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William Lever’s collecting of Famille Noire porcelain - page 5

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In review of the pieces of Famille Noire porcelains in the Lever collection discussed above and previous observations in the more recent literature we can identify several categories of Famille Noire porcelains.

  1. Famille Noire small scale pieces (e.g. small bowls in Augustus the Strong's collection in Dresden, based on the inventory of 1779); original Kangxi porcelain and decoration38
  2. Famille Noire vases that are a complete invention of the (late) 19th century, in terms of composition, shape and decoration (Fig. 1, 2, 4 and 6)
  3. Famille Noire vases that are composed of an original Kangxi porcelain body, but which were altered and re-decorated in the 19th century (Fig. 3 and 5)
  4. Famille Noire vases that were of a later period than the Kangxi, namely the Yongzheng or Qianlong period (Fig. 7)

Consequently, many pieces in the Lever collection should be attributed to the mid to late 19th Century rather than the Kangxi period (1662-1722). Another supporting argument could be that these kinds of wares initially were not even reflected in Chinese textbooks. According to Gerald Reitlinger, this type of porcelain had been sought after by Ci Xi, the Empress Dowager who virtually ruled China between the 1860s and early 1900s. As her natal colour was black, everything that was suitable was hunted for purchase and since the supply of original wares was short, large scale Famille Verte were blacked in to fulfil the demand and, later on, were deliberately forged.39 This argument seems plausible; however, with regard to the enormous prices black wares achieved on the American market, the European dealers who supplied those wares might have been responsible for the pushing of prices once they had realised what Famille Noire could fetch on the European market. Furthermore it was suggested that Famille Noire was produced in both Europe and Japan to continue the craze for Aesthetic-style pieces.40 The shortage of Famille Noire large scale objects in Imperial Chinese porcelain collections further sustains these arguments.

In terms of documentary evidence, one final example of black ground porcelain needs to be examined.

Two vases from the Rijksmuseum, very similar in style to Fig. 1, but with the inclusion of red enamel, were acquired in a Christie's sale of 1888, from Burghley House, Lincolnshire. Although they fetched no more than £341.15s 0d at the actual sale because of the conception that they could be works of Samson in Paris, the dealer Joseph Duveen, in believing them truly Kangxi, would have been willing to pay £ 20,000 for them in the early days of the 20th century. However, this transaction never happened. 41

In a visit to Burghley House, where the actual inventories were examined by the author, it could be established that those vases did not appear in any inventories that would temporally correspond to the Kangxi (1662-1722) period. (Such as the inventory of 1728, where they are not listed) They only appear in the last inventory of 1854 where they are catalogued as A pair of Black (with painted flowers) quadrangular jars.42 Although this documentary evidence is not necessarily proof that those pieces are fake, since they could have been housed elsewhere before, their striking stylistic similarity to pieces in the Lever and the Salting collections leads to the assumption that they are most likely new inventions with a black ground dating to the middle of the 19th Century. Owing to their entry in the Burghley House inventory of 1854, they could consequently be one of the earliest fakes of Famille Noire produced in imitation of original Kangxi ware.

In summary, there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of Famille Noire in the Lever collection actually date to the Kangxi period. One way to investigate their authenticity would be to undertake a scientific, technical analysis that would look into the different layers of composition in order to arrive at a more accurate attribution. However, this is a time-consuming and costly undertaking; in order to carry out such an examination, the changes in manufacturing processes will have to be considered and several surface analysis techniques will have to be employed. It will need much time for preparation before such an analysis can be conducted, but the author is optimistic that this assessment will be taking place in the near future in order to refute or confirm the attribution of large scale Famille Noire porcelains to the Kangxi period.


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  1. For a discussion on these bowls compare for example Ströber Eva, La Maladie de Porcelaine, ostasiatisches Porzellan aus der Sammlung Augusts des Starken, Leipzig 2001, p. 64, Nr. 25

  2. Reitlinger, Vol. II, 1970, p. 212

  3. Compare again Jenyns, footnote 7

  4. Reitlinger, Vol. II, 1970, p. 212

  5. Inventory of 1854, housed by Burghley House in Lincolnshire