Four Chinese Export Porcelain Octagonal Plates from Ignatius Sargent's Service
By the time Americans entered the China trade after the Revolution, the ritual relationships between Chinese merchants and Western traders had long been established. One important aspect of this trade was the virtual exclusion of westerners from daily intercourse with the Chinese people. Canton (Guangzhou) was the only Chinese port city where westerners could live. They were restricted to an area along the waterfront less than a quarter of a mile square full of warehouses with living quarters.
To the traders of the British East India Company, the scene in Canton harbor was in many ways similar to the bustling Thames River of London, for, like London, Canton was an inland river port. William Hickey, a visitor to Canton in 1769, compared these two great trading centers:
The scene upon the water [in Canton] is as busy as the Thames below London Bridge, with this difference, that instead of our square-rigged vessels of different dimensions you have junks . . . Nothing appears more extraordinary to the eyes of a stranger at Canton than the innumerable boats of different sizes with which the river is covered for many miles together.1Howard 1974, 329. Other examples from this service are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and in Washington and Lee University (The Reeves Collection). A plate appears on the dust jacket and as the frontispiece to Godden 1979.
The contrasts and similarities of these two trading centers that Hickey describes can be seen in the exquisitely detailed scenes painted en grisaille in enamel on the border of this plate. Two panels, each of London from Southwark with London Bridge in the foreground and the Pearl River just below Canton, are combined with two smaller panels of gold and iron-red flowers.
Armorial dinner services were popular among wealthy Englishmen who ordered some four thousand of them over the years. Americans, however, largely eschewed this indulgence and only a few American services are truly armorial (see Acc. No. 85.43).
Ellen P. Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.