Dear Helaine and Joe:
I have a porcelain plate and have been unable to identify the markings on the back. I wonder if the piece is Japanese Imari or Chinese Lowestoft.
What a proverbial blast from the past. We have not heard the term “Chinese Lowestoft” in years -- literally -- and thought it might be fun to explore this subject. It comes under the heading of “Oops! How did they get that so wrong?”
We should start by saying that the town of Lowestoft is located in Suffolk on the east coast of England. In the mid-18th century, it was a small fishing village, but in 1756, clay deposits were discovered on an estate just north of town by Hewlin Luson.
These deposits were determined to be suitable for the making of pottery, but Luson was not able to get production under way. The next year, 1757, a different partnership (not including Luson) was formed that managed to make a type of artificial porcelain called “soft paste.”
True Chinese-style “hard paste” porcelain is made from a mixture of “china clay” (kaolin) and “china stone” (petuntse). But the secret of this mixture was known only to the Chinese and the Germans at this time so the English (and the French, and the Italians) had to cheat and make their porcelain either by adding soapstone, glass or bone ash (thus the term “bone china”) to white clay.
It has been reported that Lowestoft’s formula included about 20 percent bone ash (we have also seen higher estimates), and most of their wares were naively painted in blue in imitation of the Chinese manner. The factory closed in 1802 (one source says it was 1799), but Lowestoft did not disappear into obscurity -- as it might have.
In his 1863 book “Marks and Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain,” author William Chaffers made a colossal boo-boo when he identified Chinese Export wares as having been made at the Lowestoft factory. As a result, for the next hundred years or so, the name “Lowestoft” was erroneously connected to Chinese Export porcelain as “Oriental Lowestoft” or “Chinese Lowestoft.” Now, this mistake has largely faded from memory -- but every now and then the term will turn up.
Luckily, the piece in today’s question is easily identified and it is not any kind of “Lowestoft.” Instead, it is a very nice example of Japanese Imari from the late 19th or early 20th century. In the photographs it looks like it might be a “charger” or large plate used for display in a variety of locations (including Japanese shop windows).
Page 2 of 2 - The design looks a bit like a “sansai” or “Old Japan”-style piece, but probably it is not because it has too many colors (sansai is only red and blue with gilt highlights). This piece is probably “nishikide” or “brocade” Imari, which can have a variety of colors, including blue, brick red, black, green, lemon yellow and purple -- and this color palette seems to be found on this dish.
“Imari” refers to Japanese wares exported to the West from the port of Imari, but most of this ware was made in and around the town of Arita. It is a shame that we cannot appraise this piece, because we do not know the size -- but a small example should be valued for less than $125 while a larger one might be insured for closer to $1,000 or a little more.
Oh, the squiggles on the back that L.D. thought might be marks are not. They are just more decoration, and the piece is completely unmarked as most Imari examples are.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of “Price It Yourself” (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, PO Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.