Traversing the Silk Road: The Advent of Chinese Blue and White Porcelain

Blue and white Chinese porcelain feels almost inevitable. It speaks the language of every style, signaling timeless elegance and worldly refinement in any interior. But the wide range of blue and white porcelain in our April Gallery Auction has caused us to investigate the ultimate ubiquity of this tasteful design staple. As it turns out, Chinese blue and white didn't just appear in well-heeled sitting rooms the world over fully formed, as it might sometimes seem. It took the confluence of global ambition and geologic circumstance to bring it to life.

Though blue, like other colors, does signal certain things like springtime in the Chinese artistic tradition, its appearance on Chinese porcelain actually came from a much more plebeian place: essentially, someone else was doing it, so the Chinese borrowed their materials and did it too.

The Silk Road between the Near East and China supported a bustling trade of luxury goods for centuries, and the varying skills and predilections of the different cultures had a significant influence on each other as they came into contact. Sometime around the 9th century, the Chinese began importing white porcelain to Persia. The Persians' own pottery was limited to yellow earthenware from more brittle clay that required over-glazing to become non-porous. The Chinese wares contained kaolin, of which there was none in Persia, which is what causes porcelain to be white, and petuntse - a clay that vitrifies (essentially, melts) when fired at very high temperatures, to become non-porous even without glazing.

The Persians were taken with the durable, white Chinese pieces and began copying the hue by using a white tin-oxide glaze, just as the makers of Delftware would centuries later. For their part, the Chinese made use of the pure Persian cobalt glazes - Chinese cobalt contained high levels of manganese, which grayed when fired. By the end of the 14th century, the Chinese were importing cobalt from Persia, using it to decorate their own desirable porcelain, which they then exported back to the Near East. The trade circle was complete.

From these enterprising origins sprang the artistic tradition that would ultimately capture the European market and beyond, inspiring the Delftware of the Dutch and the English, which itself became popular with American colonial consumers. From Persian earthenware pottery and plain white Chinese porcelain came a series of artistic inspirations and influences that spanned the centuries and the globe.

View the full catalogue for the April Gallery Auction