Antiques – what does soft paste porcelain mean

Antiques – What Does Soft Paste Porcelain Mean?

Every niche subject has its specific, descriptive words, its recognised terminology. These are words of international understanding, conveying a clear picture of the object being described.

In the world of antiques this is extremely important, particularly when the object is not able to be seen and handled by the person receiving the descriptive information.

Antiques are a vast subject and each category under the title of “antiques” has its own specific terminology. Key descriptive terms are used for antique categories such as silver, furniture, ceramics, glass, pictures, textiles, jewellery etc.

Within my subject of antique ceramics, porcelain and pottery, I have noticed a consistent confusion over a particular group of ceramic terms. These include the terms, “soft paste” and “hard paste” porcelain.

When reading through articles , or on line offers of antique porcelain, I frequently see the term “soft ” paste used, this is apart from the fact that the piece being described is well into the 19th century.

Soft paste porcelain is basically an 18th century product that was certainly not manufactured in the 19th century, except by a few makers in the early years of the 19th.

The term “soft paste” is sometimes thought to mean that soft paste porcelain is “softer” than hard paste porcelain, (also known as, true porcelain), however, both of these terms actually refer to the kiln temperature, not the porcelain itself.

It is actually the temperature that the porcelain is fired at; soft paste referring to a “soft fire”, which is usually about 1200°C. Soft paste is also known as “artificial porcelain”, or, “pate tendre”, when referring to French porcelain.

By contrast, hard paste porcelain is fired with a hard fire, usually about 1450°C.
Hard paste, or, true porcelain, derives its name from Chinese porcelain, first produced in that country over 2000 years ago.

True or hard paste porcelain is made by the combination of two integral ingredients, white China clay, or Kaolin and “petuntse” as known in English and derived from the Chinese, “Pai-tun-tzu”.

Technically, petuntse is a natural, fusible rock, which, when worked into a paste, combined with white China clay and fired with a “hard” fire, at 1450°C, results in hard paste porcelain.

Most European, soft paste porcelains belong to the 18th century and in general terms, most European hard paste porcelains belong in the 19th century. But, as always, there are a few exceptions.

Another term which seems to be confused is the descriptive word for a ceramic figure. When the human form is depicted in porcelain or pottery, it is described as a “figure”. I have recently seen such a description with a figure described as a statue. The term statue is reserved for a life sized figure as found in a large garden or park!

Alternately, when animals are described in porcelain and pottery, they are conventionally described as a “model” i.e., a model of a seated spaniel, a model of an alert greyhound etc

Every specialist subject from the vast range of antiques has its own recognised group of descriptive terms and using the correct terminology simply makes the information being offered clear and easily understood.

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