Collecting Imari Porcelain
I started collecting Imari porcelain ten years ago when I found a rice bowl at an antiques market in Den Haag, The Netherlands. The vivid colours attracted me: shades of cobalt blue, iron red, and green painted on a white ground. The porcelain was heavy and slightly rough, with hand painted designs executed in brushy strokes. The motifs were distinctively Asian, reflecting Japanese cultural traditions and symbolism, but the pattern arrangement looked more European in its symmetry. The bowl had a circular phoenix design on the bottom of the interior surface and three vignettes depicting trees which were repeated on the exterior. The dealer explained that the bowl was made in Arita, Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and was shipped to Europe from the port of Imari. When he mentioned that this type of porcelain was designed specifically for export to foreign lands, I was convinced that this bowl was for me. I bought the piece, packed it in layers of clothing inside my suitcase and brought it back to Canada.
The Dutch Connection
The first acquisition of Imari for my personal collection piqued my interest and prompted me to do a bit of research into the history of the style. I discovered that there is a strong link between Dutch trading activity during the Golden Age and the development of Japanese Imari. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) held a monopoly over trade to and from Japan during the years between 1641 and 1853. The island of Dejima in the harbour of Nagasaki was designated as the headquarters for the Dutch trading company and provided a residential district exclusively for foreigners. It was a harbour earmarked for the arrival and departure of VOC ships and a home base for the Dutch merchants involved in importing and exporting goods. Company records show that a large shipment of Imari porcelain travelled from Dejima to Amsterdam in 1656.
Two hundred years of trade between Japan and The Netherlands resulted in cross-cultural influences. The Dutch introduced the Japanese to scientific equipment from Europe, musical instruments, games such as billiards and badminton, and food such as cabbage, tomatoes, chocolate, and beer. The Japanese porcelain, lacquer ware, woodblock prints and silks exported to Europe created a fascination for exotic Asian design and influenced style in clothing and the decorative arts. The factory of Delft in Holland imitated the colour combination and Asian patterns in Imari-style faience. Royal Crown Derby in England manufactured a refined version of Imari porcelain dinner service in 1850. Factories at Meissen, Germany and Chantilly, France produced lines that appealed to the popularity and trendiness of "japonisme" in European decor.
What to look for in Imari
Imari is typically painted with four colours: iron red, cobalt blue, green and gold. This is not a hard and fast rule; there are examples of Imari incorporating black decoration and the early pieces are sometimes limited to just blue and white.
The oldest piece in my collection is a small condiment dish dated circa 1750. It has a brown scalloped edge and is painted with a rural landscape showing a mountain range and the ocean. In contrast to the more ornate Meiji period pieces, this dish is simple and rustic.
Design and Decoration
Each Imari piece is unique, but there are certain common patterns and motifs that help with identification. It is quite typical to find a circular design in the center of the plate or bowl and division of the rest of the surface decoration into three repeated panels. Birds, fish, flowers, trees and fruit are depicted in loosely-painted renderings. Bats and peaches appear as symbols of good fortune and longevity.
When you turn the piece over, you will notice that it is not marked on the bottom with a maker's stamp. Some pieces bear the Japanese characters for "crane" and "turtle" representing long life and happiness. This indicates that the piece was created specifically for use as a wedding gift.
If you see the words "Gold Imari, Hand Painted" printed on the bottom, you are looking at a modern ceramic piece, made in Arita between 1959 and 1984.
Where to look for Imari
From its origins in Japan and initial distribution by the Dutch throughout Europe, Imari has travelled far and wide. I have discovered good examples of Imari here in Canada, in the U.S, in England, Belgium, France and The Netherlands. There are fine pieces available in South American cities such as Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. My collecting activity takes me to antique shops, estate sales, auction houses, flea markets, and Ebay to search for Imari. Shipping of Imari is not a problem if the item is well-packed in bubble pack and immobilized with Styrofoam or newspaper inside a cardboard box.
I recommend using your antique Imari bowls and plates in your home. They add beauty to your tablescape and can be a dramatic focal point in a room. There's nothing nicer than an Imari charger to hold avocados as they ripen!