The East India Company - The Porcelain Trade in France in the 18th Century
Wednesday March 9, 2016: The East India Company - The Porcelain Trade in France in the 18th Century by Gilles Béguin, Honorary General Curator of Heritage - Former Director of the Cernuschi Museum.
The great discoveries have completely changed international trade and three countries are going to take a large part of it. First, Portugal, which set up a trading post in Macao in 1553, but trade with Portugal was prohibited when Philippe II of Spain married a Portuguese princess in an attempt to divert him to the Spanish ports. The Dutch, after having fought for their independence, will revolutionize trade: until the first years of the 17rd s. the luxury goods business generated huge profits and the Dutch will be the first to create a mass business where the volume compensates for lower profits. After having seized the Baltic trade they create, in 1602, the Dutch East India Company known under the acronym VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) whose buildings still exist in Amsterdam. On a Dutch painting we see an interior lined with blue and white Ming porcelain dishes that the Dutch call Kraak porcelain derived from caraques, the Portuguese boats that transported them.
Great Britain creates the Company of the English Indies in 1600, with half public and private funds. This British company is having a difficult time at 17rd s. but will dominate international trade at 18rd s.
In France, Chinese porcelain decorating interiors from 16rd s. come from Holland. It is only from the reign of Henry IV that we see individual initiatives encouraged by the State and 1642 creates an ephemeral Compagnie d'Orient. We have to wait for Colbert who, in 1664, gathers a certain number of traders, bankers and financiers to create the East India Company with a royal privilege of trade with China. But this one does not exploit this privilege and remains very modest so that in 1698 it is sold to Mr. Jourdan de Groucé which renames it Company of China and in the same year arms a frigate, the Amphitrite, which will make two trips. The freight of the first voyage gives rise to a sale in 1700, in Nantes, which knows a huge success and there is, among others, 167 pieces of porcelain. The second trip takes place between 1701 and 1703 and has the same success, resulting in the birth of the "Chinese taste" in France that will dominate the decoration of the interiors for about forty years.
After the death of Louis XIV, during the Regency, the Financial Law who wants to develop paper money trading merges the China Company with others to create the Perpetual Company of India. After the bankruptcy of Law, the East India Company will not only survive but develop and, between 1720 and 1770, it sends a dozen boats a year.
The navigation was first cabotage along the coast but we will discover that by moving away, we encounter a reversal of the winds that push the ships at high speed to the Cape of Good Hope which makes the trip much faster.
The French boats leave first of Brest and Port Louis, small town which is in front of Lorient. The fort built by Vauban now houses a museum dedicated to the East India Company and another dependent on the Ministry of Marine.
If on the Dutch boats, nobody has the right to own cargo, on the French boats, each sailor is entitled to a safe where he can put things that will be used to make exchanges with exotic products provided that this stay in the trunk. Officers are entitled to much more volume. The big families all know an officer who is ordered to pay for a service by paying a certain amount of money. The said officer will leave and find in the region of Canton an intermediary to whom he transmits the order by paying half of the sum requested. After more or less two years, the officer or one of his friends, returns to Canton, recovers the goods and pays the second half of the sum. When returning to France, the ships say they encounter storms and have to anchor for one night in a small port where, coincidentally, a crew member has connections. Boats, taking advantage of this stop, will leave the boat, loaded with crates. When, finally, the boat arrives safely, the agents of the taxman go on board to calculate the tax on the goods. It is assumed that 30% of the cargoes thus escaped the Royal Taxes. It is known from the notarial deeds, during the successions, that this Chinese porcelain was found mainly on the whole west coast of France and in the big cities.
We follow very clearly the rise of taste for Chinese porcelain, so between 1680 and 1718, the general inventory of the court will grow 1 569 porcelain. After 1722 and 1723's big sales in Nantes, we see a democratization of taste in all classes of society with merchants in Paris and the provinces.
An engraving by Daniel Marot represents a fashionable interior in the Regency era where Chinese style panels and a profusion of porcelains are seen. It is not only a fashion phenomenon but also an ostentatious phenomenon because porcelains are still of great value at this time. These ensembles no longer exist in France but can be heard in Charlottenburg (Berlin) where the porcelain room was restored after the bombings of the Second World War based on photographs.
We know that Chinese factories specialize their products according to the tastes of buyers, but it is very difficult to define whether such a piece was intended for the English, French or Dutch market. Until 1700 we see the triumph of blue and white Ming and the so-called "Chinese Imari" decor. After the advent of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1730), in 1681, with the reopening of the imperial factory in Jingdezhen, we see the appearance of a decoration called "famille verte" which is massively imported into Europe. Under Yongzheng (1723-1736) was born the decor of the “pink family” which would develop under Qianlong (1736-1796).
Officially, all these porcelains would come from Jingdezhen where were the imperial ovens but there were also ceramics centers near Canton, inland, which allowed an easy supply and avoid the imperial taxes. These factories are supposed to have produced lower quality articles but it turns out that they also produced high quality parts directly inspired by Jingdezhen models.
Among the imports are also pieces of Chinese shapes and decorations, pieces of diverted forms (the alcoholic jug becomes a teapot and plates and dishes for the European market are distinguished from Chinese dishes by the presence of marli) as well as pieces of Western forms. We sent drawings or engravings but also wooden forms, which explains the presence of objects such as tulips, coffee makers, helmet ewers, sugar shakers, salt shakers, terrines, etc.
The "Whites" of Fujian also had some success as Guanyin figured with one or two children could be identified with the Virgin Mary.
The commissioning scenes are inspired by Old and New Testament scenes, Boucher engravings or famous large paintings, popular, Masonic or political subjects. The figuration of boats was rather intended for an English clientele but a plate is named after the Dutch captain who had ordered the service. Armored services were also popular throughout Europe and are now highly sought after.
We have some milestones for dating such as the large vases ordered by the Duke of Orleans in the Chinese Imari style or the service of Louis XV. Some plays on political subjects date back to the 1790 years.
It is under Auguste le Fort that we will discover in Saxony, in Meissen, the secret of porcelain with the use of kaolin. Soon France will also produce porcelain at Vincennes, then at Sèvres in the Chinese style. Some Chinese models inspired the English faience factories.
With the advent of neoclassicism, in the 1770 years, the taste for the Chinese will be totally out of fashion.