For centuries manufactured in China, porcelain first entered Europe in small quantities in the 14th century via Middle East intermediaries. In the 16th century, after the Portuguese established trade with China during the Ming dynasty, shipments of significant amounts to Europe began. Dutch merchants were able to acquire porcelain in Lisbon for distribution in Northern Europe. In 1580, Spain took control of Portugal, and because they were at war with the Netherlands, they denied Dutch access to Portugal. Illicit trade between the two did occur, but at significant risk; thus, the Dutch began to seek routes to China in the late 1500s. After establishing the Dutch East India Company in 1602, the Dutch became the dominant maritime traders in Asia and the primary supplier of Chinese porcelain in Europe. In addition to legitimate trade, Dutch looting of Portuguese and Spanish ships and Chinese junks brought even more porcelain into the market. In the early 1600s, the Dutch marketed porcelain to English royalty, nobility, and wealthy merchants alike.
Chinese porcelain is the finest ceramic ware recovered from James Fort (1607-1624) and the early port period (1625-1650) . The ware arrived at Jamestown as early as 1610 with upper echelon settlers. Some porcelain objects may have been acquired in Virginia directly from the Dutch, who may have been trading in the colony as early as 1618, at a time when ordinary colonists were making fortunes raising tobacco and could afford to purchase luxury items.
The Jamestown Rediscovery collections contain porcelain from two manufacturing locations in China, Jingdezhen, and Zhangzhou. Fabric, form, and decoration are useful in determining their origins.
Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province was the manufacturing location of about two/thirds of the total porcelain assemblage from James Fort. Jingdezhen became the center of porcelain production in China in the 14th century at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Jingdezhen porcelain includes two types: vessels made for the Chinese domestic market, and kraak, made for export primarily during Emperor Wanli’s reign (1573-1620).
Once known as Swatow, a coarser type of porcelain is currently known as Zhangzhou. Located in the Fujian province, Zhangzhou was the production and distribution area of this type. In the 16th century, the Portuguese traded it to Southeast Asia and Europe, and the Spanish to the Americas. As early as 1596, the Dutch referred to this product from Zhangzhou as gros porcelain (“rough”).
Fabric: Jingdezhen porcelain fabrics are fine-grained, white, translucent, and contain very few impurities. Zhangzhou fabrics range from fine-grained white porcelain to coarse pinkish- to grayish-colored porcelaneous stoneware.
Glaze: Jingdezhen feldspathic glazes are slightly bluish-tinged and glossy with occasional pitting and imperfections from the clay’s impurities. Bases are generally, but not always, glazed. Occasionally grit from the sand on kiln props adheres to the footrings.
Zhangzhou feldspathic glazes vary in color from a transparent greenish- or bluish-color to an opaque grayish-white. They are often crackled and very thickly and carelessly applied, sometimes leaving unglazed patches on the base burnt to a reddish-brown or buff-yellow color. Most bases are glazed and pitted, and the footrings are unglazed with much grit adhering.
Decoration: Both Jingdezhen and Zhangzhou porcelains are decorated in underglaze cobalt blue, varying from an inky dark blue to a light cobalt blue to a silvery color. The designs are often outlined with dark blue and filled with a light blue wash.
Standard designs on Jingdezhen vessels are flowers, insects, birds, rocks, grass, and panels or medallions. Chinese figures decorate. A single bowl in the collection. Two bowls are slip-decorated in white above a blue ground with a dragon motif, while a cup rim sherd is slip-decorated above a brown background with a prunus branch. A carved decoration known as linglong ornaments one bowl.
Comprising most of the Zhangzhou assemblage, bowls are hastily decorated on their exteriors with flowers and scrolls and on their interior base with one or two flowers. A celadon green bottle from Zhangzhou bears overglaze exterior motifs. One Zhangzhou dish is entirely undecorated.
Form: Jingdezhen porcelain vessels include bowls and dishes of various sizes; cups and teacups; saucers; a pedestal bowl; and wine cups. Foliated rims appear frequently. Also typical are chatter-marks on the bases from the potters’ trimming tools.
Bowls comprise the majority of Zhangzhou porcelain vessels. However, the Jamestown assemblage also includes a lid for a bowl, two large shallow dishes, and a bottle.