by Dr. Lori Verderame
A History of Far East Traders, Shipwreck Treasures, and President Washington’s Mount Vernon
Ships on the high seas. Traders from ancient lands. Hand-made, kiln-fired china. Phrases call to mind the highly collectible ceramics called Cantonware, a cobalt blue and grey-white paste porcelain made in China centuries ago.
Since the 1600s, cantonware was acquired from the port city of Canton, China. Cantonware was transported as the ballast of a ship and used for the heavy material placed low in a sea vessel to improve a ship’s stability. So common was this practice that large amounts of lost cantonware were often discovered by treasure hunters searching shipwrecks on the ocean floor.
Cantonware porcelain was manufactured in the Chinese province of Ching-Te Chen, then sent to the seaside port of Canton for final decorating by Chinese artists in enameling shops. From there, the pieces were sent by the British East India Company onto cargo ships—caravels, junks, cogs and other sea trade vessels—for delivery to the New World in the 18th Century. Cantonware has been regularly found among shipwrecks found by treasure hunters searching the ocean floor including the stock of cantonware found amid the famous Diana wreck in 1807.
Records show that cantonware may have first been introduced to American collectors by a Rhode Island merchant who accepted a shipment of the blue/white porcelain in the late 1700s. Other documentation shows that cantonware for everyday use was inventoried at Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of President George and Martha Washington located near Washington, DC, in the late 1790s.
The Politics of Chinaware
When the Revolutionary war ended and China trade was popular, large amounts of cantonware came to North America. From 1784 to circa 1850, the Chinese exported about 2 million pieces of cantonware to America. For the American market, rare First period cantonware dating to circa 1784-1810 was most desirable. It featured detailed hand-painted decorations and well-built porcelain forms.
Second period cantonware arrived faster than First period but it showed a lack of quality. This occurred following the death of the strict Emperor Qianlong who demanded that Chinese porcelains retain high quality standards. Second period cantonwares showed less precision in decoration, a drab appearance, and faulty clay structures.
Unfortunately, politics impacted trade in the late 1830s when cantonware fell out of favor because of the Opium Wars (First, circa 1839-42 and Second, circa 1856-60). When China’s Qing dynasty fought the British in the First Opium War and then fought the British and the French in the Second Opium War, the Chinese lost significant territory to the European powers. The Opium Wars weakened the Qing dynasty, impacted trade practices, and spiked market prices associated with cantonware.
Cantonware, like other porcelains produced prior to 1891, was unmarked or only marked with paper labels. To meet the 1891 McKinley Tariff Act standards, cantonwares were marked with its country of origin stated in English on each piece. So, the word “China” was written or stamped on each piece.
Cantonware is known by various names associated with its sea-trade history including: Chinese export porcelain, ballast ware china, China trade porcelain, etc. Named for the port city of Canton (Guangzhou), cantonware was a widely traded product derived from secret ceramic recipes and closely-guarded kiln production techniques.
Identifying Authentic Cantonware
Cantonware is highly recognizable for its blue/white color scheme and hand-painted subject matter featuring village scenes, Asian tea houses, boats, pagodas, foot bridges, trees, meandering waterways, distant mountains, and few human figures.
Authentic cantonware has a coarse body texture with minor flaws and ash residue often referred to as an “oatmeal” appearance, assymetrical ridges, clear glaze or clear grey glaze, inclusions or perimeter rim indentations, blue or blue-gray coloration or decoration featuring Asian imagery and borders of lattice or criss-cross and scallops, swags, clouds, diagonal lines, or wave patterns.
While blue/white porcelains are common, cantonware does not share attributes with transferware ceramics made famous by the artisans of Staffordshire, England. Look for a seam mark on transferware which you will not find on hand painted cantonware. And, Portuguese reproductions of cantonware were commonly marked “Mottahedah” on the underside of the base.
Major museums boast collections of cantonware including the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University in University Park, PA, Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, FL, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY and Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, MA, to name a few.