CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Types of Porcelain: Everything You Need to Know

For centuries, porcelain has been used to craft beautiful and important decorative works around the world. The earliest use of porcelain comes from the Shang Dynasty in China, where the art of glazing and firing porcelain evolved from early prototypes into the classic material we are familiar with today.

 

What are the types of porcelain?

Porcelain can be divided into three different types, each of which requires a unique crafting process. The earliest form was hard-paste, followed by soft-paste and later bone china.

 

Hard Paste

The most popular type of porcelain is the original hard-paste first employed by Chinese ceramicists and later used around the world. What we consider true hard-paste porcelain has been dated as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), where early examples took on a green hue and are now called celadon porcelain.

 
Chinese Blue & White Floral Porcelain Teacup. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Chinese Blue & White Floral Porcelain Teacup. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau.
 

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) important ceramic advancements were made, particularly the use of sancai (tri-colored) earthenware as well as pure white porcelain, only made possible through centuries of refinement in technique. While the most elaborate and detailed pottery pieces were kept for burials in order to accompany the deceased into their afterlife, everyday wares began to spread via the Silk Road across Central Asia. Porcelain dishes like the teacup above dates to a later period, but shows the famed blue and white style which became popular during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and represents most people’s idea of porcelain today. In the 14th century, Chinese porcelain was introduced to Europeans, who were both amazed and stumped by its impressive qualities, inspiring the creation of soft-paste porcelain.

 

Soft Paste

The beautiful forms of Chinese porcelain were considered a great, rare luxury by Europeans, who also sought to create their own versions of the durable ceramic. However, duplicating the transparency and strength of Chinese ceramics appeared to be an impossible task. Without the knowledge of the correct mixture of materials (in particular, access to kaolin) or the higher temperatures required to solidify the porcelain, the resulting European attempts lacked either the strength or beauty of hard-paste porcelain. Some artists created beautiful soft-paste works that lacked durability, while others created strong, solid pieces missing the delicate features that distinguish porcelain as an art form.
 
Fine Worcester Wall-Period Bowl. Circa 18th Century. M.S. Rau
 
Fine Worcester Wall-Period Bowl. Circa 18th Century. M.S. Rau
 
One of the most successful factories producing soft-paste porcelain was the Royal Worcester, established in 1751. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they were able to produce porcelain ware like the above bowl which replicated the style of Chinese blue and white porcelain. The factory used a secret formula containing soapstone.
 
Meissen Porcelain Fall Figural Group. Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau
 
Meissen Porcelain Fall Figural Group. Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau

 

Soft-paste porcelain was limited to a relatively short period as the Meissen factory in Germany was able to replicate hard-paste porcelain by 1710, and the factory kept the recipe secret from their competitors as long as possible. Crucial kaolin deposits in Limoges and Sèvres also made the production of hard-paste porcelain more accessible to Europeans, and the French crown supported the founding of the Sèvres porcelain factory which supplied many French monarchs with different types of wares of exceptional quality.

 
King Louis Philippe I Sèvres Porcelain Mantel Clock. Dated 1842. M.S. Rau.
 

 

King Louis Philippe I Sèvres Porcelain Mantel Clock. Dated 1842. M.S. Rau.
 

The above clock serves as just one example of the superior-quality pieces produced by Sèvres and includes ornate porcelain plaques accented by unglazed, biscuit porcelain. Anyone interested in collecting art can easily see the beauty and intense skill required to create masterful works like this, making any porcelain piece a stunning addition to any collection.

 

Bone China

 
Wedgwood 6-piece Bone China Dejeuner Set. Circa 1875. M.S. Rau
 
Wedgwood 6-piece Bone China Dejeuner Set. Circa 1875. M.S. Rau
 

This type of porcelain is named for its unique composition, including animal bones ground into a powder, which is known as bone ash. The bone ash serves an important purpose by providing extra strength to the porcelain, allowing potters to create thinner pieces. The resulting mixture is fired at a slightly lower temperature than other types of porcelain, giving bone china an elegant, milky transparency. Similar to soft-paste porcelain, bone china was discovered by Englishman Thomas Frye in an attempt to recreate Chinese hard-paste porcelain. Despite its European origins, bone china has reached high levels of popularity and even surpassed hard-paste porcelain production in China today.

 

What is porcelain used for?

Porcelain has served as tableware or decoration in households since ancient times. Due to its impressive durability, many everyday objects from tea cups to serving dishes have been crafted of porcelain.

 
Meissen Porcelain Mirror. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Meissen Porcelain Mirror. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.
 

Just because porcelain has been used and treasured for centuries doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation within the medium, whether in the types of objects created or unusual color palettes. The colorful, ornate details above are part of a larger mirror, and demonstrate the creative possibilities of porcelain.

 

Is porcelain a type of ceramic?

Yes, porcelain is one of many materials used in ceramics, which also includes earthenware and stoneware. One easy way to tell the difference between porcelain and other ceramics is transparency, as porcelain is translucent rather than opaque. If you hold a ceramic item up to a light source and notice light glowing through, you can be certain the piece is porcelain. However, painting or some glazes can limit the transparency of porcelain, so this method is not always accurate.
 

An even simpler way to identify a ceramic piece is to flip it over and examine any unglazed portion - if you notice a grainy, coarse texture the item is stoneware or earthenware rather than porcelain. In general, porcelain pieces are thinner, lighter and stronger than any other ceramic, explaining why they are so treasured by collectors.

 

What classifies antique porcelain?

The descriptor “antique” can be a confusing classification when considering the centuries of porcelain production, which continues into the present. What counts as a true antique? For porcelain and many other decorative arts like antique glass, an object over 100 years old can be defined as an antique.
 
Rust-Red and Gold Nanking Cargo Mug. Circa 1752. M.S. Rau
 
Rust-Red and Gold Nanking Cargo Mug. Circa 1752. M.S. Rau
 
Porcelain stands out among many collectible and desirable antiques for its functionality - many porcelain pieces have stood the test of time, but are still in usable condition and can be incorporated into your daily life. Consider using antique porcelain dishes like a bowl to serve food, or a classic porcelain mug for your tea or coffee.
 
M.S. Rau’s collection of antique porcelain has the perfect piece for your home, with an impressive range from the every day to the extraordinary.
 
 
References:
 
Munger, Jeffrey, and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen. “East and West: Chinese Export Porcelain.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ewpor/hd_ewpor.htm (October 2003)

Savage, G. , Sullivan, . Michael and Silbergeld, . Jerome. "Chinese pottery." Encyclopedia Britannica, August 24, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-pottery.

WANT MORE BLOGS AND ARTICLES LIKE THIS?

Sign up below to be the first to know about new acquisitions, exhibits, blogs and more.

Back to Top
back to top

Shopping Bag

Your shopping bag is currently empty.