Osterley Case Study: Material Goods – Porcelain

I find that the ship will floor forty half chests more of China ware than expected therefore request that you will order that quantity which make the whole of the Company’s amount to 110 chests and half chests.

John Payne, Ship Captain, Ponsborne. Canton 20 April 1769.[1]


Figure 11: Detail of Ceramic Parade Jar, a. 1700-1730. Osterley House. Photo Courtesy: Stuart Howat.

Porcelain or “chinaware” was included as cargo on most East India Company ships that crossed the Indian Ocean in the eighteenth century. The rapid expansion of the English market for porcelain from about 1720 to 1770 saw perhaps 25-30 million pieces of porcelain enter the country making it one of the largest importers in Europe. Fired to perfection in the kilns of Jingdezhen, in south China, porcelain objects traveled nearly 500 miles south to the port town of Guangzhou (Canton) where East India Company merchants and supercargoes (officials in charge of the cargo) were based. The trading season was usually a few months in the autumn and was limited by monsoons. Supercargoes often paid for their orders in advance, collecting the porcelain on their return trips. At Guangzhou, porcelain was sold in shops and warehouses managed by Chinese merchants who, as members of a guild, or co-hong, regulated the terms of their trade.[2]

The liaisons between supercargoes and merchants were in many instances crucial to the success of the trade. Certain Cantonese merchants were well known to the EIC:

Suqua for many years past hath been reputed the most considerable merchant in Canton and can dispatch any number of ships in good time, for he is in great circumstances, and generally allowed to be an able and skillfull merchant, but he will always endeavour to make a hard bargain.[3]

At times, changes within the Chinese chain of command resulted in the breakdown of privy agreements between traders and officials. For example, the factory records for the year 1740 point to the confusion during one such instance when an incoming Foyen (governor) reversed the rights of traders to stay in Canton after their ships had sailed. Faced with such a situation, the supercargo on the ship Duke of Dorset wrote:

The Merchants Texia, Leonqua, Tinqua[Tingqua], and Teunqua came this evening and acquainted us with much seeming concern that the Lamhoyen who had been at Soukien for these two months past with the Chuntuck [Viceroy] being now returned to his city had sent to give notice to the Europeans to leave Canton. It being contrary to the ancient custom for them to stay here after the ships had sailed. We told them they knew the reasons for our stay …– they replied that the Foyen [governor] who had dispensed with the ancient custom being now out of office and called up to Court. The inferior Mandareens were apprehensive of the new Foyens displeasure if he found any thing contrary to the Laws when he arrived and it was the Lamphoyen’s office to see that they were observed, as it not appear by any record that the Foyen had given leave for us to stay. They therefore desired we would prepare to go to Macao fearing some displeasure might fall on them likewise. We seemed to make light of it. But the Merchants went from us to the French, Dutch and Danes and gave them the same notice. The new Foyen is expected in about six weeks.[4]


Figure 12: Porcelain Shop in Canton. This painting is from a set of 24 depicting the porcelain industry in China. It shows a porcelain shop in Canton. 1770-1790, V&A Museum E.59-1910.

Thus actual trade on the ground was conducted in an atmosphere where supercargoes had to learn to adapt to the customary laws of trading with local merchants. At times certain restrictions imposed by Chinese officials to regulate trade of commodities imposed conditions on trade of bulk commodities such as tea. In 1755, supercargoes reported an arrangement by which trade in chinaware and silks was sanctioned on the basis of the restriction on importing large quantities of tea. In 1755, the Council for China was informed that:

The shopmen by order this day attended the Quanchufu[prefect of Guangzhou] who acquainted them that the Tsongtonk [viceroy] was willing to grant them all the indulgence possible as a proof of it he was directed to inform them that they would be allowed to deal in China ware, wrought silks, and every other article as before with the restriction only that they should not deal in large chests of tea.

Such an arrangement was not conducive for large-scale trade:

This license was extremely satisfactory to the greatest part of the shopmen who sought only to carry on their small trade as usual, whilst those who were more aspiring and had entertained hopes of doing business for the Companies were awed from shewing their dislike…[5]

At the other end, Chinese officials would often issue directives about the abuse of private trade privileges enjoyed by Company merchants. An official court notice from the Qing emperor’s court in 1755 stated

…that the curiosities of value or precious things are imported by private merchants not for account of the Companies, and that the shopkeepers knowing the demand for the Emperor, play many tricks such as raising the price or concealing the things themselves or instructing the Europeans to smuggle them shore. Thus when wanted for the Emperor’s service they were not to be found and as this is one branch of my office I am necessarily obliged to remedy this evil.

It was therefore decided that the value of such commodities was to be set by the Hongist security.[6]

Armorials and Private Trade

13-EIC platter=Farooq

Figure 13: Platter with East India Company’s coat-of-arms, Diana cargo ca. 1816. Collection of Farooq Issa, Mumbai, India. Photo Courtesy: Farooq Issa

Initially, generic blue and white porcelain, inexpensive because there was only one firing in the kiln, was valued as kentledge (ballast) rather than valuable cargo. In addition to providing stability on the high seas, porcelain provided a protective layer for valuable teas and silks against water damage on voyages. East India Company officials, ship captains and supercargoes, discovered that there was a market in England for unusual, large or colourful porcelain. Individuals were able to acquire porcelain made to their own specifications, which they sold when the returned to London. The soaring decorative appeal of tea sets, dinner services and other tableware, spurred on the client’s ability to personalize objects using their coat-of-arms, bespoke patterns and designs. Armorial porcelain became a central marker of taste and dynastic prestige.[7]

The Child Dinner Service

Among the earliest armorial services for the English market is the stellar service at Osterley made for a member of the Child family.  This plate is from the service. It was ordered between 1700 and 1725. It is the only known example decorated with a “powder blue” ground associated with luxury ornamental wares. The powdered cobalt, suspended in water, was blown threw a bamboo tube with a gauze cloth at the end onto unglazed porcelain. This evenly distributed the ground colour. White panels designed to be painted with coloured enamels after a glaze firing, were protected from the sprayed cobalt with paper panels. The porcelain was then glazed and fired. It was then painted with translucent enamels over the glaze, in primarily red and green, known as the “famille-verte” or green family palette.[8]

The Child crest repeated on the rim depicts an eagle holding an adder in its beak. Their coat-of-arms in the centre was granted in 1700 to the banker Sir Francis Child, the Elder (1642-1713), who purchased Osterley shortly before his death in 1713. On the basis of style, it has been suggested that the service was ordered by Francis the elder’s oldest son and EIC Chairman Sir Robert Child (1674-1721) since his brother Francis Child (1684-1740) only succeeded him in 1721.[9]


Figure 14: Porcelain plate with the crest of the Child Family, ca. 1700-25. Photo Courtesy: Stuart Howat.


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[1] British Library, IOR/R/10/7, 1769.

[2] For an overview of the China trade system see H B. Morse, “The Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China 1635-1834” in Patrick Tuck, Britain and the China Trade 1635-1842 Volume I (Reprint, Routledge, 2000).

[3] Diary and Consultations of the Council for China for 1730, G/12/30, 21 Nov 1729-8 Jan 1731.

At Canton Jul 1730-Jan 1731.

[4] China Factory Records (II) Diaries and Consultations IOR/R/10/3, Dec 1741-Oct 1755.


[5] IOR/R/10/3, July 22, 1755.


[6] “Published the sixth moon, the 20th year of the reign of Hien Lung [Qianlong], the 24th of July 1755,” IOR/R/10/3. Letter 364, p. 65.

[7] For an overview of armorial porcelain see David Sanctuary Howard, Chinese Armorial Porcelain (Faber and Faber, 1974).

[8] Notes prepared by Patricia Fergusson.

[9] Patricia Fergusson, personal correspondence, May-July 2013. I am grateful to Patricia Fergusson for her comments and notes, which greatly enriched this section.