality of blue and white transfer printed ware.
One type of blue and white in particular caught the attention of the American market. “Flow Blue” was introduced around 1840 and the American market fell in love with its dark, rather hazy prints, associated with this product.
One interesting story tells of how this, dark, rather inky blue came about. It is said to have been as the result of an accident when a chemical thinning solution was accidentally spilt over wares ready for firing. After firing, staff were shocked to see the result, eventually, to be known as flow blue. By the late 19th century, flow blue was on the table of nearly every American family and today, remains a great favorite of US collectors.
The beautiful printed blue and white earthenware produced throughout the 19th century, is today a subject which delights collectors all over the world. From purely functional table ware, blue and white is found today in places that the late 18th and 19th century potters and transfer printers would never have dreamed of.
Not only is blue and white widely collected, but it now serves as a focal point in many interior design schemes and if you ever have the opportunity to see a blue and white room, you will know why! Pieces thoughtfully placed and arranged on furniture, ideally of the period, can be a sight to behold.
The display of blue and white is traditionally regarded as best seen against a yellow background. Yellow not only compliments both the blue prints, but also the white of the earthenware or porcelain. These combine to produce a beautiful display. When a blue and white antique lamp is added, the look is really dazzling!
There is one more benefit offered by blue and white. Behavioral psychologists have studied the effects of how we perceive color and how it can effect our moods and attitudes. On the subject of blue and white, conclusions are that we see this color combination as a perfect balance which is recognized as calming, relaxing and serene and is recommended for any place in which you want to be relaxed. What more can be said?
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Maurice Robertson – About the Author:
Maurice Robertson, principal of The Antique and Vintage Table Lamp Co, has had a lifetime’s association with antique porcelain and pottery, with his commercial experience spanning a period of over 45 years,including valuer to the Australian Government’s Incentive to the Arts Scheme. His long experience with antique ceramics and glass also includes dealing with leading museums and numerous international private collections. He has extended his ceramics expertise into the quality table lamps seen on the company’s site and is well known to local and international interior designers who have included many of his table lamps in their projects. He has also supplied items of national interest to the official Sydney residence of the Australian Prime Minister.