Pater Gratia Oriental Art

Japanese Porcelain


Japanese Early Overglaze Enamelled wares 1660-1680


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Japanese documents, kiln-site excavations and surviving pieces seem to confirm that Arita potters started making porcelain with an enamelled decoration in the mid-1640's. Influences of Chinese polychrome porcelain are obvious. Chinese wares had been imported into Japan in some quantity and found a ready market. It is understandable that Japanese potters tried to copy them in order to compete locally. Furthermore, in the mid-1640's, the Japanese must have faced the same problems as the Dutch: Chinese porcelain was no longer easily available due to the civil wars, and the desire for alternatives stimulated production in Arita. Producing polychrome wares required mastering new techniques. Instead of the single firing used for underglaze blue wares, pieces now had to be fired a second time at a lower temperature. It seems that Chinese potters provided the Japanese with the knowledge of decorating in enamels, technically so different from painting in underglaze blue or iron-oxide.

Initially, the Arita potters did not produce for export, but things changed when the Dutch started to buy porcelain in Japan, first privately in the mid-1650's or even earlier, and from 1657 formally through the Dutch East India Company, (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) as well. In their letter of 12 July of that year, the Directors in Amsterdam asked Deshima to send samples of porcelain made in Japan, 'two or three pieces of each kind, to wit, those that are painted with all kinds of colours, blue and otherwise....' Accordingly, the first cargo of Japanese wares the VOC shipped to the Netherlands included many polychrome wares as try-outs, and must have found keen buyers as further shipments for patria contained assortments of enamelled wares as well as underglaze blue porcelain. (Jörg 2003/1, pp.49-51)


This group of enamelled export porcelain was coined 'early enamelled ware' by Impey because of the way their colour schemes and decorations) differed from the later Kakiemon and Imari wares that developed out of this group. They only cover a short period, from 1660 to 1680, and represent the 'early' phase of polychrome ware for export. The enamels are bright and show a strong green, a brownish yellow. a beautiful dark brick-red, a light aubergine and a surprising overglaze blue; outlines are mostly in black. Initially, the enamels were still rather opaque, but they became more transparent in time. The overglaze blue enamel is particularly interesting: it was used occasionally in China on Wanli pieces, but it was not until the end of the 17th century that it became popular on Kangxi famille verte pieces. (Jörg 2003/1, pp.49-51)


Ohashi states that the 'overglaze enamel technique was transferred to Japan from China'. Consequently he says, to enable the second firing, enamelled pieces had a wider footring than underglaze blue shoki-Imari pieces. However, saggars were not yet in use and both body and glaze usually show impurities. Pieces show combinations of enamels with underglaze blue or enamels only. Decorations were initially based on Chinese models, but quickly developed into a Japanese style. (Jörg 2003/1, p.51)


On the early enamelled wares. underglaze blue patterns are confined to circular lines around the foot, shoulder or neck or to a minor part of the composition, thus leaving the enamel painter much freedom. Some pieces do share characteristic elements, for instance, several jars, bottles and ewers show a ground of groups of parallel vertical short lines in a brick-coloured iron-red, indicating water. This device resembles comparable grounds on Chinese Transitional pieces decorated in wucai enamels, from which the idea may have been derived. It is not seen on later Kakiemon or Imari porcelain. (Jörg 2003/1, p.50)


Returning to the early enamelled wares, a special group has to be mentioned. It consists of plates, deep saucers and dishes with an enamelled decoration in kraak style. They closely follow the composition of underglaze blue Chinese models of kraak porcelain with a border of wide and narrow panels and a flowerpot or a river scene with birds in the centre. However they are only painted in overglaze enamels without any underglaze blue. These bright pieces must have been a most attractive replacement for Chinese kraak ware, which had become unavailable, and one would have expected the Dutch to have shipped them to The Netherlands in large quantities. This seems not to have been the case, however, as nearly all the pieces in Dutch collections have an Indonesian provenance. In general, early enamelled wares are noticeably lacking in Dutch museums when compared to more substantial collections in England and Germany. (Jörg 2003/1, p.51)

Currently there are no Japanese Early Overglaze Enamelled wares 1660-1680 for sale.