Chinese blue and white porcelain items or 'china' were one of the most traded and desirable goods from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. As a result of the high demand in Europe for blue and white porcelain, production developed in several Asian trade centres where skilled craftspeople imitated the style of decoration as well as the diamond-like quality of porcelain, using materials such as red earthenware, stoneware and tin glazes.

The manufacture of blue and white ceramics has a long and complex history and tradition. For hundreds of years, the Chinese were the exclusive producers, closely guarding the recipe for the porcelain and the blue pigment with which the items were decorated. Many tried to imitate the recipe, with the Dutch being the most successful, creating blue and white tin glaze earthenware, called Delft, in the 1600s. The Delft potters imitated the characteristics of porcelain’s kaolin body, but true porcelain was not made in Europe until 1710 when production began at Meissen, near Dresden in Germany.

Arab traders, those who were part of the the land- and sea-trade networks, obtained large quantities of blue and white porcelain by trading spices, silk and lacquerware. Prior to the sixteenth century, the Portuguese broke the Arab monopoly on trade with China, and took great quantities of porcelain in carracks to trade throughout Europe. Europeans collected this porcelain, often creating decorative displays in their homes and palaces. In the second half of the seventeenth century, because of political instability, supply from China dried up.

The Dutch East India Company looked to the kilns of Arita in Japan for their blue and white ceramic supplies once those from China dwindled. Arita ware, in blue, red and gold, became popular with European collectors for its unique design ware called Imari .

Over time, there developed a fashion for ‘dressing up’ blue and white porcelain. European metal workers, keen to respond to the fashion for Chinoiserie, added extra ornamentation, such as gold, to lids, feet and handles, to make them appear more ornate and spectacular. This practice became very popular in France during the eighteenth century, where imported porcelain objects embellished with gold were presented by European trading companies to royal courts as gifts. These ornamental pieces displayed features of the Rococo style, which was highly fashionable in Europe at the time. Rococo was playful, decorative, and very ornate. Rococo rooms were designed as total works of art with elegant and ornate furniture, small sculptures, ornamental mirrors, wall hangings, and paintings.

Why was blue and white ceramic ware so popular in Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries? Research contemporary artists who use a blue and white palette in their ceramic work. Tip: Gerry Wedd and Robin Best.

Find an example of blue and white ceramics produced around the same time, in the Netherlands. Compare this piece with one made in either Japan or China. Identify the similarities and differences.

Select a blue and white ceramic from the collection and make a list of designs or motifs used.

Why was blue such a rare pigment in the past? List all the blue items found in nature? Why is blue rarely found in plants and animals?

Investigate the history of your favourite colour. Share an interesting fact about this colour with your classmates.

Go on a walk in your local area. Sketch plants and flowers you observe on your journey. Using these drawings create a circular design which could be appropriate for a ceramic object. Using watercolour paint your design in your favourite colour.

Water jar (mizusashi), with foreigner and ostrich, Ogata Ihachi (Kyoto Kenzan II)

By the end of the seventeenth century, Japanese porcelain production had shifted from Arita to Kyoto. The ceramics of the artist Ogata Kenzan took on a more fluid painterly appearance than had been evident on ceramics previously. Although some of Kenzan’s designs were inspired by Delft ware, it was not until his adopted son, Kenzan II, took charge of production after 1731, and Japanese trade restrictions were loosened, that the Kenzan Delft style became the major focus of the ceramics workshop.

This water jug, attributed to Kyoto Kenzan II, is typical of the ceramicist’s Delft-inspired works of cylindrical jars and square dishes. Used in tea ceremonies, these covered jars held fresh water for refilling the kettle. The unusual choice of illustration on this jar fits with European influence and Japanese interests at the time.The figure’s costume appears European in style, apart from the shoes, or clogs, which could be Japanese; and the ostrich reflects Japanese fascination at the time with exotic creatures from other lands.

Ogata IHACHI (Kyoto Kenzan II), Japan, born active c.1720-60, Water jar (mizusashi) with foreigner and ostrich, Kyoto ware, c.1750, Kyoto, earthenware, white slip, underglaze decoration, lacquer and wood, 21.5 x 12.0 cm (diam.); Gift of Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2012, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Japan, Square flask in shape of Dutch bottle

The form of this Japanese-made Arita Ware porcelain bottle has a history shaped by trade and contact between different cultures. Its design is based on the Dutch green glass bottles.

The green glass bottle with four flat sides was a Dutch innovation, designed to enable easy packing on ships making long sea journeys.These bottles held liquids such as oil and alcohol, and later particularly gin. In the seventeenth century Arita, Japan, became a centre for the production of Japanese blue and white ceramics. Ceramic items were made to order, and this square, four-sided bottle would most likely have been commissioned by Dutch traders to imitate the shape of the traditional green glass bottle.

The jar-like flask with square sides is elegant in its form, and decorated with a blue underglazed design incorporating flowering plants on the sides, and a floral pattern on the shoulders.

Japan, Arita, Square flask, in the shape of a Dutch bottle, late 17th century, Arita, Saga Prefecture, porcelain, underglaze blue decoration, 23.3 x 10.3 cm; Gift of M.J.M. Carter AO Collection in memory of Dr. Brian Crisp AM (1924-2012) through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2015, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

The water jar was used in a tea ceremony. Why do you think it has a lid?  

The person who is pictured on this jar wears European style clothes. Find some images of outfits Portuguese men would have worn around 1750, and compare them to the figure on the jar. What do you notice?

Identify both Japanese and Dutch inspired design elements and design principles on this water jar.