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The Luso-Asian Porcelain Trade

Extracts from a Speaker Event at Club Lusitano by Mr Marco Almedia, Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Christie’s Hong Kong, 14 September 2021

The Luso-Asian Porcelain Trade

By late 15th century Portugal has already expanded the trading extensively, both east and west. Vasco da Gama arrived in India and opened up trading by early 1500s. Another important development took place in 1511 when Governor Albuquerque took Malacca which was at that time the melting pot of many cultures.

The presence of the Portuguese in Goa led to the development of the first workshops in the region, producing south and south east Asian luxury goods for export to Europe. Examples of these items from the 16th century, is this mother of pearl-inlaid casket which shows the elegance of the product at the time, as is this Indo-Portuguese embroidered linen (below).

Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, Doha (Sold at Auction in 2020)

The first encounter of China with Portugal direct trade relations took place at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Jorge Alvares arrived in Canton in 1513, followed by the appointment of Tome Pires as Ambassador to Beijing four years later. From this time, Portugal thrived in the trade of Asian luxury goods rivalling established centres of Seville, Antwerp and Venice.

From the mid 16th Century, Lisbon became the European capital for the trade of exotic goods, with most shops in Rua Nova dos Mercadores that at the time was described as “one of the riches streets in the world”. Portugal became the centre of trading in Europe, which then led to the trade of porcelain during the reign of King Manuel I.

The real trendsetter and the person who played the greatest role in the dissemination of the appreciation of Chinese porcelain was Queen Catherine of Austria (1525-1557).

Above: Catherine of Austria, oil on canvas, Anthonis Mor, 1552, Queen of Portugal, daughter of King Felipe I of Spain

Below: Infanta Juana of Spain (Juana la Loca), wife of King João III of Portugual (right), mother of Prince João Manuel of Portugal

Catherine had one of the earliest and finest Chinese porcelain collections in Europe due to her position as both the youngest sister of Emperor Charles V and the Queen of Portugal. She acquired quantities of porcelain and exotica from Asia, which arrived regularly in Lisbon for the decoration of the Lisbon royal palace as well as for her personal use, and which served as emblems of her power.

Her collection became the first kunstkammer or cabinet of curiosities/ notable objects on the Iberian Peninsula.

She was following a tradition established earlier by the Portuguese King Manuel I of Portugal who had purchased porcelain for his wife, Maria of Castile (1482-1517)

There were mainly 2 types of porcelain imported to Portugal at that time:

  1. Generic monochrome and blue and white porcelain, and

  2. Made to order items

Below is wide variety of ‘ready to go’ export porcelain, from the ship Espadarte. Espadarte wrecked directly in front of Fort San Sebastian on the Island of Mozambique. Although the Espadarte wreckage was plundered by treasure hunters and sport divers in the 1990s, over 1,000 pieces of intact and semi-intact porcelains and large quantity of shards dating to the Jiajing reign were recovered, providing important evidence of large-scale porcelain shipments destined for Lisbon.

By the Late Ming Dynasty, most all porcelain made for the export market was being made at Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province. The demand for blue and white porcelain increased significantly during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, who reigned from 1522 to 1566, and also during the reign of the Wanli emperor, reigned from 1573 – 1620.

Blue and white porcelain from the shipwreck Espadarte (1558), Courtesy of Arqueonautas Foundation, Amsterdam

The export porcelain pieces ranged from high to medium quality, all with purely Chinese forms and decorative motifs derived from nature with Taoist associations, such as mythical animals (dragons, Qilins, Buddhist lions and phoenixes) birds and fish as well as a variety of flowers, fruits and scrolls. The meaning of the decoration would have been completely lost for most Europeans but they were aesthetically pleasing and ‘exotic’.

The Chinese porcelain made for the export market were produced in smaller, private kilns, while the Imperial kilns focused on the production of porcelain for the palaces and the domestic market.

At first, Portuguese traders would buy whatever types of porcelain were available – they were fascinated by this lustrous material that felt like glass and was more durable. Later on, as the Portuguese become more familiar with the material, they wanted more personalized pieces that were made to order.

Export Porcelain from the Jingdezhen kilns

A Large blue and white ‘dragon” jarlet, Jiajing period (1522-1566)

A blue and white ‘butterflies’ 16th century

Above are two typical generic pieces of Chinese blue and white porcelain for the export market. On the left is a large blue and white jar, decorated with a winged dragon. This type of winged dragon is sometimes called a ying long, and sometimes a feiyu. The winged dragon was part of a group of winged or flame-propelled animals associated with the sea – commonly known simply as haishou or sea-creatures – that appear on porcelains of the Ming dynasty. It has been suggested that this was a reflection of China’s maritime supremacy in the early Ming period This type of decoration appears on export and Imperial porcelains of the 16th century.

On the right we have a much more common type of export porcelain from this period. The shape is typically Chinese and it is a utilitarian vessel, simply decorated with flowers, butterflies and Daoist symbols.

Imperial Porcelain from the Jingdezhen kilns in the 16th century

To demonstrate what the Imperial Kilns of the Jiajing period were capable of, are two magnificent examples of Imperial Porcelain. Both these pieces and they are virtually flawless.

On the left a magnificent Wucai jar and cover, decorated with fish in a lotus pond. During this period, the technique of applying enamels over the glaze, and also having underglaze blue was perfected. It was an incredibly difficult object to fire as it was very volatile. On the right perhaps one of the finest examples of blue and white porcelain from this period. The cobalt blue used was of the highest quality and the painting is extremely fine.

Above: A highly important and extremely rare Wucai ‘fish’ jar and cover Jiajing six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566)

Below: A fine magnificent and important blue and white ‘boys’ jar and cover Jiajing six character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566)

It is interesting to note that while we see ‘fish ponds’ on export porcelain, we very rarely see the ‘Hundred Boys’ motif on pieces made for export. And another feature here worthy of mention is that both jars retained their original covers.

Portuguese Made to Order

Amongst the items on ‘made-to-order’, the most prominent being the inscription of the Armillary Sphere and Portuguese Royal Arms.

Amongst the commissioned pieces, the below bowl is perhaps one of the first ones. The bowl is historically very significant as it is probably the first group of Chinese blue and white porcelains to be inscribed in Latin script. The inscription in Latin PEM TEMPO DE PERO DE FARIA de 1541,’may be translated as ‘From the times of Pedro da Faria de 1541’. It is decorated with the Armillery Sphere and the Portuguese Royal Arms.

Pedro da Faria was Governor of Goa from 1526 to 1528, and Governor of Malacca from 1528-29. He is reported to have been in China in 1541. Two other bowls with this inscription are known: One at Beja Museum, Beja, Portugal and the other at Museo Duca di Martina, Napoli, Italy.

An inscribed blue and white bowl, 16th Century Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul

Below is another inscribed piece, perhaps one of the better documented pieces. The inscription on the vase below ‘O MANOOU FACER JORGE ALVRZ 1552’ may be translated as ‘Ordered by JorgeAlvarez in 1552’ (it should read ISTO MANDOU FAZER JORGE ALVAREZ NA ERA DE 1552). The original text would most likely have had the name of the Portuguese King of the time but that was ignored by potter.

A blue and white inscribed and dated ‘lotus pond’ bottle vase, Jiajing period dated to 1552

Jorge Alvarez a naval captain and merchant, was the first Portuguese to reach China and was a close friend of the famous Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier. Scholars have suggested that that the inscription, which is full of errors and is upside down, is incomplete and the full inscription should read Reinando em Portugal el Rei D. Joao III). It is also amusing to see that the letter ‘E” was misinterpreted for the character ‘WANG’.

There are nine of these bottles in existence, bearing the same inscription and all dated to the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). They are kept in public collections, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Musee Guimet, Paris; The Walter Arts Museum, Baltimore; The Caramulo Museum, Portugal, and the Ardebil Shrine.

The next piece is amongst one of the earliest armorial pieces for the Portuguese market. The coat of arms on this ewer is probably that of the Portuguese family of Peixoto, attributed to Antonio Peixoto, son of Lopo Peixoto who had patent of the arms in 1511.

Antonio Peixoto, a navigator and merchant, embarked on a trading mission to China together with his business partners, Antonio da Mota and Francisco Zeimoto. Sailing around the China coast in a junk laden with hides and other goods they were refused entry to the port of Canton (now Guangzhou) in 1542. They continued their journey and began to trade in Quanzhou and along the southern coast of China.

A very rare blue and white ewer Jiajing six character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566)., The shape is Islamic. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This is a very unusual piece of export porcelain for the Portuguese market. It combines several different foreign influences: the shape is Islamic with some simple Chinese design elements, such as the cloud scrolls around the neck. However, what is most unusual here is that it bears an Imperial reign mark – the six-character inscription reads DA MING JIAJING NIAN ZHI, or made during the great Ming dynasty, under the reign of the Jiajing emperor. Such reign marks were reserved for Imperial pieces or pieces of the highest quality for the domestic market. The quality of the cobalt blue is excellent – it fired to a nice vibrant tone of blue. The painting is also very nicely executed – so some traits that we wouldn’t associate with export wares.

The next piece was most likely commission by the Macanese branch of the Order of Saint Augustine as similar jars are also found in Mexico and the Philippines.

A rare blue and white jar with the emblem of the order of Saint Augustine circa 1575-1600

This jar is part of a group of wares with connection to the clergy. The prominent design of a double-headed eagle over a pierced heart in the center of this jar is the symbol of the Order of St. Augustine. The order established missionaries in Macao in 1589, and large jars and dishes with these designs are documented there. It is likely that the Portuguese Order of Saint Augustine were the first ones to commission such vessels. The architecture behind the double-headed eagle may be the Convent of Nossa Senhora Da Graca em Macau.

17th Century

A Chinese Blue and White Krakk dish Wanli period (1573-1620)

By the late 16th century, a new style of ‘generic’ blue and white porcelain had gained popularity, it was known as Kraak Porcelain. This porcelain, probably first made at the end of the Longqing reign (1567-72), was produced in vast quantities at several private kilns in Jingdezhen, almost exclusively for export not only to Europe and the New World but also to Japan, Turkey and Persia.

It seems likely that the development of this new style of export porcelain was prompted by the lifting of the Ming maritime trade ban by Emperor Longqing when he ascended the throne in 1567. Kraak porcelain is thinly potted and densely decorated in a free and spontaneous style with traditional Chinese auspicious animals and Taosit and Buddhist motifs – or narrative scenes taken from literary works.

Kraak porcelain was much sought after by the Portuguese for at least 50 years, from the early 1590s until the mid 1640’s and is believed to be named after the Portuguese ships (Carracks), in which it was transported. Carrak—or caracca in Italian or Spanish—is itself believed to be a derivative of the Arabic term for the type of trading ships used in Renaissance Mediterranean trade: qaraquir, meaning simply merchant vessels.

The long-established practice of gift-giving of the House of Avis Beja (1385-1580) and Habsburg continued under the following reign, the House of Braganca (1442-1910).

After his succession to the throne in 1640, John IV sent ambassadors to several European courts with diplomatic gifts. These include the pair of blue and white jars and covers on the right, with a very popular motif of ‘Hundred Deer’. This motif, which was mostly reserved for Imperial pieces, was heavily imbued with longevity messages and good auspices. The jars and covers were gifted to Queen Christina of Sweden (1632-1654).

The high-ranking European nobility enjoyed the novelty of displaying Chinese porcelain and eating from it on formal occasions, to the extent that by the early 1560s it is said to have been replacing silver tableware.

A pair of blue and white ‘hundred deer’ jars and covers Early 17th Century. Ostasiastika Museum, Stockholm

Tangible evidence of the high appreciation of porcelain among the nobility in the seventeenth century is provided by the late Ming porcelain used as an architectural feature in a number of aristocratic residences. These include the intact pieces displayed in the ceiling of a drawing room in the Santos Palace, and the fragments used in the complex inlaid murals or embrechados of the former royal Palace of Alcáçovas and the Palace of the Marquesses of Fronteira, and of other residences.

In 1501, King Manuel I made this one of his favourite residences in Lisbon. The ceiling is lined up with 263 blue and white dishes, all dating to the 16th century. The Santos Palace has been home to the French Embassy since 1909.

18th Century

As porcelain grew more and more popular in Europe and particularly in Portugal, the number of commissions grew exponentially. This, combined with new technical advances in the Jingdezhen kilns resulted in a whole new type of porcelain being made for the export market – the multicolored enameled porcelains of the 18th century.

A pair of Chinese Verte-Imari armorial wine coolers for the Portuguese market Kangxi period. (1662-1722)

A greater variety of shapes in the new Famille Verte and Famille Rose palettes were being made, such as the pair of Monteiths or wine coolers above.

Portugal remained one of the greater importers of Chinese Porcelain right until the end of the 18th century, with orders for dinner services sometimes reaching thousands of pieces per service. It is without a doubt, the nation responsible for bringing Chinese porcelain to Europe and for propagating its appreciation and usage throughout the western world.


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