Achieving Alchemy In German Porcelain

Achieving Alchemy In German Porcelain

17/02/2024     General News

In the 1600s, there was a substance which was even more valuable than precious metal, writes David Broom. 

Indeed, the French ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV melted down all of the silverware in Versailles in order to finance the purchase of it.  What was this most sought-after commodity?  Chinese porcelain.

With its pure white colour, its sumptuous decoration and its unique malleability, it exceeded any other ceramic of the era.  The European aristocracy went crazy for it, to the considerable detriment of Royal coffers throughout the continent (Asian producers and traders accepted only gold and silver in payment).  So the race to discover the secret of making fine porcelain here in Europe became a serious and well-funded one.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, summoned one Frederich Böttger to his court.  Böttger was a young alchemist, which was entirely appropriate.  If he could turn clay into porcelain, it would be an alchemy every bit as valuable as turning base metal into gold.

In 1707 Böttger made a huge breakthrough, successfully replicating red stoneware, or jaspis porcelain using red clay.  This meant the basic secret of porcelain had been unveiled, and the following year, on 15th January 1708, the first European white porcelain was made, using white kaolin.

Sensing the huge value of what he had funded, Augustus created a new porcelain factory in Meissen, named ‘The Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Porcelain Manufactory’.  Much emulated, this was the first and greatest European porcelain maker, and to mark that fact – and distinguish Meissen from other makers – in 1722 the crossed swords device was adopted, one of the oldest continuously-used trademarks in the world.

Given that Asian porcelain was the inspiration for this new industry, it was inevitable that imitating intricate Eastern Asian decoration and design would the starting point for European porcelain.  Much of the early Meissen ranges featured chinoiserie motifs.

But it didn’t take long for Meissen to develop its own unique style.  Just 20 years after its founding, Meissen entered its ‘sculptural’ period; animal sculptures, allegorical figures and characters from literature (especially the Commedia Dell’ Arte), many designed by chief modeller Johann Joachim Kändler, created a definite house style, and Meissen sculptural pieces remain among the most sought-after in the saleroom today.

Innovations continued into the 19th century, including ‘liquid bright gold’, a liquid gold preparation which did not require polishing after firing, unlike burnished gold.  This allowed detailed reliefs to be completely gilded for the first time.  By the middle of the century porcelain was no longer the domain of the aristocracy, and its popularity with the middle classes blossomed.

Since German reunification in 1991, the Meissen factory has been under the ownership of the state of Saxony, and more than 300 years after its establishment, continues to create top quality porcelain.

This high quality workmanship is the reason that Meissen porcelain remains one of the most sought-after names in ceramics in the saleroom.  Early 18th century pieces can make thousands, with sculptural pieces always in demand.  When Frederich Böttger succeeded in turning humble clay into beautiful porcelain, it was alchemy indeed.

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