Cantonware: The Original Blue Willow

By Kirsti Scott

chinese import plates

Long before the famous Blue Willow pattern of transferware was developed by English pottery manufacturer Thomas Turner in 1779, handpainted blue and white Chinese porcelain with similar blue landscape designs and themes could be found on countless tables around the world.

canton ware plates handpainted pottery

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Chinese factories in Canton (Guangzhou) created blue-and-white porcelain and stoneware for export featuring decorative border patterns surrounding a generic landscape of pavilions, tea houses, trees, bridges, mountains, and a river or stream. The porcelain was manufactured and fired in the Province of Ching-Te Chen, then sent by the East India Trading Company for the decorating process by artists and craftsmen working in the enameling shops in the port of Canton. These pieces were painted by a variety of artists, resulting in a huge range of the quality of the materials used and in the execution of the designs.

This export china was sometimes known as “ballast ware,” as packed crates of tableware were shipped in the cargo holds of ships and were excellent ballast in rough seas. Originally shipped to the American colonies through England and Holland, after the Revolutionary war (1775-1783), America traded directly with China. Americans throughout the young country imported Canton ware porcelain plates, soup tureens, covered dishes, teapots, cups, saucers, candlesticks, and more.

chinese export plates used in mount vernon

Eventually, imported Canton porcelain became fashionable in early America, even used by George Washington, who received his first shipment of porcelain from England in 1758 and continued to acquire Chinese porcelain throughout his life. He used the pieces when he entertained guests at Mount Vernon, and the blue-and-white pieces were the family’s everyday china.

ballast ware chinese export china

Dating Canton ware can be a challenge, as early pieces had no makers marks. By 1890 the U.S. government required imports to be marked with their country of origin, so a piece marked “CHINA” or “MADE IN CHINA” helps narrow down the year. However, in the early 1900s the date was often included on a paper label, so the absence of a marking doesn’t necessarily mean it was made before 1890.

A second type of Chinese export ware is called Nanking porcelain. Though very similar to Canton ware, Nanking is a better-quality china, usually painted in more detail and sometimes with gilded edges. The blue pigment in Canton pieces varies more than Nanking ware, ranging from almost gray-blue to rich cobalt blue. Texture from kiln ash sometimes also marks the surface of less-refined Canton ware. Canton porcelain is still highly collectible, especially dishes and bowls that have few chips or imperfections, have deep blue colors, and are gracefully painted.

examples of cantonware china plates

Of course, beachcombers are looking for something completely different: the smooth, worn edges of a broken shard. Finding a piece of beach pottery with a decoration that is identifiable as Canton ware is a great bucket list item for many beachcombers.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2022 issue.

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