Towards the end of the seventeenth century a vogue was started by prominent families in England and on the Continent for export porcelain dinner services decorated with their coats of arms. This demand grew until it reached a peak in the latter part of the eighteenth century and terminated abruptly shortly after the start of the nineteenth. Armorial services were often very large, sometimes running to five hundred pieces; the invoice for the Peers service in the British Museum specified 524 pieces.
Orders for these sets were given to representatives of the East India Company and taken to Canton. The china was manufactured in Ching-te Chen, where most of the decorating was probably done, especially that in under-glaze blue, though there is evidence that some of the enamel decoration was done in Canton. The coats of arms were copied from drawings sent out by the purchaser.
The advanced collector may succeed in finding specimens with arms from a number of European countries, but the vast majority of pieces one comes across bear English, Scottish, or Irish arms. It is therefore best to confine oneself at first to this branch of the subject.
The identification of most armorial porcelain can be accomplished with the aid of a few books generally available in the larger libraries. The quickest way is to use Papworth's ‘Dictionary of Coats of Arms’, where the various arms are listed according to the devices used. After ascertaining the names of the families using the arms in question, Burke's ‘General Armory’ may be consulted. Over sixty thousand English, Irish, and Scottish families are listed here, with a description of the arms in exact heraldic detail. Further information about the family can generally be found in Burke's ‘Landed Gentry’ or Burke's ‘Peerage’. One may also go about the problem of identification from the crest. ‘Fairbairns' Crests’ shows over two thousand different crests, with the names of the families using each. For example, a hat with two plumes is found to be used by the Cheyney, Pede, and Uvedale families. With these names you may turn to Burke's ‘General Armory’ and find that the description of the arms of the Cheyney family exactly matches the arms on your piece.
If the arms bear a motto, as they often do, the work of identification is usually hastened appreciably. Alphabetical lists of mottoes, with the names of the families using them, are to be found in ‘Fairbairns' Crests’, ‘Burke's Peerage’, and Sir Algernon Tudor-Craig's ‘Armorial Porcelain of the Eighteenth Century’. The latter is an invaluable reference book on all aspects of the subject. Armorial decoration often affords the collector the opportunity to establish the date of his piece within relatively close limits. For instance, in a Duke of Chandos service, the arms of Brydges, Duke of Chandos, are shown impaling those of his second wife, Cassandra Willoughby, whom he married on August 4, 1714. Since he died in 1744, the service must have been made between these dates, and probably shortly after his marriage.
One of the first things that the collector of armorial porcelain should do is to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of heraldry. Burke's ‘General Armory’ contains a brief history and an explanation of heraldic terms, and there are a number of other readily available sources of information. Knowledge of heraldry is not only necessary for the identification of arms but will be useful to the collector in other ways. If one knows, for instance, that a metal, color, or fur is never placed on another metal, color, or fur, one would be Justified in questioning the authenticity of a piece where the coat of arms shows a red lion rampant on a blue field. Some unscrupulous individuals have taken pieces of export porcelain with blank spaces and executed armorial designs which represent no authentic arms, a practice which goes back to the latter part of the 1800's.
A special class of armorial porcelain is that bearing state seals or the American eagle. Because of their scarcity, such pieces command a relatively high price, and blank pieces have been widely painted with these insignia. The novice collector who may be tempted by such pieces should assure himself that the dealer is qualified to pass on their authenticity. Some of the export porcelain made for the American market displays "arms" which were the invention of a family desiring the prestige of armorial bearings. Pieces decorated with a shield enclosing initials in gold or blue and drapery in blue, gold, or ermine are perfectly good Oriental export porcelain but not truly armorial.
Collecting armorial export porcelain has many advantages. It is not so plentiful that you will be surfeited with the amount available, but neither is it so scarce but what diligent search will turn up a piece here and there. Best of all, the cost is within the means of the average collector. If he is satisfied with specimens which are slightly chipped or cracked or which have been mended, the cost is modest indeed. On this point many collectors are willing to overlook small nicks, chips, or age cracks because of the vastly greater selection available.
Unlike some porcelain, where different patterns tend to clash when placed together, all armorial pieces seem to complement each other and blend harmoniously, since the designs are all rather similar. And the history of the different family arms makes each item a conversation piece and a source of unending interest.