Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace

Please Select Search Type:
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article


HISTORY. To Johann Friedrich Bottger, erstwhile Berlin apothecary's prentice, belongs the credit of discovering in Europe the secret of making hard paste porcelain.

From childhood Bottger had shewn such interest in chemistry and aptitude for experiment that he was destined for the pursuit of medicine. Accordingly when he was sixteen years old, he was set apprentice to a Berlin apothecary. He straightway plunged into all manner of alchemistic studies, and soon his proficiency in that mysterious lore was bruited about. The impecunious King of Prussia, we are told, hoping and believing that Bottger might have mastered the secret of the philosopher's stone and so be able to transmute the baser metals into gold, was about to seize him and make use of his knowledge. Getting wind of the King's design, Bottger fled to Saxony and, as it turned out, "jumped from the frying pan into the fire."

Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, was quite as much in need of funds as the King of Prussia, and here was a gold-maker fallen into his very lap. He seized Bottger and set him at work to make gold, with the help of a good laboratory, capable assistants and ample working funds. Of course the task ended in failure, as it needs must, but the chemist Tschirnhausen suggested to the King that Bottger's services and knowledge of chemistry, along with the laboratory and apparatus, might be used to better purpose in the cause of industry. More gold was to be got by promoting manufactures in Saxony than by the fantastic chasing of moonbeams. Faience factories were rising and prospering in other parts of Germany; why should there not be a faience factory in Saxony, and why should it not be a source of substantial profit?

The King hearkened readily to this suggestion. Bottger and Tschirnhausen were permitted to change the object of their work and, instead of labouring to meta morphose iron into gold, they examined and experimented with clays and earths. As a result, in 1708 Bottger succeeded in producing the famous red stoneware that was so hard it could be polished on the lapidary's wheel.

The manufacture of the stoneware proved profitable and satisfied the King, at any rate for the nonce, but by this time Bottger had set his mind on solving the riddle of Oriental porcelain which had hitherto baffled its European admirers and he pursued his experiments with unremitting zeal. At last, in 1709, after the death of his collaborator Tschirnhausen, he was able to shew the King a few specimens of what was indubitably true porcelain. As yet, it was unglazed, but Bottger very soon devised the glaze, so that 1709 may be regarded as the dawn of hard paste porcelain making in the Western World.

In January 1710 the Meissen porcelain factory was established by Royal Patent. The works were equipped in the castle of Albrechtsburg overlooking the town of Meissen, a few miles west of Dresden. There the secret processes of manufacture could not be spied upon by prying eyes. These processes were most jealously guarded and for long afterwards the workmen employed were virtually prisoners. In the castle of Albrechtsburg the works remained until 1863, when they were removed to ampler quarters.

At the Leipzig Easter Fair, in 1710, were exhibited some specimens of the new porcelain, and a few weeks later Bottger shewed the King the first painted pieces. But though the factory was established by Royal Writ in 1710, there was still much necessary experimental work to be carried on, and it was not until some years later that the manufacture of porcelain was put on a commercial footing. From 1710 to 1713 at Meissen only the red stoneware was produced for sale. At the Leipzig Easter Fair, in 1713, the Meissen china was first exposed for public sale, and from that time onward its repute increased with amazing rapidity. By 1716 the manufacture, as a commercial enterprise, was well on its way.

Bottger died in 1719. Notwithstanding the repute already acquired by the porcelain of Meissen and the rapidly increasing sale of the wares, the financial affairs of the factory were in great disorder and a royal commission was set to deal with the situation. The difficulties were soon adjusted and, in 1720, Johann G. Herold, the painter, who had worked in the Vienna factory under du Pacquier, came to direct the work at Meissen. He was one of the greatest masters of his time, and under his influence the products soon shewed amazing improvement. Some years later, Johann Kandler, the modeller, joined the Meissen staff, and through the work done and the inspiration supplied by these two men the china of Meissen reached the height of its glory.

In 1759 and 1761 Frederick the Great looted the Meissen factory when he occupied Dresden, and carried off a great quantity of the best moulds and models to Berlin, whither as well he transported many of the experienced workmen. This interruption marked the end of the most distinctive, and perhaps the finest, period of Meissen porcelain.

When work was ultimately resumed, new influences that eventually became dominant were already beginning to make themselves felt, and the old creative spontaneity and enthusiasm were gone. About 1764 the painter Dietrich introduced the nascent Neo-Classic spirit into Meissen design, and as this influence became more and more manifest in both contour and decoration, the products of Meissen lost much of their erstwhile individuality, displayed an increasing likeness to the creations of other factories, and betrayed a tendency to follow rather than to lead, with a perceptible bias for the ways of Sevres.

When Count Marcolini became director in 1774, the Neo-Classic style became paramount in all the new creations of Meissen and continued to dominate shapes and decoration alike until what have been called the "frigidities" of the Empire style succeeded at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

In 1814 Kuhn became director and numerous technical improvements were introduced, the firing was done with coal, and the composition of the body was simplified. The earlier wares had grown valuable by this time and were largely reproduced, which was fortunate, as all power of fresh creation had apparently become dormant. The factory was moved from the old fortress of Albrechtsburg in 1863. In its new environment it has made great advances commercially, but "has added little or nothing to the progress of art."

The body, at first, was thick and clumsy and the pieces were often warped or fire-cracked. The paste exhibited a slightly yellowish tinge, "which Bottger himself regarded as a fault, but which most people nowadays would doubtless prefer to a colder and over-white tint." Owing to lack of quartz or felspar in the composition-alabaster was used instead-the early paste is not particularly translucent. By a series of experiments and modifications, the paste was brought to a pure, hard white at an early date and the translucency was increased.

THE GLAZE. The early glaze produced by Bottger was thick but of even distribution, and it was clear, transparent, and ordinarily free from flaws. The later glaze was of thinner body and more brilliant in its general appearance.

ARTICLES MADE AND CONTOUR. It was only during the initial or experimental period under Bottger that the output of Meissen was at all restricted in variety. Even then, there was considerable diversity in the tea, coffee and breakfast services, the cups and saucers, the small vases and flower pots, and the less ambitious sorts of tableware and decorative accessories. The factory was still young when it began to put forth all kinds of tableware, vases, and every sort of decorative accessory, as well as the figures that were originated there, the modelled flowers, and the busts, figures and groups both glazed and in biscuit .

The contours, at first, were more or less experimental. Shapes were adopted from Chinese models, from metal forms, from faience, and from whatever source seemed likely to yield material for adaptation. But through all this initial stage, the plastic quality of the material was never for one moment lost sight of, and when Kandler came to Meissen he had only to carry on and amplify a tradition already firmly rooted.

Under his direction the shapes, from whatever source they had been derived in the first instance, began to display both local individuality and an unmistakably European character. He was imbued with the Rococo conceptions of his day and delighted in embodying in porcelain forms the subtle curves and moulded scrolls so characteristic of the manner. Both the bodies of the pieces and the decorations modelled and applied to them responded to this impulse. He developed the Rococo schemes to such a degree of exuberance that he has sometimes been regarded, though wrongly, as the originator of the mode. He was, nevertheless, an ardent exponent. He also introduced shapes with well defined architectural mouldings, which was a departure from Chinese precedent.

From I764 onward, the Rococo contours more and more yielded place to the restrained Neo-Classic shapes, and these, in due order, at the turn of the century, gave way before the modes of the Empire.

TYPES OF DECORATION. The very early types of decoration practised at Meissen included moulding in low relief, modelling in high relief; piercings and fretwork, in the latter of which Bottger and his modellers displayed the greatest daring and dexterity alike; painting in enamel colours with a rather limited palette; and painting in gold alone, which meant arabesques and "gold Chinamen" on a flat surface, or Chinese and floral gilt reliefs raised from the flat ground of the white porcelain. The "gold Chinamen," as they were called, were Chinese figures and attendant motifs painted in gold in silhouette on the white porcelain, and made a very interesting and effective decoration. Underglaze painting in blue was employed, but in Bottger's time the results were not at all satisfactory. The blue pigment ran and occasionally formed bubbles, behaviour due probably to impurities in the cobalt. Nevertheless, persistent efforts were made to overcome the difficulty, and eventually the trouble was altogether eliminated and underglaze blue decoration became one of the customary processes. China decorated in underglaze blue with the "Strohblumen" and "onion" patterns , was exceedingly popular and was made in large quantities. These patterns-especially the former-were so much admired in Denmark and so much copied at Copenhagen that in time they came to be known as "Copenhagen" patterns, although they really originated at Dresden.

With Herold's name are associated the introduction of the Japanese Kakiyemon decoration , which was afterwards widely copied all over Europe and was known in England and America as the "old Japan" pattern; the introduction of armorial services; and the popularisation of naturalistic flowers, arranged either in organised compositions or else scattered at random in sprays and single blossoms , sometimes with the addition of insects here and there in the intervals between them. Flowers and insects thus arranged had the advantage of concealing any chance flaws in body or glaze. This type of decoration, also, was almost universally copied and has always been regarded as peculiarly characteristic of Dresden.It was not long needed at Dresden for purposes of concealment,but was continued on account of its beauty; many other factories, however, found it not only attractive but most useful in hiding imperfections. The draperies of the figures were often pyed with minute blossoms, after the manner of the East India printed cottons, a fashion of decoration akin to the "scattered flower" motif.

During Herold's time likewise the "brocaded" Japanese Imari ware, with its strong reds, blues and gold, furnished a popular decorative theme, while dragons and other distinctly Chinese subjects afforded a wealth of material of which the china painters fully availed themselves. Despite the use of these Oriental themes, however, the tendency towards purely European methods of decorationpattern, Plate , was constantly growing stronger. The "German flowers" rendered in naturalistic manner were followed by landscapes with ornate borders; by Rococo scrolls and other characteristic Rococo forms, expressed either in color and gilding or by moulded reliefs accentuated with color and gold; by modelled flowers, birds and other objects, used as knobs and handles and realistically colored; by Watteau-like panels and arabesques; by landscapes in monochrome ; by diapered borders borrowed from Oriental china; and by ground colors with reserved panels in which appeared naturalistic flowers, birds of brilliant plumage, figures, landscapes and pastoral scenes.

Although the trend was away from the employment of Chinese themes, sometimes the reserved panels in colored grounds, instead of containing the motifs just enumerated, were quatrefoil or lobate-shaped and enclosed Chinese subjects in polychrome.

The usual ground colors were pale violet, light blue,urple, brick-red, apple-green and sea-green, while a yellow which varied from straw colour to deep lemon was particularly successful. Some success attended the experiments in colored bodies, and grey, blue, mauve, cream and grey-brown were produced. A "dead-leaf" brown colored glaze was also occasionally used.

By the time the Dresden factory suffered pillage at the hands of Frederick the Great, the Rococo influence, both in contour and decoration, had not only crowded out almost every trace of Oriental elements but, in many directions, had reached the most extravagant developments.

After the resumption of work, the Sevres influence became steadily more perceptible in the manner of decoration, and the usual complement of Neo-Classic forms and motifs-already noted in connexion with the products of the French factories-dominated the day until they were ousted by the more aggressive expressions of the Empire mode. Much of the china made at Dresden during the period of Neo-Classic supremacy was very beautiful, but it was no longer distinctive of the place in its decoration as the earlier wares had been.

THE MARKS. The early Dresden china was marked with the letters K. P. M.-meaning Konigliche Porzellan Manufactur-with occasional variations to K. P. F. and M. P. M. These marks date from about 1719; much of the earliest ware was altogether unmarked. About the second quarter of the century the crossed swords from the Saxon arms appeared as the mark; they were at first painted in on-glaze blue and afterwards, when they had learned better how to manage it, in underglaze blue. Concurrently with the crossed swords the royal cypher, composed of the letters A. R. in monogram, was used on the royal porcelain. About this time, too, appeared the staff of Esculapius. After the Seven Years' War and the resumption of work at Meissen, a dot was placed between the crossed swords. With the period of Count Marcolini's directorship, which began in 1774, a star was set between the crossed swords.

Bookmark and Share