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William Lever’s collecting of Famille Noire porcelain - page 2

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It is highly likely that Lever had studied some of the mentioned publications with regard to Famille Noire and Chinese porcelains in general, and at the time, hardly anything could have indicated a fault in those objects.

On the contrary, about 20 years later, Robert Lockhart Hobson, who also compiled the catalogue of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, published in 1928, spoke of the same ware as possessing the best Kangxi potting, truth of form and elegance of line.7 But exactly those characteristics make them doubtful as genuine Kangxi period pieces. Neither shape, nor decoration or colour lives up to original documented Kangxi examples.

Only a few decades later, long after William Lever's death, the authenticity of many Famille Noire wares was questioned when Soame Jenyns concluded that this particular group had occupied a place entirely out of proportion to its interest or aesthetic value. According to Jenyns, the pieces were costly to produce as the repeated firing often destroyed them in the kilns and consequently they commanded prices higher than other Chinese porcelain had been able to secure. This particular desirability has produced many imitations, made not only in China and Japan, but also in Europe. Jenyns also mentioned the interesting aspect of having used blue and white pieces of which the design had been ground away in order to be repainted in the Famille Noire palette.8

The major publication which expressed profound scepticism towards the authenticity of Famille Noire large scale vases was John Alexander Pope's catalogue of the Chinese porcelains in the Frick collection.9 Pope believed that all of the large scale objects were fakes of the later 19th century. He supported this theory with various examples of serious collectors of Chinese porcelain, who mainly bought in the Far East and who did not possess any of those pieces (such as Charles Lang Freer and Alfred Hippisley). Apart from a stylistic analysis that lead Pope to believe that these pieces were fakes, he mentioned the inventory of Augustus the Strong's collection in Dresden of 1779, which had only listed five small cups and saucers with black enamel decoration and which seem to be true Kangxi porcelain. As a Far Eastern collection, Pope referred to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan which had never seen an example of a large scale Famille Noire vase before it was presented with one piece in 1950. Pope very much expressed his regret about the uncertainty that surrounded the Famille Noire large scale type, and in his discussion of the Lady Lever's Chinese collection, Oliver Impey, went even further in stating that no documentary evidence has yet been found for the Kangxi period of Famille Noire, in contrast to those of the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, where pieces are documented.10

The aesthetic and monetary value of Famille Noire

Now, after reviewing the different approaches and views from the literary sources one has to pose the question why one would have wanted to fake Famille Noire ware in the first place? One possibility might be found in the type of decoration found on those objects.

Fig. 1 Square Famille Noire vase with tapering sides, LL 6724, © National Museums Liverpool

This square shaped vase with tapering sides from the Lady Lever Art Gallery's collection is a typical example of a Famille Noire style with the decoration of flowering prunus blossoms, plants and a bird on a black ground, with the inclusion of Famille Verte enamels. In general, this type of decoration is not uncommon on authentic Kangxi wares, but the way in which it is arranged does not conform to the high quality decoration of original Kangxi.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Aesthetic movement was in vogue in Britain, promoted by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1881) and James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1902). Both artists appreciated Blue and White porcelains and purchased high quality pieces themselves. Consequently, the hype for porcelain decorated with prunus blossom on a blue crackled ground very much complied with the aesthetic value of Famille Noire vases decorated in a similar style.11

Famille Noire, as a matter of fact, eventually turned out to be the most expensive porcelain sold in the first two decades of the 20th century. In the 1880s, the market was dominated by collectors such as George Salting (1839-1909) in Great Britain and James Albert Garland (1840-1902) in the United States of America. Salting acquired the most interesting of those porcelains for reasonable prices ranging from £60 to £300 in the 1880s.12 James Garland, on the other hand, would often pay considerably more, if he had set his mind on it.13 Both collections were on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively, where they could be visited and admired by the general public, and experts, collectors and connoisseurs in equal measure. Garland took the first interest in this porcelain and possibly because of his influence the Famille Noire style became 'Millionaire's taste' in America after 1910, so much so that a vase bought by the dealer Frank Partridge, who also supplied William Lever in a major way, was sold to the American James D. Rockefeller in 1919 for £ 12.000.14


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  1. Hobson Robert Lockhart, The later ceramic wares of China, London 1925, p. 28; for the Lady Lever catalogue compare Hobson, Chinese Porcelain & Wedgwood Pottery, with other works of ceramic art, etc., London 1928

  2. Jenyns Soame, Later Chinese porcelain: the Ch'ing dynasty, 1644-1912, London 1951, p. 34

  3. Pope John Alexander, The Frick Collection: an illustrated catalogue. Vol. 7 Porcelains, Oriental and French, Washington 1974, pp. 87-90

  4. Impey Oliver, "Lever as a collector of Chinese Porcelain", in Morris, Edward (ed.), "Art and Business in Edwardian England: The Making of The Lady Lever Art Gallery", Journal of the History of Collections, Vol.4, Nr. 2, 1992, pp. 235-236 in particular for the discussion on Famille Noire wares.

  5. Compare LL72 of the Lady Lever Art Gallery's collection for an example of a Prunus Blossom Jar of the Kangxi period (1662-1722)

  6. Compare Guildhall library MS 19473 (1) and (2) P.W. Flower and Sons. - George Salting's receipted bills for purchase, packing, photographing and re. for Salting's purchases

  7. Compare Reitlinger Gerald, The economics of taste, Vol. II, London 1970, pp. 210-215

  8. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 328