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Picturesque China

Martha Stewart Living, April 2006

At its most imaginative, antique chinaware provides a window into far-off lands, ways of life that have faded out of fashion, and places that existed only in the potter's mind. A teapot offers a glimpse of a fanciful garden, a platter decorated with elephants and temples celebrates a lost empire, and a pitcher captures a hero's return from battle. While just about everything conceivable has been depicted on pottery at one time or another, representations of foreign life are among the most engaging subjects.

Ever since China began to export porcelain throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, bearing what must have looked like postcards from another planet, dishes have been adorned with image-rich scenery. For the collector, this abundant selection of evocative pottery provides a vast opportunity to create private landscapes on a wall, along a tabletop, or in a cabinet. Start by choosing a theme that moves you. As you build your collection, weave in pieces from various time periods and places; it will be intriguing to see how the theme has been interpreted differently. Stay within a color palette, though, as with the vignettes on these pages. That way, the china will look well suited to its chosen setting even as it conjures some part of the great world beyond.

Scenic chinaware brings a taste of the exotic into any home. In the above collection, the theme is Chinese gardens, in all their elegance, leisure, and, at times, outlandishness. Some of the items are Chinese export, including the hand-painted sugar bowl and the vase. The rest are fanciful reimaginings of Eastern arcadia by British potters; the brown-and-yellow pitcher and square plate, for example, were made in Portobello, now part of Edinburgh, Scotland. Set against wallpaper with a similar theme, the varied shapes of the teapot, cups, vases, bowls, plates, and pitchers seem to be pavilions in a dream garden.

Classical Collections
The ancient Greeks and Romans have been -- and remain -- perennial sources of inspiration for pottery. An antique console features a few examples from English and French manufacturers. The plates, many depicting classical scenes, are all fine examples of transferware. This technique involves the transfer of inked papers onto partially-fired pieces, which are then fired again and glazed. Invented in England in 1756, the process greatly popularized chinaware (and hence the images thereon) by allowing people of modest means to set richly decorated tables. The cup pictured is an example of jasperware, a type of stone pottery with a matte finish that was developed by Wedgwood in 1774. It has the hallmark cameo figures on a colored background. This type of pottery was inspired by the Portland Vase, a Roman artifact that dates to the first century B.C.

Lively Subjects
The presence of people, plants, and animals unifies the china on display in this sunny corner. Some pieces are from eighteenth-century China, including the two plates flanking the platter. The rest are European interpretations -- and it shows. For instance, the large platter hanging on the wall is clearly a Western fantasy of a Chinese garden, with its too-lush tropical border and anomalous architecture. Many of the pieces have been hand-painted in blue and white hues. These were the colors of the first Chinese pottery to reach Europe.

In the seventeenth century, artisans in the Dutch town of Delft started to imitate the look, giving rise to an entire category of chinaware. Two series of square Delft tiles, with their quick, economical brush strokes, have been framed in groups for a filmstrip effect that brings to mind the flat landscape of the Netherlands.

Architectural Delights
Rose-colored nostalgia, inspired by an array of buildings, sets the tone for this china cabinet. Some of the large plates inside commemorate colleges, including Harvard University and Marietta College in Ohio; they were produced by Wedgwood in the early twentieth century and purchased primarily by school alumni. On top of the cabinet, a standing plate by Johnson Brothers contains a cityscape of Chicago.

Most of the pieces in the collection are examples of lustreware. This process, used extensively by English makers during the nineteenth century, applies metal-oxide glazes to chinaware to make them glisten. The hand-painted bowl and plate on the lower shelf and the cups and saucer on this page bear stylized landscapes that are reminiscent of the Dutch or German countryside. They were produced for sale in the United States.


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