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The Letters of Père d'Entrecolles
Part 2

From William Burton's Porcelain, It's Art and Manufacture, B.T. Batsford, London, 1906.

It is time to ennoble the porcelain by passing it over into the hands of the painters.1 These porcelain painters are not less poor and wretched than the other workmen, which is not very surprising when we remember that in Europe they would only pass for apprentices of a few months' standing. All the science of these painters, and of Chinese painters in general, is based on no principles, and only consists in a certain routine helped by a limited turn of imagination. They know nothing of the beautiful rules of this art; though it must be acknowledged that they paint flowers, animals, and landscapes which are much admired, on porcelain as well as on fans and lanterns of the finest gauze. The painting is distributed in the same workshop among a great number of workmen. One workman does nothing but draw the first colour line beneath the rims of the pieces; another traces flowers, which a third one paints; this man is painting water and mountains, and that one either birds or other animals. Human figures are generally treated the worst. Certain landscapes and plans of towns that are brought over from Europe to China will hardly allow us, however, to mock at the Chinese for the manner in which they represent themselves in their paintings.

Plum Blossom JarAs for the porcelain colours, they are of every kind. In Europe people hardly see anything else but a vivid blue on a white ground, though I believe that our merchants have also imported some of the other kinds.2 There are some pieces the ground of which is like that of our polished metal mirrors; others are wholly red, and among these some have the red in the glaze, while others are of a soufflé red3, and are sprinkled with little dots almost like our miniatures. When these two kinds of work are successfully produced which is rather difficult-they are highly prized and extremely dear.

Finally there are porcelain pieces where the landscapes with which they are painted are formed of nearly all the different colours, enhanced by the brilliance of gilding. These are very beautiful when no expense is spared, but the ordinary porcelain of this kind is not to be compared with that painted in blue alone. It says in the annals of Ching-tê-chên that formerly the people only used white porcelain ; apparently they had not found in the neighborhood of Jao-chou a blue equal to that which comes from a great distance and which is very dear.

It is said that a porcelain merchant, having been wrecked on a desert coast, found there more riches than he had lost. While he was roaming about the shore, and his servants were making a small vessel out of the remains of his ship, he perceived that stones fit to make the most beautiful blue were quite common there. He took with him a big load, and they say that such beautiful blue had never been seen at Ching-tê-chên. Later on the Chinese merchant tried in vain to find the coast where chance had once sent him.4

The blue is made in the following way : It is buried in the gravel that lies half a foot deep on the bed of the porcelain furnace, where it is roasted for twenty-four hours; then it is reduced to an impalpable powder in the same way as other colours, not on a marble slab, but in a large porcelain mortar, the bottom of which is left unglazed, as is also the head of the pestle which is used for pounding.

The red is made from copperas (crystals of sulphate of iron), and as it may be that the Chinese have something special in it, I will report their method. They put a pound of copperas into a crucible, which is well luted to a second crucible used as a cover, in which they make a small hole, which is covered so that it can be easily uncovered if needed. The whole is surrounded by a large charcoal fire, and in order to have more heat reverberated upon it they put bricks all round about it. As long as the smoke that rises (from the hole in the top crucible) is very black the material is not yet ready, but it is finished as soon as a kind of thin fine cloud appears. Then they take some of the stuff, mix it with water, and make an experiment by rubbing it on a piece of fir wood. If it produces a beautiful red they take away the charcoal fire and partially cover the crucible. When this has cooled down a small cake of the red colour is found at the bottom of the crucible, but the finest red is that which is stuck to the inside of the covering crucible. One pound of copperas makes four ounces of the red colour.

Although porcelain is naturally white, and the glaze adds to its whiteness, there are certain decorations for which they use a special white on the porcelain that is painted in different colours. This white is made from the powder of a transparent rock, which is calcined in the oven in the same way as the azure blue.5 To half an ounce of this powder they put an ounce of white lead. This powder also is used in the preparation of other colours; for example, to make a green they take half an ounce of the powder of this pebble, and they add one ounce of white lead and three ounces of the very purest scoriae of copper.

The prepared green becomes the matrix of the violet colour, which is obtained by adding a dose of white. The preparation of the green is varied according to the tint of violet they wish to produce.

A yellow colour is made by taking seven drachms of white prepared as above, to which they add three drachms of the red colour made from copperas.

All these colours, put on to the porcelain that is already fired after having been glazed, appear green, violet, yellow, or red only after the second firing. The Chinese books say that these colours can only be applied with white lead, saltpeter, and copperas. The Christians who are employed in this work have only spoken to me of white lead, which is mixed with the colour diluted with gum-water. The red of which I have been speaking, with the ordinary porcelain glaze, and another glaze made from white pebbles, are prepared in the same way as the ordinary glazes. I have not been able to learn the quantity either of one or the other; neither how much red is mixed with this glaze; but experiments will reveal the secrets. They then put the porcelain to dry, and fire it in the ordinary oven. If after the firing the red comes out pure and brilliant without blemishes, they have obtained the perfection of the art. These porcelain pieces have no resonance when they are struck.6 The other kind of red, known as soufflé red, is made thus : The colour having been prepared, they take a tube, one end of which is covered with very fine gauze; they softly apply the bottom of the tube to the colour ; the gauze being filled with colour, they blow into the tube, and the porcelain is covered all over with little red spots. This kind of porcelain is rarer and dearer than the other, because it is more difficult to make if they must observe the necessary precautions. The black porcelain has also its value and its beauty; this black contains lead, and is not unlike our polished metal mirrors. When this is gilded it is still more charming. The black colour is given to the porcelain when it is dry, and for this purpose they mix three ounces of blue with seven ounces of ordinary glaze.7 Experiments will tell you exactly how to make this mixture according to the required shade. When the colour is dry they fire the porcelain, and afterwards they paint the gold upon it and fire it again in a special furnace.

Another kind of porcelain that is made here I have not seen before. It is all perforated like cut paper work, while inside it is a cup for holding a liquid. The cup is in one piece with the perforated envelope. I have seen other porcelains on which Chinese and Tartar ladies were painted in natural colours. The drapery, the complexion, and the features were all exquisite, so that from a distance one might have thought they were pieces of enamel.

It may be remarked that when they use on their porcelains the glaze made from white pebbles, the ware becomes a special kind which they call Tsoui-ki. This is all marbled and cracked with an infinity of veins, so that from a distance one might think it was shattered into a thousand fragments without falling to pieces, so that it resembles a piece of mosaic work. The colour which is given by this glaze is a somewhat ashen white. If the piece of porcelain has been painted in blue and this glaze is used upon it, it appears likewise cracked and marbled when the colour is dry.

When they wish to apply gold they beat it and grind it in water in a porcelain dish until they see underneath the water a little golden cloud. This they leave to dry, and in use they mix it with a sufficiency of gum-water, and with thirty parts of gold they incorporate three parts of white lead, and put it on the porcelain in the same way as the colours.

Finally there is a kind of porcelain made as follows They give it the ordinary glaze and fire it, then they paint it with different colours and fire it again; sometimes the painting is reserved intentionally until after the first fire, and sometimes they use this method to hide defects in the porcelain pieces by painting colours on the defective places and firing them a second time. This porcelain, though it is over-coloured, is, however, liked by many people. It often happens that one feels unevennesses on porcelain of this kind, which may be due to the want of skill of the workman, or it may be that it was necessary to give shadows to the painting, or that it was intended to cover the defects of the porcelain body. When the painting is dry, as well as the gilding, if there is any, they pile the porcelain pieces into the kiln, putting the small ones into the big ones. The kilns for firing the goods may be made of iron if they are small, but generally they are of clay. The one I saw was as high as a man and nearly as wide as our biggest wine cask; it was made in several pieces, and from the same materials as the porcelain saggars, the separate pieces being a foot high and a foot and a half long, though they were only a finger's breadth thick. Before they were fired they had been rounded into the proper shape; they were put one over another and well cemented. The bottom of the kiln was raised half a foot from the ground. It was put on rows of thick but not very big bricks, while round the kiln was a wall of well-baked bricks, which had at the bottom three or four holes like the hollows of a fireplace. This brick wall left an empty space of about half a foot, with the exception of three or four places which were filled up so as to make ribs for the kiln. I believe they erect the kiln and its enclosure at the same time, otherwise the kiln would have no support. They fill the kiln with the porcelain pieces that are to be fired a second time, putting them in piles, the smaller pieces into the bigger ones, as I have said. When all is ready they cover the top of the kiln with pieces of pottery like those used for the sides ; these pieces, which cross one another, are closely united together by a clay mortar. Only in the middle do they leave a hole through which they can see when the porcelain is sufficiently fired. They light a quantity of charcoal under the kiln as well as on the top, and they put pieces into the space between the brick enclosure and the kiln, the hole on the top of the kiln being covered with a piece of broken pitcher. When the fire has become bright they look from time to time through this hole, and when the porcelain seems shiny and the colours are bright and glossy they pull out the fire and afterwards the porcelain.

Fuchienand Ching-te-chen white

An idea comes into my mind about these colours which are used on porcelain pieces that have already been fired, and are rendered glossy by means of white lead, to which, according to the annals of Fou-Iiang they formerly added saltpeter and copperas. If one were to use white lead with the colours that glass quarries are painted with, and if, afterwards, one were to give them a second firing, should we not recover the secret formerly possessed of painting upon glass without losing anything of its transparency? One might try by an experiment. This secret which we have lost makes me recall another secret that the Chinese regret they possess no longer. They once knew the art of painting on the sides of porcelain pieces fishes or other animals that could only be seen when the piece was filled with some liquid. They call this kind of porcelain " azure put in the press," because of the position in which the blue colour is placed. I will give an account of what they have retained of this secret, in the hope that Europeans may be able to contrive what the Chinese no longer know. For this method the porcelain must be very thin; when it was dry they put the colour rather plentifully, not on the outside of the piece as is their usual custom, but on the inside. They generally painted fishes, as if they were more suitable to be revealed when the cup was filled with water. When the colour had dried, they put a thin layer of dilute slip upon it. This layer pressed the blue between the two sheets of clay. When the layer was dry they put glaze inside the porcelain piece, and some time afterwards they put it on the mould on the wheel. As it had been thickened from the inside they pared it down on the outside without going as far as the colour, and after that they dipped the outside of the porcelain piece in the glaze, and, all being dry, it was fired in the ordinary way. This was exceedingly delicate work, and required skill that apparently the Chinese no longer possess. From time to time they try to recover the art of this magical painting, but in vain. One of them assured me a little while ago that he had made fresh trials, and that lie had been nearly successful.

Be that as it may, it is possible to say that even now a beautiful blue colour reappears on porcelain after having been lost for some time. When the colour is first painted it is of a pale black ; when it is dry and the glaze has been put upon it, it disappears entirely, and the porcelain seems quite white, the colour being buried under the glaze ; but the fire makes it appear in all its beauty, almost in the same way as the natural heat of the sun makes the most beautiful butterflies, with all their tints, come out of their eggs. I will add a circumstance that I must not forget, viz.- that before the porcelain is glazed they polish it, and remove the slightest irregularities. For this purpose they use a brush made of very small feathers; the brush being slightly dipped into the water and passed over the piece with a very light touch. Great skill is required in putting the glaze on to the porcelain so that it is not too thick, and that it is evenly spread over the piece. For porcelain pieces that are very thin and light, they apply two slight coats of glaze. If the coats of glaze are too thick the thin sides of the vessel cannot support them, and will instantly sink out of shape. These two layers are equal to one ordinary layer of glaze such as is put on the thicker pieces. The first coating is put on by sprinkling, the other by immersion. The cup is held in the hand from outside, sloping over the vessel that contains the glaze, and with the other hand they pour inside as much glaze as is needed to wet it everywhere. This is done to a great many cups, and when the first ones are dry inside, the glaze is put on the outside as follows : The workman puts one hand into the cup, and, supporting it with a little stick under the middle of its foot, he dips it into the vessel filled with glaze, and quickly draws it out again.


  1. Hua p'i : literally 'painters on the unfired clay.'
  2. A further proof of the predominance of blue-and-white pieces among the porcelains first imported into Europe in large quantities.
  3. Soufflé glazes or colour-effects are those obtained by blowing the pigment through a gauze, generally on to the fired glaze.
  4. Is this some legendary Chinese account of the imported Mohammedan blue of the fifteenth century?
  5. Dr. Bushell suggests that this transparent white pebble is native white arsenic. It must be pointed out that the accounts given in the first letter of the preparation of colours are very imperfect-they are largely corrected in the second letter (q.v.).
  6. This is the famous Sang-de-Boeuf glaze which the Chinese regarded as such a precious secret, that Pere d'Entrecolles never obtained accurate information about it.
  7. Another piece of partial information which is corrected in the second letter.

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