Review by Andrew Madsen
Chinese Export Porcelain in the Reeves Center Collection at Washington and Lee University

Thomas V. Litzenburg Jr. and Ann T. Bailey. Chinese Export Porcelain in the Reeves Center Collection at Washington and Lee University. London: Third Millennium Publishing, 2003. 288 pp.; numerous color illus., bibliography, index. $65.00 (hardcover).

Has any other ceramic type besides Chinese export porcelain had such a far-reaching impact on the social, cultural, commercial, and technological fabric of Western culture? The lure of exotic and mysterious Chinese products, including porcelain, underpinned commercial trade from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century via various East India Companies. The rising popularity of tea drinking and notions concerning the proper use of the tea “equipage,” including the abundance of ceramic vessels associated with the serving of tea, shaped many Western ideas of proper and genteel pursuits during the eighteenth century. Although largely dwarfed in scale by the other exports of the China trade, such as silks, tea, and spices, the peculiar allure of Chinese porcelain—the subject of centuries of interest on the part of western European and Middle Eastern governments and ceramics manufacturers—led to European pots with bodies, glazes, and decorations echoing to various degrees of success the remarkable Far Eastern originals.

Aimed at an audience of students and collectors alike, this catalog is meant to document and illustrate the Chinese export wares in the Reeves Center Collection at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Litzenburg and Bailey not only succeed in this goal, they also contribute to Chinese porcelain scholarship. The authors make no attempt to offer a comprehensive history of the China trade or description of the processes of manufacture and export; that story has been told previously in a number of excellent works.

The eloquent preface by the late David Sanctuary Howard, one of the foremost scholars of Chinese porcelain and author of the monumental Chinese Armorial Porcelain,[1] sets the stage. A brief introduction presents a chronological overview of the export trade, creating an important economic, historical, and social context for the porcelain remnants of that trade. The visual showcase of the diverse collection, which dates from the sixteenth through nineteenth century, is made possible by Ellen M. Martin’s impressive photography and provides an invaluable comparative reference. Although the catalog entries accompanying the individual object photos are limited, the text is informative, and individual vessels are cross-referenced to similar examples in other published collections.

The collection’s presentation is organized into three chronological sections: late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century, eighteenth-century, and nineteenth-century porcelain wares. Each section is profusely illustrated with superb color photographs. Section 1 on late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century porcelains presents underglaze blue-and-white wares first, followed by blanc de chine pieces and polychrome-decorated jars. The text for each ceramic details the decorative embellishment, size, provenance, and date range attributed to the piece. Aside from the temporal, stylistic, and decorative information on each vessel, what makes this publication particularly informative for the student or curator of Chinese wares is that comparative examples documented within previously published works, dated shipwrecks, and the holdings of the incomparable Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul, Turkey,[2] are referenced. Increasing the catalog’s utility is the great variety of vessel forms that are presented and discussed. In addition to typical plates and dishes, less common ceramic forms displaying the diverse array of early Chinese porcelains in the Reeves Collection include figures, baluster-shape jars, a ewer, a kendi, and ovoid jars.

The eighteenth-century porcelains in section 2, more numerous than the earlier porcelains, are presented by decorative style: underglaze blue-and-white and polychrome enamel decorated, the latter including famille verte, famille jaune, famille noir, famille rose, Chinese Imari, Mandarin, and encre de chine. After illustrating examples of these decorative styles, the authors present mostly overglaze polychrome decorated porcelains organized thematically: armorial designs; topographic and architectural views; daily life and picturesque scenes; Cornelis Pronk designs; literary and historical subjects; mythological, religious, and Masonic subjects; marine subjects; figure models; and Western forms and decoration. Important for both students learning the nuances of Chinese export wares and curators managing collections of Chinese porcelain is the stylistic breadth documented within the eighteenth-century Reeves Center Collection wares.

Highlighting section 2 is the important range of armorial holdings. Organized chronologically from the 1730s through circa 1800, the collection represents the huge breadth of artistry and beauty of armorial wares. Armorial porcelains produced for the American market are particularly significant. The initial voyage of the American vessel Empress of China in 1784 ushered in a period of direct trade between the new American nation and China. Eager to take their place among the multinational members of genteel Georgian society, Americans ordered a variety of armorial services, and many of these important American pieces are illustrated and discussed in the catalog. Porcelains with Western scenes painted in Chinese style, long favored by collectors of Chinese export wares, are another important category of eighteenth-century wares. Western scenes include the European trading offices at Canton (Guangzhou), known as “factories,” as well as vistas copied from popular engraved prints, which prominently feature Western scenes and mythological subjects.

Section 3 details the nineteenth-century porcelains and, as with the previous sections, is arranged according to decorative style: underglaze blue and white; Fitzhugh pattern; armorial and pseudo-armorial; European decorations; American decorations; Rose Medallion, and Rose Mandarin wares. The blue-and-white nineteenth-century wares document the very common and widely used early-nineteenth-century Canton and Nanking styles, as well as the Fitzhugh pattern. The diversity of nineteenth-century overglaze porcelains, including a selection of overglaze enameled porcelains produced for the American market, is very impressive. The Reeves Center Collection of porcelains produced for the American market is nothing short of a national treasure for both the American and the Chinese people. These wares are a testament to the importance of the American trade in the overall export of Chinese porcelain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The catalog concludes with a chronology of the Ming and Qing dynasties, including reign dates of the emperors, followed by a bibliography with comparative examples from other publications and collections. The contribution that this work makes to the rich variety of scholarship on Chinese wares is significant. The authors demonstrate that the Reeves Center Collection’s Chinese export porcelains constitute a spectacular reference collection of this type in the upper South. The extremely high-quality full-color plates alone represent a very important contribution. In producing a copiously illustrated, well-organized, and carefully referenced compendium of the Chinese porcelains in the Reeves Center Collection, the authors provide both the novice and the seasoned scholar with an invaluable reference and guide to these extraordinary export wares.

Andrew Madsen, University of Kentucky at Lexington

Ceramics in America 2006

  • [1]

    David S. Howard, Chinese Armorial Porcelain (London: Faber and Faber, 1974).

  • [2]

    Regina Krahl and John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul: A Complete Catalogue, 3 vols. (London: Sotheby’s, 1986).