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Canton Enamel

Antique hunters and porcelain devotees are always on the lookout for unusual and beautiful pieces, especially from China.  The best examples of Chinese vases can date back centuries, some fetching millions of dollars at auction.  A more recent addition (by Chinese standards, at least) to the antique hunter's prize list is pieces created using Canton enamel, a technique that dates back to the late seventeenth century.  However, unlike the many other types of Chinese earthenware, porcelain, and other enamel decorated pieces, Canton enamel may actually owe its origin to foreign sources. 

Canton enamel is named for the city where it was first manufactured.  Canton is located in southern China in the province of Guandong.  While the Chinese had used enamels to paint artistic scenes on stoneware for centuries, Canton enamel was a new technique whereby painted enamels were painted onto the whole surface of copper, ceramics, and other earthenware pieces.  The technique was developed in Limoges, France in the seventeenth century.  It has been reported that this technique was brought to China in the late seventeenth century by French missionaries.  The earliest examples of Canton enamel date back to approximately 1740. 

Canton enamel was applied to a wide variety of different pieces.  The pieces which have become perhaps the most synonymous with the words "Canton enamel" are metals, which have been painted with enamels in a variety of different scenes.  These pieces often depicted court life in China, being decorated with elaborate floral borders.  The metal most often used in the earliest pieces is copper, which was first shaped into vases, plates, cups, and tea sets.  Once the artwork was completed, the pieces were heated to bond it firmly to the surface, creating a colorful piece that exudes color and liveliness.  As the industry developed and demand increased for pieces made with the Canton enamel process, manufacturers began working with many different materials.   

Canton enamel artwork could soon be found on porcelain and other stoneware and in fact, this technique started being used in other Chinese cities and districts.  Porcelain tea sets made during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are considered real art works.  Chinese enamels are generally divided into classifications based on the color palettes used in each piece.  Some examples include famille verte (green colors), wucai (bright colors), and fencai (pale colors).  Canton enamel pieces are generally created with famille rose (family of red) colors, which are opaque and filmy.  Typically, these include red, peach, yellow, and opaque white.  The opaque color scheme tends to give Canton enamel an ethereal quality not seen in other pieces from China, many of which have bright, bold colors. 

Canton enamel pieces produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are highly prized.  These include tea sets, cups, and plates while the pieces created in the twentieth century lean more toward a commercial appearance although they too are beautiful decorative and functional ash trays, tea sets, and so on.


Chinese Dynasties The Great Wall of China
The Forbidden City The Terracotta Army
Wide Celadon Vase
Wide Celadon Vase
Yaobian Flared Vase
Yaobian Flared Vase
Famille Rose Vase
Famille Rose Vase
Pair of  Vases
Pair of Vases
Yaobian Meiping Vase
Yaobian Meiping Vase

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