Porcelain enamelled “on the biscuit” (i.e. without an intermediate layer of glaze) was manufactured at Jingdezhen from the 14th century onwards. The term is most commonly used, however, to describe artefacts made during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722), and decorated in a range of colours that favoured yellow, green, white, occasionally turquoise, and aubergine brown. The palette was sometimes employed later in the eighteenth century, and was revived in the nineteenth century. Technical and historical descriptions of the style are well attested, so in this essay I shall address the topics of subject and market.
Objects decorated in enamels on biscuit were made in a variety of forms. The fact that a very large number of items entered Western collections from the late seventeenth century onwards, demonstrates the fact that they were exported. However, in comparison to early Qing porcelain decorated over the glaze in enamels (famille verte), the ratio was small. Famille verte porcelains tended to be larger in scale, and to be made in sets, e.g.as garnitures to place above doorways and on mantelpieces. Multiple runs of objects such as plates and teacups with saucers were made for Western dining and drinking. Biscuit-enamelled pieces, by contrast, tended to be small in scale and to be made as singletons, or in limited numbers (e.g. bowls and dishes).
These factors were not obviated by manufacturing or technical considerations, but resulted from their function. Many biscuit articles were destined for the scholar’s desk, or for a religious or ceremonial setting. In this manner, it is obvious that their primary market was not only for export, but also for domestic consumption. Originally they must have been utilised to fill up bulk orders on trading ships, a common practice for all types of wares. When it became obvious that their intricacy and novelty value delighted foreign buyers, they became a regular component of the export trade. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider what their original intended destinations would have been, and towards this end we shall first consider religious and ceremonial context, and secondly employment on a scholar’s desk.