H.B. got lucky at the Assistance League Thrift Store, she left that great little shop with a dish for which she gave under $20. She sends me pictures of that octagonal porcelain dish with raised edges, blue and red on a field of white; the center has the famous Japanese motif of the bat and the clouds, stylized into a geometric pattern. The underside of the raised rim features blue tracings painted on the white of rolled scrolls (signifying official letters of State) and chrysanthemums (conviviality). The base features Japanese characters. H.B. wants to know what she has, mentioning two small chips to the rim.
The story begins on July 8, 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. sailed into Kanagawa, opening the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda, enforcing a treaty establishing trade and the opening of Japanese ports to U.S. merchant trading ships. The Nation of Japan had been closed to outsiders since 1637. The mid 19th century fine goods merchant suddenly produced Japanese ceramics, metalwork, lacquerware and silks for his eager customers. Think of the displays of Japanese wares after 1854 at the European and American Industrial Expositions and World’s Fairs, not the least of which was held at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The Japanese government had presented a huge display of antique and modern Japanese material culture, seen by thousands; a rage for anything Japanese hit the U.S., leading to a unique Japanese American hybrid style called the Aesthetic Taste and a vast increase in trade between the US and Japan.
Featured in Philadelphia for the first time was the style of porcelain nabbed by H.B. called Imari-ware. Americans drooled over the bright bold geometric colors of bright iron reds, cobalt blues, grass greens accented with golds. In comparison, American porcelain up to the 1876 show was based on European (French & German) flowery patterns rendered in dainty pastels. A sea change in the world of color and design, Imari colors and the naturalistic, abstracted bird, flower and animal heraldic devices caught the American intellectual aesthetic community by storm. And Imari has never gone out of style.
However, the origin of the Imari style is not purely a Japanese phenomena; the style harkens back to 1542 when Mendez Pinto of Portugal accidentally landed in Japan. He was shocked to find an orderly and gentle culture, but was equally shocked that the Japanese were not Christians. A lively exchange of patterns and colors was exchanged between the thousand-year tradition of Portuguese majolica and Japanese porcelain. Although the Japanese knew the chemical composition of porcelain, Europe did not. So the Portuguese traders brought a certain European sensibility to the Japanese potters so that their wares would be palatable to European tastes, and Imari was born. The Portuguese over the ensuing years endeavored to spread both Christianity and European trade, and the trade at the forefront of the economics was porcelain. Trade was so good that by 1637 the Japanese government kicked out all foreign traders and shut down Japanese borders to foreign travel of both insiders and outsiders.
The name Imari is also an accident, as it is the name of the port on Deshima Island, which although in Nagasaki Harbor, was occupied by the Dutch, who were export traders in the 17th and 18th century. The Dutch shipped bright colored presentation pieces of porcelain to the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs, the Hanovers and the greatest collector of porcelain in the world at the time, Augustus II of Saxony (1670-1733). Augustus, by the way, is one of the reason porcelain was “discovered” or “invented” in his kingdom.
H.B.’s piece looks early 19th century because its design is restrained and elegant. The later 19th century Imari ware porcelains became opulent and complex, bordering on the gaudy. Another clue to its early age is the fact that the Imari designs are hand painted as opposed to the later transferware stenciled designs and heavy gilding. Earlier Imari is more delicate in form, the slip (the clay) is whiter, and the glaze is heavier. As the 19th century wore on, tastes became more Victorian and American buyers used Asian porcelain for the show–factor. Larger scale pieces were in demand, often pieces which by their bulbous shapes featured Japanese design on European forms. The small size also belies an earlier date, as well as the rendering of the chrysanthemum shapes, the emblem of serene Japan. H.B., your porcelain is worth $300-500 and would be worth more if the piece were not chipped.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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