V is for VOC Plate

by Daniela Barrier

From Portuguese carracks to Japanese kilns, the power of a company logo

This blue and white porcelain plate is showcased in Gallery C of the National Museum, Malaysia. It sits on a marble-topped wooden table, a typical furnishing of a Dutch family home in Melaka during the Dutch occupation (1641-1795, then 1818-1825). The so called “VOC plate” itself was probably part of a complete porcelain service. These services were used by officers of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – VOC) throughout their colonies, imparting status to the owner and contributing to the dissemination of the VOC’s brand image.

The VOC plate at Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.

Surrounded by flowers, fruit and deer motifs, the VOC monogram stands out in the centre – a lean capital V with a superposing O on the left and C on the right. It was perhaps the contrast of its clear, simple lines (one could say, almost contemporary) with the exuberant details of the baroque style monograms of the time, which turned the VOC logo into one of the first worldwide recognisable company labels. It was applied with no parsimony to most VOC possessions and everyday objects, from building facades and canons to swords, coins and plates such as the one in Gallery C. [1]

VOC logo on various objects
top-left: VOC logo on a sword. Musée de l’armée, Paris, France.
top-right: Façade of the Castle of Good Hope, South Africa. Image credit: Martinvl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
bottom-left: VOC logo on a coin, circa 1760. Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
bottom-right: Canon with VOC logo, 1764, Port of Dejima, Nagasaki, Japan. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers have written extensively on the VOC’s innovative business model, considering it the forbearer of modern corporations (the VOC was the world’s first formally listed public company). The VOC’s idea of producing porcelain services with its own mark on them, however, might have been borrowed from the Portuguese and from a different type of company: The Society of Jesus (or the Jesuit Order, founded in 1540).

Jesuits are thought to be at the source of the introduction of new techniques and of European scenes on Chinese porcelain, in particular under Emperor K’ang Hsi (1654-1722), who held Jesuit priests in high regard (one Father Thomas Cardosa was a personal friend of the emperor and was appointed a mandarin of the highest rank). During this period, it became more and more fashionable in Europe, amongst nobles and high-level clergy, to have their coat of arms painted on their porcelain services and to order specific designs from potters in China. Huge quantities of undecorated porcelain began to be shipped from Jingdezhen (Ching-te-chen) kilns to Canton where they were painted under the supervision of European agents and re-fired.

From left to right:

  • Pedro de Farias bowl, 1541, captain major of Melaka. Portuguese nobles had their coat-of-arms painted on Chinese porcelain.
  • Jesuit Chinese Vase with Company of Jesus monogram, circa 1800. Image credit: Nicolas Fournery.
  • Late 18th century plate in European style with VOC ships. White painted porcelain from Jingdezhen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Kraak porcelain from Japan

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, with more and more Dutch trade ships anchoring in Asian ports, the Portuguese monopoly on porcelain trade was broken. In 1602, the Portuguese carrack Sao Tiago was captured by the Dutch and its porcelain cargo taken back to Holland for the first time. The carrack Santa Maria suffered the same fate in the Straits of Melaka a year later, its cargo being sold to European royals, including Henri IV, king of France, and King James I of England. The Dutch named them kraak porselein because the Portuguese ships in which they were found were called carracks.

Between 1602 and 1682, VOC ships delivered three million pieces of porcelain to Holland and over 12 million were distributed over the Dutch East Indies, of which approximately eighty percent were blue and white wares (kraak) [2].

Kraak blue and white porcelain were thus mostly associated with the Dutch East India Company. They were made of fine porcelain with cobalt blue decorations under a shiny and slightly bluish glaze, and had central themes which included flowers, birds, insects and deer, as well as having the well and the rim of the dish treated as one and divided into panels that were mostly filled with flowers and symbolic motifs.

Like European royals, Japanese tea masters also ordered kraak pieces (called fuyode ware in Japan) from China, which were transported to Japan on VOC ships. These ended up being copied by Japanese artisans and sold all over Europe, often for higher prices than the Chinese originals. However, there was one design the Japanese only produced for the Dutch India offices: it was overall similar to other karrak designs, only it had the VOC logo in the centre. These wares were usually small – less than twenty centimetres in diameter – but some pieces were larger and measured fifty centimetres or more across. That is very likely the provenance of the VOC plate displayed at the National Museum.

VOC plate produced in Japan, late 17th century. In the collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

[1] In The Portuguese Porcelain Trade with China, by Jorge Graca, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.

[2] In Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company, by T. Volker, cited in Chinese Ceramics carried by The Dutch East India Company, by Effie B. Allison, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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