An introduction to Heraldic Porcelain
By Hugh Macpherson. FSA Scot.

Heraldic Porcelain is necessarily an enormously complex and highly specialised subject. This brief article is intended to do no more than take a short look at its fascinating and engrossing evolution and highlights.

Porcelain was developed over many centuries in China. Since its beginnings in the Tang Dynasty (618-906), it had developed into a precious trading commodity. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) Chinese Emperors had founded Imperial porcelain factories at Jingdezhen. This area was ideally suited to the production of porcelain because of the availability of the raw materials - Kaolin, a pure white clay, and minerals. Fired at very high temperatures they produced a white translucent glass-like thin and strong body of porcelain, unknown in Europe.

The name derives from the Italian porcellana meaning “little pig”, a type of fine seashell to which the material bore a likeness. There are three main types of porcelain: A. Hard paste porcelain, which was initially made in China but by the early eighteenth century had also been discovered by Meissen; B. Soft paste porcelain, which was first produced in Europe; and C. Bone china, which was developed in England.

The beautiful white translucent hard paste porcelain was brought to Europe by Portuguese merchants in the early sixteenth century. This was blue and white ware, known a "Kraak Ware”, after the Portuguese carracks or trading ships. Some of the earliest blue and white pieces from this time show Portuguese coats of arms,. By the beginning of the early Qing dynasty in 1644 the Dutch East India Company had started to import porcelain, although pieces with coats of arms were not commissioned until the end of that century. The early pieces were much treasured, and often mounted in precious metals. Many great European houses and palaces had special “Chinese Rooms”.

From 1700 onwards the “China Trade” as it had become known was dominated by the British Honourable East India Company, which in 1708 was given a new charter, uniting the original company founded in 1601 with a rival company of 1698. Tea drinking was first popularised by the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, bride of Charles II. It spread from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy and the wealthy, and soon the entire country was gripped by tea drinking mania. To serve this voracious thirst, East Indiamen brought back tea, spices, silks, ivories, painted wallpaper and of course a vast range of porcelain goods. Porcelain was loaded into the bottom of the holds, where any ingress of sea water would do no damage, which was not the case with easily spoiled tea. The Chinese trading base was Canton (Guangzhou) where, after much prevarication, the Emperor permitted the European East India companies (and later America) to establish trading factories, or “Hongs”. The East India captains would accept private commissions for porcelain from the aristocratic and wealthy of Europe. This was the “Chine de Commande”.

Not only tea, but coffee and chocolate were extremely popular, and of course the range of cups, bowls, saucers, teapots and other accessories that were required was enormous. The ability to specify heraldic painting on these goods made an armorial service the very height of fashion.

The earliest services in the eighteenth century were ordered by those who had a connection with the East India Company – London merchants, captains and supercargoes, governors and politicians. By the second quarter the fashion spread from the aristocracy to the landed families and country gentry, while, from the mid 1740s orders were being placed by many of the City livery companies. The East India Company itself had a number of services manufactured over the years, both in China (although curiously only after 1795) and later in England.

Amongst many examples on view today in houses open to the public, two services date from this early period. An extensive service was made about 1715 for Sir Robert Walpole, then Prime Minister. Decorated in the Chinese Imari palette, it shows the Walpole arms in the centre of each piece, with the crest of Walker (the sun rising in clouds all proper) painted erroneously four times on the rim. They are on display at Houghton Hall, Norfolk (The Marquess of Cholmondeley). At Osterley House, Middlesex (National Trust), some plates of another early service made about 1720 for Sir Francis Child are on display. His arms are painted in the centre of the plates, which have a rare powder blue border.

An armorial dinner service (of up to 500 pieces) became “de rigueur” for any aspiring family. A coloured drawing, often commissioned from the College of Arms, would be delivered by the captain of an East Indiaman to the British factory or Hong at Guangzhou (Canton) where the order would be given to a Chinese merchant who carried it to Jingdezhen in central China. The decoration was carried out by highly skilled artists (paints that are applied over the glaze are commonly called enamels). The finished order would be collected by arrangement with an incoming captain on another voyage. This round trip would take about two years, and was often overtaken by events such as augmentations to arms, marriages, and deaths. It is all part of the story of the services and the families who commissioned them, which, as on silver, can be traced through the changes in the armorials. Another way of sending an illustration to China was by means of the bookplate, examples of which can be found in the Sir A. W. Franks collection in the British Museum; However, a frequent error was the misinterpretation of heraldic tinctures by the Chinese painters when they were called upon to translate into colour the unexplained use of hatched lines in different directions on heraldic bookplates and engravings. This led to the choice of wrong colours (sometimes painted over the lines themselves) in furtherance of design, rather than correct heraldry. Another example of problems was that when an instruction for a colour, e.g. “Red” or “Green” was written beside a part of the arms, these words were occasionally faithfully copied onto the porcelain, causing consternation to the commissioning customer.

There is a fascinating sample plate in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Museum No. FE 43 1978) showing various decorative styles, alternative borders and armorial designs. It dates from about 1795. The development and variations in rim styles and decoration is a subject in itself. Tracing its history and dating a piece of heraldic porcelain is often possible using the arms, rim style and colouring. The use of different shapes is instructive. Early tea caddies were copied from English silver caddies sent for reference, as were salt trenchers, and many other pieces. Early sugar bowls tended to follow the Eastern model, with covers. As fashions in Europe developed, so would the shapes and decoration from China. Occasionally blank porcelain was shipped to London where it was decorated in local workshops. This was less expensive than English manufacture.

The eighteenth century then, was the golden age of the China Trade, brought to a close by the availability of porcelain nearer home and the imposing of an import tax to encourage the new porcelain factories in England. During the nineteenth century it gradually tailed off as far as British orders were concerned, although in 1805 we still have John Jacob Astor ordering porcelain from Canton, while a service was also made in 1868 for the new American president Ulysses S. Grant.

Today, over 4000 heraldic porcelain services made in China for the British market are recorded as in at least part existence, and more are being discovered every year. They are highly decorative and have become much sought after and internationally collected, both for their heraldic interest, and as investments.

Two magisterial volumes by the late David Sanctuary Howard entitled “Chinese Armorial Porcelain” Vol. I, and Vol. II., illustrate and comprehensively list most of the known services. These encyclopaedic books are essential reference works for anyone interested in Chinese heraldic porcelain. Their listings and analysis of styles is exhaustive. The second volume, filled with coloured illustrations, is still in print.

But what of porcelain manufacture outside China? The secret blend of Kaolin and minerals (a variety of feldspar was essential) was sought in Europe for many years. Much experimentation was done in Italy, France and Spain. By the end of the sixteenth century a creamy porcelain was being made at Rouen, and afterwards at St. Cloud. This however, is the second type of porcelain known as “Soft Paste”. In 1710 an alchemist called Johann Bóttger working for Augustus, King of Saxony, produced a realistic copy of hard paste porcelain. From the 1720s onwards the Meissen factory was producing a pure white porcelain, often decorated in imitative Chinese styles. This secret was protected for some time, but eventually leaked out to factories in Vienna, Berlin, and France.

Trade restrictions meant that whilst large quantities of Chinese porcelain came into England in the early and middle of the eighteenth century, no German porcelain was allowed. Chinese porcelain remained the major influence on the English pottery industry, with local delftware and stoneware fighting to compete.

There will always be discussions about who produced the first successful porcelain in England. This brings us to an interesting insight into a custom that persists today. Before the stronger types of porcelain were available, the material used would not stand boiling water and would often shatter. It was then necessary to put milk into the teacup first, and to “warm the teapot” which many people still do, without understanding the origin of the tradition.

Finally, a Frenchman, Thomas Briand, unveiled the secret of porcelain-making in an address to the Royal Society in 1743. He entered into partnership with Nicholas Sprimont, a Huguenot silversmith living in London, and Chelsea Porcelain was born, closely followed by production at Bow and Derby. This mostly followed oriental and continental designs. The eighteenth century saw the rise and fall of many factories using both hard and soft paste porcelain.

By 1751, the recently established Worcester factory was producing fine soft paste porcelain, much of it decorated with Chinese designs in underglaze blue. This particular porcelain was able to withstand boiling water, and soon became pre-eminent in producing tea, coffee, and chocolate ware in a wide variety of patterns and colours. Displayed in the Worcester porcelain museum is a small armorial collection of pieces made in the early “Dr. Wall” period of Worcester. This dates from 1770, and includes a coffee cup, tea bowl (as yet without handles) and a saucer made for Warwick Calmady Esq. of Cornwall. The arms were painted in London and show a blue and gold heraldic charge with a leaf and berry border, and a gilt dentil edge.

Royal patronage was soon forthcoming and in 1789 (during the “Flight and Barr” period of Worcester) the newly created Duke of Clarence ordered a magnificent service, finely painted with coloured enamels, with his arms and Garter insignia in the centre of the plates flanked by oak leaves, acorns and laurel. The border, with entwined ribbons, contained the badges of the orders of the Garter and the Thistle, pink roses and thistles.

When Lord Nelson visited the Worcester factory in 1802 he ordered an extravagant service in the rich Imari (or “Japan”) colours of dark blue, red and gold. This was the most elaborate form of decoration available at the time, and produced by many English factories during the Regency period. Nelson ordered a dinner, breakfast, tea, and dessert service displaying his full coat of arms and his newly awarded honours. This service was dispersed by Lady Hamilton (who received a bill from the factory shortly after Nelson’s death). Pieces still occasionally appear in salerooms round the world. The Worcester Porcelain Museum holds a teapot and several other pieces from this service. There was also a large heraldic service produced for the Coronation of William IV.

During its long history, the Hon. East India Company commissioned many armorial services both from China and the English factories. In 1817 the Company at Fort St. George in Madras commissioned the largest armorial service ever produced at the Worcester factory. This contained over seven thousand items at a total cost of £4,190, 4 shillings. The service had a gold and salmon border with the full achievement of the Company in the centre. The arms are: Argent a cross gules, in the dexter chief quarter an escutcheon charged with the arms of England quartering Scotland and Ireland, The Crest is: A lion rampant or, supporting between the forefeet a regal crown, with supporters: Two lions rampant gardant or, each supporting a banner erect argent with cross gules.

Of the other English factories, Bristol produced good examples of armorial porcelain, a noteworthy set being the Burke Service, made by Champion, on Burke’s election for Bristol in 1774, while another was made at the short-lived Plymouth factory for the Pitt family, on whose land in Cornwall china clay was first discovered in England. Davenport and Rockingham china was often armorial. Wedgwood and other Staffordshire potters often used heraldic emblems for decoration.

Amongst the painters’ work books in the College of Arms are accounts for arms and crests supplied to Wedgwood. Liverpool workshops specialised in Masonic arms and emblems for their wares from about 1760 to 1770. The City Livery Companies of London commissioned many fine services in the eighteenth (mainly from China) and nineteenth centuries, many of which are displayed and occasionally used today.

In 1800, Josiah Spode developed a bone china paste that became the standard English paste. As well as superb heraldic enamelling, the Spode factory was noted for its exotic birds.

In the nineteenth and late eighteenth century the English factories also produced additions and replacements to the armorial services which had been ordered from China by previous generations.

A collector starting out in the field of armorial porcelain should be aware of the Parisian company of Samson. This workshop was established about 1850 and made large quantities of decorated hard paste porcelain, copying Chinese ware, Meissen, and Sevres. Some of these imitations found their way into stately homes and other collections, where they are still being discovered, much to the chagrin of the owners. Examples of a few of these copies can be found in David Sanctuary Howard’s ‘Chinese Armorial Porcelain’, Vol. II.

But what of armorial porcelain in the twenty-first century? It is still possible to commission porcelain with heraldic enamelling. The great companies of Staffordshire mostly belong to a New York investment fund. Much decoration is done on white blanks produced in the Far East. A few companies still offer a hand-painted product using time-honoured methods, but the cost is high. When larger quantities are needed, transfer printing is often the best solution. Some companies offer porcelain decorated in Hong Kong and shipped to order.

The Heraldic Porcelain Company of London works with a factory in Portugal which specialises in making superb porcelain reproductions from the Royal Palaces of Spain and Portugal. They buy the Kaolin in Limoges and ship it to Portugal for production. Armorial porcelain for private and corporate customers is regularly produced to a high standard.

For collectors of earlier armorial porcelain there are specialist sales in the auction houses. Angela Howard has a large selection of eighteenth century Chinese armorial porcelain available at Heirloom and Howard, and fortunately carries on the scholarly traditions of her late husband David, collecting, lecturing and passing on her knowledge and experience to a new generation of collectors.

This subject has a huge fascination to those who are interested both in heraldry and the development of the China Trade. The history of heraldic porcelain, rather like hall-marked and crested silver, is there to be researched and discovered in so many beautiful objects. An added bonus for collectors is that heraldic porcelain has proved to be not only a delight to the eye, but a sound investment over the decades.

Hugh Macpherson. FSA Scot. London, November 2010


Chinese Armorial Porcelain by David Sanctuary Howard
Volume I: published 1973 (now out of print)
Volume II: ISBN 0-9544 389 0 6. Published 2003 (available from Heirloom & Howard)

Heirloom & Howard Ltd,
PO Box 2435, Chippenham, Wilts. SN14 7XN
01249 783038

Heraldic China
Aubery J. Toppin MVO, FSA
Coat of Arms No, 3, July 1950.

Ancient Chinese Trade Ceramics from the British Museum London
Regina Krahl & Jessica Harrison-Hall.
Pub. National Museum of History. Republic of China. ISBN 9570036230

The Phillips Guide to English Porcelain
John Sandon ISBN 1 897730 02 0. Published 1989, reprinted 1993.

The Reverend Charles Walker Collection & the Sir Percival David Collection
The British Museum.

The Porcelain Circle:
The Heraldic Porcelain Company; 0207 828 1055.