Blanc de chine: China’s enchanting white porcelain
Blanc de chine – the white glazed porcelain prized by collectors – literally translates from the French as “white from China,” as it was (and still is) manufactured at Dehua, in China’s Fujian province. Some people, in fact, refer to it as Dehua, in honor of its point of origin. Blanc de chine has been produced since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and nearly 200 kiln sites have been identified throughout history along the Fujian coast, China’s main ceramic exporting center. In later centuries, it was exported to Europe and copied there, at Meissen and elsewhere.
It’s difficult to explain the allure behind a collectible that’s completely lacking in color, but maybe that’s the point. At Gray’s Auctioneers’ September 12 auction, the first 13 lots were all examples of blanc de chine, and that was by design. “Everyone who goes to our catalog online is automatically presented with lot one, and I wanted that lot to be not only beautiful, but also something that wouldn’t distract bidders with color, especially our Chinese bidders,” said Deba Gray, the firm’s president and chief auctioneer. “It was a marketing strategy that worked.”
Gray added, “I personally love blanc de chine. It communicates a timeless elegance, and there’s something haunting about it. It’s beyond color. It’s purely shape. It has the collector wondering, ‘What would this piece have looked like with color?’” Of the 13 lots, the top seller (lot 3) went for $3,000, putting blanc de chine within reach of the majority of collectors. Of course, the value of a blanc de chine piece can depend greatly on its age, condition, shape and color. That point was driven home at a sale held in August by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in Maine.
There, there top lot of the auction was a 17th-century blanc de chine seated Guanyin, the goddess of compassion. It soared to $760,500. The reason: it had the seal of He Chaozong, the renowned Chinese potter who is credited with developing and perfecting the blanc de chine process. “That made all the difference,” said Carol Achterhof of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, “and after frenzied bidding, the figure returned home to China.” Also in the sale, a Chinese 17th-century Qilin figure set with semiprecious stones finished at $643,500.
Blanc de chine is best known for its depiction of Buddhist deities, such as Guanyin, Maitreya, Luohan and Ta-mo. Guanyin is the most popular; she was particularly revered in Fujian. Other common devotional objects include incense burners, candlesticks, flower vases and statues of saints. The more mainstream creations include joss-stick holders, candlesticks, foo dogs, libation cups and boxes. Many blanc-de chine-objects, like statuettes, were later used as lamp bases and today the many factories still producing in Dehua churn out figures and tableware in modern styles.
You might have noted that large chargers, vases and such were not included in the above lists. That’s because the Dehua clay was not suited to making sizable items. Smaller ornamental items and dense statuettes became their specialty. As for the unique, colorless nature of blanc de chine, that, too is attributable to the Dehua clay, which is unusual for having very little iron oxide in it. The clay allows for the purity in color that makes blanc de chine so attractive – that and the shiny, almost wet-looking glaze melded to the porcelain. These traits are irresistible to collectors.
“There are serious problems with dating and attribution when it comes to blanc de chine,” said blogger Jacqueline Wein of Tokyo Jinja, whose dispatches, literally from around the world, are titled Global Adventures in Antiques, Art and Design. “Even the experts can be fooled,” she said. “Without a long history or provenance, it is quite difficult to estimate when a piece was made, particularly as the same forms were produced for centuries. Also, much of the later white porcelain isn’t even from Dehua, but instead Jingdezhen (another province in China).”
Wein added: “Scholars argue all the time about color and translucence. The general feeling is that the older Dehua pieces have a more bone or ivory color and the Jingdezhen pieces are a true dead white. Yet, I have seen pure white pieces at auction from reputable dealers labeled as ‘Dehua blanc de chine.’ Modern pieces are most distinctly that very pure white. The modern design world has taken note of blanc de chine, too, notably the designers Charlotte Moss, Mary McDonald, and Ruthie Sommers. Also, blogs such as Chinoiserie Chic and others feature it on a regular basis.”
Blanc de chine is featured in museums and collections throughout the world. One of the largest collections of blanc de chine is housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. The British Museum in London also has a large number of blanc de chine pieces, having received the entire collection of P.J. Donnelly as a gift in 1980. And Blenheim Palace, the home of the Dukes of Marlborough in England, contains a fabulous array of blanc de chine: foo dogs and other animals, libation cups in the shape of rhinoceros horns, a teapot with applied branches and flowers, small pierced cups, vessels and porcelain stands. The group has a colorful past.
“This collection of about 40 pieces was supposedly given to the fourth Duke of Marlborough by a Mister Spalding at the end of the eighteenth century, at the height of the craze for all things Chinese,” Wein recounted. “The impoverished eighth Duke – Winston Churchill’s uncle – auctioned most of the china from Blenheim at Christie’s in London in 1886, although the ninth Duke made the savvy choice of marrying heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt and later recovered and repurchased them, and returned them to their rightful place.” A blanc de chine happy ending.