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William Lever’s collecting of Famille Noire porcelain

Konstanze A. Knittler, PhD candidate, Department of History of Art, University of Glasgow

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The Lady Lever Art Gallery's collection is very rich in Famille Noire porcelains, a prominent type of Qing dynasty (1644-1912) porcelain that featured significantly in many British art collections around the turn of the 20th century. Famille Noire can be described as a sub-group of Famille Verte, which developed from the wucai palette (meaning five-colour) in the late Ming dynasty. The terms were coined by the French Jesuit and ceramic collector Albert Jacquemart in 1873 and Famille Noire can generally be defined as bearing a copper-green lead-based enamel over an unfired coating of Chinese cobalt 'émail sur biscuit' (on the biscuit). During enamel firing, the two combined to give an intensely black effect, with a hint of green. The technique was first used at Jingdezhen in the mid-15th century, but it disappeared again until the late 17th century, when it was taken up once more at the court of the emperor Kangxi (1662-1722). 1

Owing to this circumstance, Famille Noire has generally been regarded as having been produced in the Kangxi era of the Qing dynasty and, in literature around the turn of the past century, even been mistaken as late Ming (1368-1644). Many pieces bear a Chenghua (1465-1487) reign mark on the base, for which reason many experts were mislead at the end of the 19th century into believing that these pieces originated from the Ming period.

This misconception gave impetus to the author's further investigating this type of ware; during a personal examination of Famille Noire in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection that houses the Salting collection, it could be established that due to their general appearance most of the pieces inspected were unlikely to date to the Kangxi period, and that from today's standards they could even be considered 'fakes' of the late 19th century, in imitation of Kangxi wares.2 The Lady Lever Art Gallery, in comparison, includes a considerable amount of similar pieces to the Salting Bequest and due to that apparent similarity, this essay will look into the question of collecting Famille Noire and the authenticity of the 'black ground' wares, as they were also referred to at the time.

Before taking a closer look into the actual Famille Noire objects from the Lever collection, and their stylistic analysis, it will be a necessary step to explain why these wares had become so popular during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries and how scholars and connoisseurs have perceived them in the past 100 years.

Famille Noire and its discussion in literature

As early as 1881, O. du Sartel presented some Famille Noire vases within the section of Ming dynasty porcelains in his publication on Chinese porcelain. Although they bear Chenghua marks, he assessed them to be copies or imitations (of Ming ware), and he dated them towards the very early years of the Kangxi period. In addition, he illustrated some more Famille Noire vases, which he definitely assigned to the Kangxi.3

Cosmo Monkhouse's standard work from 1901 on the history of Chinese porcelain confused some of the Famille Noire objects as Ming originals, which was not an uncommon error, owing to the deceptive marks on some of the objects' bases. 4

An early calling into question of Famille Noire is however reproduced by W.G. Gulland in the second volume of his two-volume book Chinese porcelain, in quoting the American collector Thomas Lindall Winthrop who mentioned two categories of Famille Noire.5 First, he linked the category 'over the glaze' to pieces from the Salting collection, in particular to one vase illustrated by Gulland on p. 164 and then he compared this object to one vase of the art dealer Siegfried Bing in Paris. After careful examination of such an object, Winthrop was convinced that the decoration had been added to a white ground by being painted first and then filled with the black ground. Bing's piece displayed a rather mat black enamel with the edges washed with a delicate fawn colour. Winthrop's explanations are not entirely clear in terms of dating those vases, but he definitely regarded them as being of inferior quality than those of his proposed first category. He called pieces from the second category modern, which were covered with black enamel and painted with muddy colours with the design of flowers and butterflies. Those pieces were regarded worthless by Winthrop, having been imported to England by officers about the middle of the 19th century. The description of thick and muddy colours painted on top of the glazes certainly applies to several of the Lever pieces, as we will see later on.

There is no further evidence in contemporary literature that this ware should have been anything else than of the Kangxi reign, since even the renowned scholar and author of Chinese art, Stephen Wooton Bushell, assigned Famille Noire to that very period.6



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  1. For a technical definition of Famille Noire compare for example Wood Nigel, Chinese glazes. Their origins, chemistry and recreation, London/Philadelphia 1998, pp. 235-238

  2. This handling session was carried out together with an expert on Chinese Ceramics, Gordon Lang, the Keeper of the Asian Department, Beth Mc Killop, and Dr Luisa Mengoni, Curator, Asian Department. I am very grateful for their help and support in this research.

  3. Du Sartel O., La porcelaine de Chine, Paris 1881, pp. 168, 183, 192 and 194

  4. Monkhouse Cosmo, A history and description of Chinese porcelain, with notes by S.W. Bushell, London 1901; compare for example p. 124

  5. Gulland, W.G., Chinese porcelain, Vol. II, London 1902, pp. 325-326

  6. Bushell Stephen Wooton, Chinese Art, London 1906, Vol. II, p. 36