When the Ming dynasty fell in the late 17th Century, the Dutch East India Company needed to find alternative sources for importing Porcelain in bulk to meet the increasing demand in the West. Japanese porcelain, shipped from the port of Imari, was cheap bright and colourful – in contrast to the plain blue and white from China – Imari’s most noticeable export was blue and white underglaze, embellished with gold and iron red decoration. The port name, Imari, is now synonymous with this type of decoration (some Arita ware looks similar but does not include the underglaze blue). Below, this good example of 18th Century Japanese Imari is typically distinguished by the dullness of the gold embellishment, the deep dark Indigo Blue that borders on black (frequently applied with a thick brush) and the dull orangey-red thickly (and, again, often crudely applied) surface glazed colouring under the gold.
When the regular Trade routes to China were reopened, although the return of the familiar blue and white was welcomed, upmarket Chinese exporters found major demand from Japan and the West for the new and colourful red, gold and blue ware. So ‘Chinese Imari’ began to compete in the market.
Most early Chinese Imari style patterns tended to anonymous flowers, pots and random “anonymous” patterns – typically ‘Chinese Imari’ is distinctive for its delicacy – the porcelain is thin and fine – almost brittle.
This small chinese teabowl and saucer dates from around 1740.
The underglaze blue on chinese pieces tend to be noticeably “inkier’ verging on a dark Royal Blue with indigo overtones. Elements of the underglaze blue often include fine lines and detail, with ink washes (and ink puddles) bulking out the designs. The iron-red is rich, strong and usually finely applied. The gold is a soft honey colour and is delicately applied rarely over-running the outlines of the red areas. Only the best Japanese Imari is ever likely to be confused with Chinese Imari as most Chinese ware has a distinctive delicacy that most Japanese export Imari seems to lack.
Like the Japanese designs, the bulk of patterns tend to focus on flowers, leaves and abstract patterns. The bright colours aged well and a hundred years later, the burgeoning English Porcelain manufacturers used the bright bold flower and abstract patterns, that typify Imari ware, in their own products. English Imari ware has been produced continuously, since it was first introduced – some patterns have also stayed, broadly the same for nearly 200 years.
Some Imari patterns do buck the trend, however, and an excellent and rare example of this, is this early 18th Century Chinese Imari plate. The design is clearly a rendering of the Great Wall of China it shows the towers, crenelated walls and zigzags. This makes it a very early “souvenir”. The inclusion of trees painted in the Japanese style, suggests that it was intended for the Japanese market or to compete directly with it.
For comparison – below is a photo of the wall at Badaling, showing the key features on the plate.