Lemon and Teadust: Chinese Monochromes

Many think that Chinese monochrome porcelains are the most perfect and beautiful ceramics ever to come out of China. On the other hand, equally many struggle to understand the simplicity combined with staggering cost. They form an exclusive group showcasing the Chinese potters’ brilliant skill and control of the medium. I would say, to start with monochromes as a new collector, is similar to buying a Porsche the same day you gain your license. Why not? You might need to explain to your querying friends, ‘No, it’s not just a yellow bowl; it’s an Imperial lemon yellow bowl’. The question is - do we need to understand them to love them, or is it the colourist within us that loves these wares instinctively? Most of us are born with a love of colour, and to discover and learn about Chinese monochromes is a great pleasure. They are not just red, yellow, green and blue; they are sacrificial red, aubergine, peach bloom, powder blue, clair-de-lune, lavender, egg-yolk yellow and celadon, robin’s egg and teadust. The list is long but precise and each colour has its correct name and associated shape.


A pair of Chinese imperial porcelain lemon-yellow enamelled small saucer dishes
7.8 cm diameter, Yongzheng mark and period 1723-1735
Image courtesy of Marchant

Established London dealer Marchant specialise in Chinese monochrome ceramics. In their 2012 exhibition they had a particularly pleasing pair of lemon yellow dishes with a flawless glaze and impeccable mark pictured here. Simon Gregory, Gallery Manager, points out that monochromes appeal to a wide audience including those who have modern minimalist homes. With their colours covering a wide spectrum, a collection of monochromes is visually stunning. In a way, monochromes may bring a new younger audience to collecting, within the field of Chinese ceramics where it has been a struggle to renew the collector base. The downside, Gregory adds, are the high prices. Particularly Qing (1644-1911) monochromes command the highest prices, with the earlier Ming (1368-1644) monochromes surprisingly lagging behind. He stresses the importance of budding collectors taking good advice, to buy from trusted sources and to study museum collections. Condition is another issue. Perfect items are sometimes beyond reach annd many damaged ceramics are restored so well it is impossible to spot cracks and chips. So when buying at auction, request a detailed condition report, even when the item is seemingly perfect.

The finest monochrome ceramics have Imperial marks. A mark does not guarantee thhat the item is of the period though – copies were made throughout the years. Few dispute that the finest monochromes were produced during the golden age of Chinese ceramics, Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95). After the reign of Emperor Qianlong there was a rapid decline in quality. Towards the end of the 19th century however, some of the skill had been rekindled, and one can find excellent more affordable monochromes from the time of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908) and even later, in the Republic era (1912-49).


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