Yixing Ware and Its Influence on Early European Ceramics

By William R. Sargent

Decorative arts from China, present in households in Europe and in America since the early seventeenth century, have long exerted influences on the arts produced by Western craftsmen. These influences have waxed and waned over the four centuries since sea trade was established in the sixteenth century. The first wave of influence was exerted in the seventeenth century through seaborne contact with Asia and its exotic luxury goods of tea, silk and porcelain. The West responded by creating its own version of Chinese art, known as chinoiserie. European palaces were installed with porcelain galleries, and Chinese teahouses and pavilions sprang upon the landscapes of England and the continent, culminating in the eighteenth century with such spectacular efforts as William Chamber’s pagoda at Kew Gardens, built in 1763. A second phase, particularly for America, coincided with our direct involvement in the China trade, and included influences on architecture and interior design for wealthy merchants and the middle-classes. A third major phase, which began in the latter part of the nineteenth century, saw the production of Western art based on earlier domestic Chinese art recovered from tombs, and from an interest in the native Chinese culture brought about by the opening of treaty ports and expanded Western visitation to inner China. The influence of China on the production of decorative arts, architecture, interior and garden design has continued since the first efforts of Westerners to duplicate the material culture of – and their romanticized vision of – Asia. One small part of that trade and its influence was Yixing ware. The ripple effect those wares created had a profound impact on ceramic technology and design in Europe, which continues today.

There were three major kiln sites in China that produced ceramics for export to the West: Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, known for its porcelain; Dehua in Fujian province, where clear-glazed, undecorated wares were produced; and Yixing, the pottery capital of China, located on the western shore of Taihu (Great Lake) in Jiangsu province, ninety-four miles west of Shanghai and seventy-eight miles southeast of Nanjing.

Of these three major kiln sites, Yixing was the only center that manufactured stoneware for export rather than porcelain. The refined clay of Yixing is known as zisha, or purple sand, referring to the most common red color, which is due to the high iron content in the day. However, a wide range of earth colors is found – including beige, ochre, brown, gray-green and black. The fine-bodied clay lends itself to sculptural manipulation and a wide range of surface textures, and it fires to a non-porous stoneware. In spite of all these advantages, Yixing ware did not find favor with the imperial court, which relied on porcelains from Jingdezhen to fulfill its needs.

The Yixing potter did find patronage under the literati who collected, treasured and sometimes took an active role in creating the ware. The highest-quality pieces were often commissioned by scholars who might inscribe a poem on the vessels surface – a unique artistic collaboration in China, Yixing was also one of the few pottery centers, other than Dehua, where artist-potters signed their wares. Such wares were regarded as works of art and have been collected by the Chinese since the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and later by the Japanese, as they are now by Europeans and Americans.

The close-grained body of Yixing ware came to be much admired, specifically for making tea wares and also for the innate beauty of the material. The highly plastic clay allowed the creation of naturalistic forms that enhanced the pleasure of drinking tea. It was also said that Yixing ware retained the bouquet and flavor of tea better than porcelain. Out of this artistic tradition grew an export trade that was to exert formidable technical and stylistic influences on Western ceramic production.

“…they are very pretty”: The First Importation of Yixing to Europe

Chinese porcelain first appeared in Holland at the beginning of the seventeenth century with the auction of two captured Portuguese ships (San logo, 1602, and Santa Catharina, 1604). In 1609 the Dutch East India Company was founded and became the major importer of Chinese luxury goods. Delft potters quickly copied the imported underglaze blue-and-white Chinese porcelains in tin-glazed earthenware, and the city became the most important center by the mid-seventeenth century for these imitations of Chinese ceramics commonly known as “delft ware.”

The earliest reference to Yixing ware in Europe was recorded in 1656 when a visitor to Copenhagen remarked on a red teapot in the Danish Royal Cabinet of Curiosities. The next direct reference in a European language to Yixing teapots occurred in Philippe Sylvestre Dufour’s 1685 issue of Traites nouveaux et curiuex du caffe, du the et du chocolat. He wrote: “The Chinese use for their infusion teapots made of a red clay with impressed designs which they claim are better than any others. I do not know whether this is true but as you may judge from the illustration at the beginning of this account they are very pretty.” Accompanying this description is an illustration of a Manchu seated beside a small globular Yixing teapot Two years later five Yixing teapots were illustrated in a 1687 Paris publication by Monsieur de Blegny, Le Bon usage du the, du caffee et du chocolat.

In 1679, “7 cases of red teapots” were imported to Holland and a further “320 figured red teapots” arrived in Batavia from Macao the next year, It is therefore not coincidental that the first successful attempt to imitate Yixing occurred in Holland, in the late seventeenth century.

In England, tea had become a popular drink by the late seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1660, “1 did send for a cup of tea, a China drink which I had never drunk before.” In 1689 the English East India Company was founded, and red stoneware teapots were imported to England shortly after. An English shipping order of 1700 shows that 458 and then 52 red tea pots were ordered by the English East India Company with powdered sago (which could later be used as a starch) acting as filler in the shipping cases. The portrait of Jonathan Tyers and His Family Taking Tea (circa 1740), by Francis Hayman (1708-1776) depicts a red stoneware teapot on the table; it is possible to say if such pots that show up so regularly in similar “conversation pieces” are Chinese or European copies but the source is definitely Chinese. In fact a great many family portraits of the eighteenth century depict members around a tea table on which is a red stoneware teapot. Although exported Yixing ware was not normally glazed or enameled prior to the nineteenth century, there is one particularly fine and large example decorated around 1750 in polychrome enamels with the armorial bearings of Beauchamp with Amyas in Pretence.

The tradition in China was that tea brewed in Yixing ware was superior to that brewed in any other material, and it may have been that marketing story that led to its popularity in Europe as well, although the naturalistic modeling possible with the fine red stoneware and the fact that Yixing ware was more readily copied than porcelain also played a major role. Teapots in the shape of fruits, vegetables, tree stumps and birds were created by European potters directly imitating or at least drawing inspiration from Yixing wares. The popularity of Yixing and the attempts to replicate the clay and forms of Yixing ware swept Europe.

The successes of red stoneware production in Europe were quickly overshadowed by the discovery at Meissen of a hard-paste porcelain, but the production of dry-bodied wares inspired by the ceramics of Yixing continued at various continental and British ceramic factories for the next three hundred years. The influences were wide and deeply ingrained, and continue today.

“…counterfeit East Indian teapots”: The Dutch Replications

After 1670, at least seven Dutch potters competed to produce “rode Delftse trekpotjes” (red Delft teapots): Samuel van Eenhoorn (d. 1685), owner of the “Greek A” factory; Jacobus de Caluwe (d. 1730); Lambertus Cleffius (circa 1691), owner of the “Metal Pot” delftware factory; his successor and cousin, and Samuel’s younger brother, Lambert van Eenhoorn (d, 1721); Ary de Milde (d. 1708); W. R de Rotte (dates unknown); and Peter de Lorreyn (d. 1731).

Lambert Cleffius was the first to advertise that he had produced “red porcelain” in the Haarlemse Courant, August 18, 1678, asserting that he “achieved such perfection in the manufacturing of red teapots that they are in no way inferior in color, purity and durability to the Indian teapots.” Lambert van Eenhoorn was a successor to Cleffius, and he worked with Ary de Milde. Van Eenhoorn hired a woodcarver whose contract of April 25, 1692, called for him to create molds for use in producing red teapots “as artistically and well as he possibly could without working with or for another employer.” Today, only two teapots are known with van Eenhoorn’s mark, and none with Cleffius’s.

The greatest number of Dutch redware pieces in the Yixing style exist with Ary de Milde’s mark, a running fox. By 1672 de Milde was working on his own, specializing in the firing of teapots. In 1678 Samuel van Eenhorn and de Milde together submitted a petition to the Staten van Holland seeking a fifteen-year patent of their products, and in 1679 the two potters were ordered to supply “counterfeit East Indian teapots.” Factory marks were granted In 1680 by which time he had refined the local red clay to a stoneware approaching porcelain in fineness and hardness. Red teapots, closely mimicking the original Yixing wares, continued to be made in the Netherlands, especially in Delft, until about 1730.

“…as curious as yt wch comes from China”: Early English Replications

The first incentive to refine English pottery and compete with imported stoneware from the Rhineland was taken in 1684 by John Dwight, who had been producing salt-glazed stoneware Bellarmine jugs since 1671, for which he was granted a patent by Charles ll. The petition remarked on the discovery of “The Mistery of Opacous, Redd, and Dark coloured Porcellaine, Dwight’s notebooks of 1689-98 also gave formulas for making red stoneware: “To make a deep red clay of the Staffordshire red clay,” and later, “Another good red of the same clay.” Unfortunately, no unglazed red stoneware has been positively attributed to him.

Dwight charged in a lawsuit of 1693 that James Morely of Nottingham, members of the Wedgwood family, and John Philip Elers infringed on Dwight’s patent of 1684. The Elers brothers countered that they had been making brown mugs and red teapots for about three years that differed from Dwight’s in substance and shape. Apparently the Elers came to terms with Dwight as they were not included in a subsequent trial No substantial evidence exists to allow us to identify the early extant red stoneware pieces as being by either Dwight or the Elers, but the lawsuit indicates that Dwight at least thought the other potters’ wares were too similar. Dwight died in 1703, but his family continued the pottery.

The Elers brothers – John Philip and David – were Dutch silversmiths who went to England after the revolution of 1688 and practiced their craft in Fulham, They eventually set up a pottery there with the assistance of John Chandler, one of Dwight’s ex-workmen. The Elers moved from Fulham to Bradwell Wood, Staffordshire, in 1693, and by 1698 they had been at Newcastle-under-Lyme and moved again. A contemporary account by Lady Celia Fiennes recounts that in 1698 she went “to see the making of ye fine teapott, cups and saucers of the fine Red Earth in imitation and as curious as yt wch comes from China…” The Elers eventually settled in Hammersmith, but in December of 1700 they declared bankruptcy and ceased production.

Seventeenth-century slip casting with red clay had been considered nearly impossible by most twentieth-century historians, until 1977 when G. W. Elliott proved otherwise when he produced a water slip from the local clays that, when dry, had the strength to withstand turning on a lathe. The Elers were silversmiths and certain casting techniques would have been known to them that they could have applied to pottery. In fact, the technique of slip casting red stoneware had been acknowledged in a letter to William Bentley, in which Josiah Wedgwood gave the Elers credit for perfecting the use of local red clays: “The next improvement introduced by Mr. E. [John Philip] was the refining of our common red clay, sitting, & making it into Tea & Coffee ware in imitation of the Chinese Red porcelaine, by casting it in plaster moulds, & turning it on the outside upon Lathes, & ornamenting it with the Tea branch in relief, in imitation of the Chinese manner of ornamenting this ware.” The English replications of the seventeenth century varied from the Chinese originals more in their manner of production than in the spirit of their forms or decorations.

John Astbury, his son Thomas Astbury, Thomas Whieldon, Richard Myatt, Joshua Twyford and other Staffordshire potters produced redware, but many existing cannot be attributed with certainty to any particular ceramicist Most of the Staffordshire potters were not technologically advanced enough to meet the standards set by the Chinese: sprigging invariably cracked and separated from the body of the pot This was due primarily to uncontrolled drying of the body and sprigged elements. They did not fully succeed until clays and techniques were refined by Josiah Wedgwood.

Thomas Whieldon (4719-1786) was a master potter at Fenton Low by 1740. Whieldon ware is the generic term for a body of work by him and others that is commonly called clouded ware or tortoiseshell ware. A popular pattern found on Yixing teapots is known as the “boy in the tree” or the “Indian boy” pattern. Possibly one of the earliest Yixing teapots with this relief design is dated about 1700 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The design itself dates to at least the twelfth century when it appears on a Ting ware pillow. The pattern was copied by a number of English potters, but none did it better than Whieldon. It became one of the most popular motifs throughout the nineteenth century.

“another teapot in the shape of a cockerel”: German Replications

Johann Frederick Bottger (1682-1719) was an alchemist arrested at Wittenberg by Augustus the Strong and kept under house arrest where his task was to change base metal into gold for the emperor. Having failed that, he set out to discover the secret of hard-paste porcelain, one of the king’s greatest collecting passions. He discovered a recipe for red stoneware in 1708-09 and produced this ceramic body until he discovered a hard-paste, high-firing porcelain body in 1713, De Mildews work is, however, partly responsible for the discovery of a red stoneware body in Dresden.

The physicist, mathematician and philosopher, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschimhause (1651-1708), who worked on the Dresden discovery with Bottger, had visited de Milde in 1701. And it has recently been proven that some pots bearing the running fox mark of de Milde are actually slip cast copies made at Dresden by Bottger from de Milde originals. Many Yixing pieces and replicas by Bottger are to be found in the collection of the Zwinger, in Dresden, today.

Bottger stoneware, as the Meissen imitation of Yixing is often called, was a dense and hard ceramic body, which meant that it could be cast, cut and polished by jewelers and turned on a lathe, J. S. Irminger, a court silversmith, is credited with the polishing of red stoneware pots on the jeweler’s wheel – Bottger called this body “Jaspis-Porcellan” a name that reflects its relationship both to porcelain and to gemstones. Occasionally these pieces were engraved, as glass or silver was, and occasionally gilded with chinoiserie designs.

One of Bottger’s productions was a phoenix (feng huang) shaped teapot The model for a later teapot in this form was described in the May 1734 work report of Johann Johachim Kaendler (1706-1775): “Another teapot in the shape of a cockerel, of medium size, from which the tea ams out of the beak. The tail is made so that the pot can be held by the handle without difficulty in pouring.” Johann Kaendler was “modellmeister” at Meissen from 1733 until his death. The original model was a Yixing piece (circa 1715) of which examples can be found in the Museum fur Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt, in the Collection Zwinger, Dresden, and in the Germanches National Museum, Nuremburg. Bottger’s copy in stoneware is from a three-piece mold and was later made in porcelain. Copies of Bottger’s ware were then later made at Bayreuth and Plaue-on-Havel, established in Brandenburg in 1713 by Samuel Kempe, a renegade from Meissen, who produced imitations of Bottger’s red stoneware.

Bottger began his production of redwares taking molds of original Yixing ware and even Dutch copies of Yixing by Ary de Milde. Only when the pesters of the Meissen factory became comfortable with the new clay bcdy did they introduce polished and engraved techniques never used in China, and variations of form and decoration.

“…the true way of copying the antique”: Wedgwood’s Replications

The very exact potting of Yixing ware made an impression on Josiah Wedgwood who wrote of his interest in producing ceramics, “I saw the field was spacious, and the so” so good, as to promise an ample recompense to any one who should labour diligently in its cultivation.” He established himself as a successful potter, in part because of his extensive production of redware, even though he would later develop a dislike for it.

Organic shapes were highly regarded in China, and Western potters quickly adapted these for their own use. Pumpkin’Shaped Yixing teapots that originated in China in the seventeenth century illustrate a possible source for forms developed by Wedgwood and others. The cauliflower-shaped teapot, an early Wedgwood innovation, is an example of how he modified ideas he derived from Yixjng ware.

William Greatbatch (1735-1813) supplied Wedgwood with Yixing teapots as inspiration: “Lower Lane Dec 9th 1763,1 have sent you a square China Teapot as a specimen, should be glad to have your judgment on it the couler is light I own but dare ingage to make any quantity of a darker Couler if required. Wm. Greatbatch.”:fhe next year Greatbatch wrote, “Lande Delph, May 1764, To Mr, W. There are ready two of the crates of Pine Apple ware and a large quantity of plates about a gross and 1-2 of light colour teapots and a good quantity of China tpts the same as Mr Whieldon and other sorts.”

At first Wedgwood applied and stamped decorations onto his pots, but eventually superseded this technique with engine turning in 1763-64. A small group of redwares composed entirely of engine-turned pieces and distinguished by a square seal mark bearing a letter ‘W’ may be attributed to Wedgwood. But even engine-turned wares frequently retained the naturalistic branch-form handles, finials and spouts, generally called ”crab stock” that derived directly from Yixing ware. A letter dated March 1763, written probably during the height of stamped redware sales, contains an order from Robinson and Rhodes of Leeds, enamellers, to Wedgwood for 2 dry red teapotts some of them with Crab tree spouts.”

Wedgwood had reservations about redware, but it was aesthetically and financially successful. Ultimately though, this ware would be of little interest to him for it could be made, he said, at first trial by anyone-He wrote to Bentley, March 10, 1776, “I will try to imitate the Antico Rosso from your description, but when I have done my best l am afraid where one spectator thinks of Antico Rosso an hundred will be put in mind of a Red Teapot!” He went on to say, “My objection to it is the extreme vulgarity of redwares. If it had never been made in T’pots and the commonest wares, my objections wd not have existed … I wish you to fix upon one of the Bronze like colors for heads for the Cheap cabinets, as we shall never be able to make the Rosso Antico, otherwise than to put you in mind of a red Pot teapot.” Despite his reservations, Wedgwood continued to make redwares, both in the Chinese and classical styles.

Brown stonewares dating from the early nineteenth century, produced by the Wedgwood factory, fall into two distinct bodies: one was meant to be glazed with a clear lead glaze tinted yellow, the other was dark brown and used chiefly for tea sets decorated with white reliefs. These were probably inspired by examples of fine Chinese ceramics. Drab-colored wares that date from this period were almost certainly imitations of Yixing wares. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Wedgwood pottery continued to produce wares that were influenced by Chinese ceramics: lotus, water lilies, peony, dragon and butterfly patterns, “Chinese Tigers,” and “Asiatic Pheasants” were motifs produced alongside his classical designs.

Caneware, a dry body ceramic of pale yellow color that first appeared in the catalog of 1787, derived its name from its resemblance to bamboo ware. It was used by Wedgwood to fabricate a bamboo-form teapot that is a direct descendant of Chen Zhongmei’s 1613 teapot in the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong.

Wedgwood was inspired by the material and the expressive qualities of Yixing, but as an artist he took pains to create something new. He wrote to Erasmus Darwin, June 28, 1789: “I only pretend to have attempted to copy the antique forms, but w[out]/ absolute servility. I have attempted to preserve the style & spirit, or if you please the elegant simplicity of antique forms, & so doing to introduce all the variety I was able, & this Sir William Hamilton assures me I may venture to do & that is the true way of copying the antique.”

The earliest documented reference to porcelain being transshipped from England to America is 1728, although archaeological and probate records show that early settlers owned Chinese porcelains in the seventeenth century. In 1772 “Red China tea and flowerpots” were imported by Davis and Minnet of New York, and in 1776 “Red China sugar dishes and Redware of ail kinds” were offered for sale at the shop of Joseph Stanbury in Philadelphia. Another reference to “red China Tea Potts” in the business papers of the eighteenth-century New York merchant, Frederick Rhinelander, further indicates the popularity of redwares and awareness of their origin.

A large punch or teapot of buff color with applied redware leaves, grapes and vines around the body, and redware “crabstock” handle, spout and finial was in the collection of the Sherburne family who owned the 1716-1718 Warner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, until 1930, While there is no documentation that the family had the pot in the eighteenth century, it is probable that they did. A pear-shaped teapot with enamel decoration was brought from China in the mid-nineteenth century by the Salem merchant Captain Joseph Bulkley and donated to the Peabody Essex Museum in the early twentieth century Otherwise, records are scarce in America for the presence and influences of Yixing ware.

Yixing Ware from Shipwrecks

The Geldermalsen was a Dutch ship that sank in Asia in 1752, and from which were recovered thousands of pieces of porcelain but only eight Yixing teapots, among which was a bamboo-style pot, a globular one, a bowed hexagonal example and a cylindrical teapot with cream-colored sprigged dragon. In 1822 the Tek Sing, a Chinese junk, was wrecked on the Belvidere Reef, off the coast of Sumatra. In a published account of the wreck, only five Yixing teapots are illustrated and the total number recovered is not mentioned. These are all traditional forms of the type that inspired Dutch and English potters in the seventeenth century. Some scholars assumed that these reflect a revival at the start of the nineteenth century, but it was undoubtedly not as much a revival as a continuation of tradition.

Contemporary Inspirations

Chinese porcelain forms and glazes were greatly appreciated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The discovery of tombs unearthed during railroad construction and the opening of China to tourists exposed Westerners to imperial-quality wares and historic collections of domestic wares for the first time. World expositions also brought Chinese ceramics to a broader public. The 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Ralace, London, was according to William Morris, “the death register of design” in Europe and led to the development of what we now know as the Arts and Crafts Movement, New modes in pottery became ambitious then and particularly so after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which helped to reintroduce Asia to the public. This new level of international exchange led to exposure, understanding and an appreciation of early ceramics from Asia.

However, due to the lack of production and demand, Yixing ware itself fell out of fashion as an export commodity in the nineteenth century. Except for the odd piece that seems to have found is way into a documented American collection, they were rarely seen on the open market and so had little chance to influence the Western ceramicist One late nineteenth-century designer was, nevertheless, inspired by Yixing ware: Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), one of the most radical and prolific designers of that century, found inspiration everywhere, from every culture and every period, but was most heavily influenced by the arts of japan. Among Dresser’s designs are teapots taken directly from Yixing models with little or no alteration, including a jug and a teapot of bamboo form with crossed bamboo bail handles made around 1865 by Minton & Co. He is also thought to have designed jugs and teapots – and other wares – for the Watcombe Terracotta Co, between 1870 and 1875. One form was an exact copy of a severely rectangular Yixing pot that was produced with impressed patterns and glazed edges and also with enamel-decorated sides. Another form produced by Watcombe and thought to have been designed by Dresser is a modified version of the double-chamber Yixing teapot so successfully reinterpreted by Richard Notkin over one hundred years later.

K. S. Lo (1910-1995), a Hong Kong entrepreneur, was responsible for the re-development and exportation of Yixing ware in the midtwentieth century. From his effort grew a new era for Yixing, with exports rivaling anything that had taken place before and an industry of studio artists who create for a world market.

Yixing may first have come to the attention of contemporary potters in a broader way after the groundbreaking catalog by Terese Tse Bartholomew, I-Hsing Ware (China House Gallery, New York, 1977), which dealt exclusively with domestic wares. Two years later the China Trade Museum (Milton, Massachusetts, now part of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts) mounted an exhibition (curated by this author, November 14,1979, to March 14, 1980) titled “Yixirrg Ware and Its Influences on European Ceramics,” that dealt only with European ceramics produced until the 1970s.

Since then the interest in Yixing ware and in its influences has continued to expand. If to “Google” something is any indication of popularity, there were 153,000 listings for “Yixing,” and 1,880 for “Yixing ware” in July 2005. This exhibition and catalog explore the most recent round of influences exerted by the potters and pottery of Yixing on Western ceramic artists, and reflect the sources, depth and extent of one nation’s influence on another’s creative processes.

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