'Blanc de Chine, a Continuous Conversation', a display of contemporary and historic white porcelains made in Dehua, is open in our Ceramics (Room 146) and China (Room 44) galleries until 10 May 2020.
'Blanc de Chine', or 'white from China', is the name given to white porcelains made in Dehua, a town in Fujian province along China's southeast coast. Historically, Dehua potters created a wide range of white wares and other ceramic products of varying quality. In the 18th century, the popularity of blanc de Chine inspired European potters to develop their own hard-paste white porcelain (made from compound minerals and fired at very high temperatures), copying prototypes imported from China. Today, Dehua still thrives as a porcelain town, boasting industrial success as well as artistic creativity.
Archaeological evidence shows that Dehua was producing ceramics as early as the 10th century. In the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279), Dehua qingbai wares (porcelain with a bluish white glaze) started to enter overseas markets. The first Chinese porcelain to reach Europe – a small jar with a floral design in applied relief and covered in bluish white glaze, now in the St Mark's Basilica in Venice – was made in Dehua and is believed to have been brought back by Marco Polo in 1295. Since the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), the principle products at the Dehua kilns have been white wares, blue-and-white wares and some enamelled wares.
The significance of white wares lies in the nature of the raw materials used at Dehua kilns. Porcelain clay mined from the nearby mountains is pure, soft and easy to mould. While the softness of the clay is not suitable for making larger objects, potters were able to use mass-production techniques to make large numbers of small items quickly – eating and drinking wares, religious vessels, decorative items and scholars' tools such as brush pots and water droppers, for example.
As porcelain recipes improved during the Ming dynasty, Dehua white porcelains became exceptionally pure, sleek and refined. Potters adopted designs and decorating techniques from other kiln sites and craft workshops, creating some of their iconic designs such as the 'libation cup', a type of vessel whose form is derived from carved rhinoceros horn.
Religious figurines are another important category in Dehua products. Featuring elegant representations and intricate details, these divine images are considered the pinnacle of Dehua craftsmanship. The potters make piece-moulds (which can be easily removed in pieces) from a prototype, then manually press the clay into these piece-moulds to form the main body of the figurine. Details and embellishments are modelled or moulded separately and applied to the body afterwards.
The most popular deity portrayed in Dehua is the Chinese goddess guanyin (Bodhisattva). The patron god of mother and child and goddess of compassion, guanyin is widely worshipped in Chinese households even today.
The milky colour and lustrous surfaces of blanc de Chine fascinated collectors both in China and abroad. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Dehua white wares arrived in Europe through maritime trade. Augustus the Strong of Dresden, a known enthusiast of East Asian ceramics, had over 1,000 pieces in his collection. Under his command, an alchemist named Johann Fredrich Bottger successfully made the first European white porcelain in the early 18th century. Since then, European manufacturers such as Meissen, St Cloud and Chelsea have made their own imitations of Dehua white porcelain and reinvented some of its iconic forms and patterns. Some, such as this Meissen beaker and saucer decorated with prunus blossom (the most popular motif in blanc de Chine), are so well made that they can't be easily distinguished from Chinese products.
Today Dehua has one of the largest porcelain industries in China, (contributing the equivalent of about £39 million to the local GDP in 2018). Many international brands commission products from Dehua manufacturers, where both modern mechanical methods and traditional hand-crafting techniques are used.
As well as being an important site for industrial production, Dehua attracts artists and designers, many inspired by blanc de Chine and its rich cultural traditions. Some, like Su Xianzhong, a fourth-generation ceramist from a prominent clan of Dehua potters, are part of this heritage. His great-grandfather Su Xuejin (1869 – 1919) was a renowned potter active in the late 19th and early 20th century. Su Xianzhong was recently able to identify a piece in our collection, a figure of luohan, (below left) as the work of his own great grandfather. Inheriting the family tradition, Su Xianzhong makes both traditional religious figurines as well as avant-garde sculptures, (below right) experimenting with the raw material – porcelain clay.
Working with local craftspeople, artists and designers are now rediscovering and reinterpreting some of the characteristic elements of blanc de Chine. British Chinese artist and designer Peter Ting is a pioneer in this area. His designs draw inspiration from traditional and popular forms of blanc de Chine, such as gestures of guanyin figurines and porcelain flowers, creating objects that explore the boundary between the functional and the non-functional, design and art.
Blanc de Chine, a Continuous Conversation, a display of contemporary and historic white porcelains made in Dehua, is open in our Ceramics (Room 146) and China (Room 44) galleries until 10 May 2020.