Displaying Porcelain in the 17th and 18th Centuries

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The porcelain displays of William and Mary were prevalent on a lesser scale (in terms of grandeur, moving on from the baroque palace) in the Dutch interior of the 17th century where Chinese pieces were a desirable luxury and a popular commodity among the affluent [1]. Here, choice examples of an eclectic variety (vases, bowls, dishes, pots, etc.) were proudly displayed in or on top of wooden cabinets, inside hearths, across ledges lining the walls or assembled along chimney pieces with other fine imported china namely ‘tot oogen lust en pronkery’ (“for the eye’s desire and ostentation”) [2].


Room from Het Scheepje (“The Little Ship”), early 17th century, The Netherlands.

The inventory of Oranjehof in Leeuwarden mentions a ‘clein cabinetstelsel’ (“small cabinet set”); that of Huis Honselaarsdijk (1694-1702) records a ‘delffs postelinjne’ (“hearth plate”) with ‘East Indian porcelain’ and a chimneypiece ‘appointed’ with loose ornaments including ‘two chinese figures’ and the inventory to a small cabinet in Huis the Dieren records more of these ‘figures’ shown in addition to ‘red lacquer’ and other ‘wares’ [3]. Exotic shapes and assorted decoration of Chinese porcelain featured in the fashionable garnitures of the late 1600s; these were a set of accessories, typically Asian vases varying in size and number that were arranged to create decorative displays [4].

Chinese porcelain very much had its influence on the interior, indeed, English traveller Sir Francis Child visited Delft in 1697 and recalled it being ‘particularly famous for their porcelain’ [5] and Delft town historian Dirck van Bleijswijck (1639-1681) writes in Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (1667) that the Dutch ‘seem to copy the Chinese the very best’ with ‘Delft porcelain transported far and wide to Brabant, Flanders, France, Spain and also England’ [6]. These reports refer to a “china-mania” [7] evident in the 17th century market for Chinese porcelain and historian Loet Schledorn qualifies the link between imported Asian porcelain and the consequent demand for Delftware which was provided for by local industry [8].

FoE_Hogarth_taste in high life_0

Engraving after William Hogarth, ‘A Taste in High Life’, c.1746.

The lustre of Chinese porcelain far surpassed England’s indigenous earthen wares and it became reverentially coveted as “white gold” [9]. This is reflected in its initial status in cabinets belonging to aristocrats, where non-functional objects were valued for their degree of rarity and curiosity, spurring silver and gold mounts which highlighted material value. Collector John Tradescant notes ‘idols from India, China and other pagan lands’ [10] in his catalogue of 1656, listing precious exotica which emphasise the prized attributes of ‘naturalia’ and ‘artificialia’ [11] associated with cabinets of curiosities.

Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, twinned shells with unique pieces of porcelain to enhance these innate qualities in decorative ensembles [12]. Barbara Benedict writes on connoisseurship and its twin requirements of owning collections that boast both the owner’s scientific interests (natural wonders) and artistic discernment (craftsmanship), seen in the eighteenth-century vogue for “connoisseurship” [13], self improvement and social obligation. James Collett-White agrees that this impacted the furnishing of country estates where the aim of display was to ‘reflect what a country gentleman with London connections might have purchased and collected [14].

By implication, interior decoration very much acted as a social signifier, bound intimately in taste, selectivity and wealth. When we consider refinement and sensibility further, porcelain as the preserve of women comes into play. Indeed, Wycherley’s The Country Wife (performed c. 1672-3) heralded China-mania as a fashion among women when Lady Fidget exclaims ‘What, d’ye think if he had any left, I would not have had it too? for we women of quality never think we have china enough’ [15]; Olivia too in Plain Dealer (1674) says that porcelain is ‘the most innocent and pretty furniture for a lady’s chamber’ [16]. As such, we see women devote time to the arrangement and decoration of their china closets, carefully adorning these with elements of female handicraft.


A recreation of a Baroque period display. Chatsworth, assembled in the 17th century manner, with fruit, flowers, Oriental porcelain, and silver gilt plate.

For instance, a Mrs Delany in a letter to Mrs Dewes of 1750 reports that she has been paying attention to the appearance of her closet when she writes ‘I am making some little brackets […] instead of gilding them I cover them with shells; I design to have eight of them for my closet, to hold little pieces of China’ [17]. The periodical newspaper The World ascribes the ‘highly finished’ shell and china museum to an aristocratic wife who crafted flowers ‘with stones, gems and shells’ and presented ‘a prodigious pyramid of china of all colours, shapes and sizes’ [18]. Such practice within the home enabled women to develop their own accomplishments, embellish and develop a field of expertise unique to their sex. Women inspected these closets, exchanged views on fashion and discussed the disposition of porcelain instigating a ‘profusion of ornament’ [19] and subsequent source of entertainment. Porcelain naturally fitted in with modes of finery and delicacy as social rituals elaborated.

The second half of the 17th century, in particular, saw a shift in taste for the disposition of Chinese porcelain within the interior: where it had remained untouched and preserved within the cabinet of curiosity, it was now more incorporated into the room as a part of its ornamental furnishings, or placed on the tea-table to be admired. This development was in relation to the drinking of tea and shows of gentility [20]. The practise of keeping china in a single room saw a later vogue for special furniture to house porcelain, a call answered by the glass-fronted “Chinese Chippendale style” cabinet of Thomas Chippendale in the 1750s [21], who provided elegant furnishings for display purposes within the home.


Oil painting showing British aristocrats taking tea.

Collecting Chinese porcelain therefore necessitates fashions for its display as a key component of interior decoration in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. British taste is reliant on the influences found in the continental treatment of porcelain, which introduced various modes through trade, exchange and patronage. European design as a whole absorbed the Orientalism associated with Chinese porcelain, with decorative schemes indulging in the exotic, rare aspects which this offered. Display, both public and private was an intimate reflection of the collector’s taste and agency, allowing Chinese porcelain to be openly enjoyed throughout the centuries.

Read about Pauline Bonaparte’s risqué sculpture  here…
Take a tour through the National Trust’s West Wycombe here…
See how ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ women appeared in Medieval Art here…

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Sources Used: 

  1. S. Pierson, From Object to Concept: Global Consumption and the Transformation of Ming Porcelain (Hong Kong University Press, 2013), p. 53.
  2. S. Ostkamp, ‘The Dutch 17th-century porcelain trade from an archaeological perspective’, academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/12194243/The_Dutch_17th- century_porcelain_trade_from_an_archaeological_perspective, pp. 53-85. [accessed 2017].
  3. ibid.
  4. Ganse, Chinese Porcelain: An Export to the World, p. 117.
  5. S. Lambooy, ‘Imitation and inspiration: the artistic rivalry between Dutch delftware and Chinese porcelain’, in Chinese and Japanese porcelain for the Dutch Golden Age, ed. by J van Campen and Titus Eliëns (Groninger Museum), pp. 231-246.
  6. ibid.
  7. P. Welch, ‘China Mania: The Global Passion for Porcelain 800-1900’, academia.edu [December 2014], https://www.academia.edu/9947961/China_Mania_The_Global_Passion_for_Porcelain, pp. 16-17. [accessed 12 February 2016].
  8. S. Lambooy, ‘Imitation and inspiration’, pp. 231-246.
  9. Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘White Gold’, vam.ac.uk [n/a], http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/white-gold/ [accessed 2017].
  10. V. Fielding, ‘From the curious to the “artinatural”: the meaning of oriental porcelain in 17th and 18th-century English interiors’, p. 3.
  11. S. Sloboda, ‘Displaying Materials: Porcelain and Natural History in the Duchess of Portland’s Museum’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2010, pp. 455-472.
  12. ibid.
  13. J. Peder Zane, ‘In Pursuit of Taste, en Masse’, The New York Times, 11 February, 2013, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/business/connoisseurship-expands-beyond-high-art-and-classical- music.html?_r=0 [accessed 2017].
  14. V. Fielding, ‘From the curious to the “artinatural”: the meaning of oriental porcelain in 17th and 18th-century English interiors’, p. 5.
  15. W. Wycherley, The Country Wife: A Comedy, as it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal. Written by Mr. Wycherley (C. Bathurst, 1751), p. 60.
  16. E. Jenkins, A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism (OUP USA, 2013), p. 87.
  17. The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, ‘The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delaney’, archive.org, https://archive.org/stream/ autobiographyan00coolgoog/autobiographyan00coolgoog_djvu.txt [accessed 2017].
  18. T. Stothard, Harrison’s British Classicks: The World. The Littleton’s Dialogues of the dead (Harrison & Company, 1787), p. 90.
  19. C. Lippert, Eighteenth-century English Porcelain in the Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 60.
  20. R. Conroy, ‘When tea-drinking was a fashionable, expensive habit’, museumwales.ac.uk, 25 June 2010, http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/articles/2010-06-25/When-tea-drinking-was-a- fashionable-expensive-habit/ [accessed 2017].
  21. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Chippendale Furniture’, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online [n.d], http://www.britannica.com/topic/Chippendale [accessed 2017].

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