Meissen Porcelain – Passionate Pursuit of Power and Prestige

This beaker and its saucer were part of a tea and chocolate service given to Vittorio Amadeo II, King of Sardinia (1666-1732) by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, c1725 Johann Gregor Höroldt (1696-1775 ) Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York

Today we have our morning cup of tea, or latte, from a cup, or mug without much thought about the ‘China’ we drink it from, because it has become such an integral aspect of our twenty first century lifestyle.

As a commodity, porcelain aided the growth of both the east and western world’s economies and benefited their social and cultural development for centuries.

Porcelain is a translucent ‘hard paste’ ceramic ware first brought across the old silk road to the courts of Europe, from far-eastern Cathay (China) during the Ming Dynasty ( 1368-1644). The very best came from the kilns at Jingdezhen in northeastern Jiangxi province, China.

The secret of how to produce porcelain, as it was named by fourteenth century Venetian traveler to the ancient capital of Cathay Marco Polo, remained a mystery in the west for centuries.

An ability to see through something so hard and impervious to liquid seemed completely magical to the princes of the courts of Europe and England.

It represented a refinement of taste and was given silver and gilded mounts to protect its fragility and honour its brilliance.

Teapot, ca. 1725 German; Meissen Hard–paste porcelain; H. 5 1/2 in. (14 cm), W. 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm) The Lesley and Emma Sheafer Collection, Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, 1973 (1974.356.488) courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Put on display as a symbol of status, princely power and prestige, this wonder ware was painted brilliantly in cobalt (blue) at first, and then in an ever expanding variety of beautiful colours.

By the seventeenth century the English, and various other European trading companies, had increased their trade with China and Japan, who was also producing a rival product for Chinese porcelain.

Their ships plied risky new routes, which saw many a cargo end up at the bottom of the sea.

Back home in Europe and England local tin glazed earthenware provided the only alternative to the imported magical translucent ware from China, because the many who had tried to manufacture a hard paste style of ceramic had failed.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century however, the rituals associated with tea and coffee drinking were in the ascendancy in Europe, England and America.

The commercial advantages of producing a competitive product, to that of the long standing Eastern trade with China (Cathay), was highly motivating.

Augustus the Strong (1670 – 1733) Elector of Saxony, a south-eastern state of modern day Germany is the man who took the risks, funded the experimentation and subsequently reaped the rewards.

He went on a passionate pursuit of princely power and prestige.

During the first decade of the eighteenth century groundbreaking hard paste porcelain wares, produced at the town of Meissen under the patronage of Augustus the Strong would inspire and motivate many others by their success.

It was as early as 1694 that German mathematician, physicist, physician and philosopher Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnahaus had discussed the possibilities of local porcelain manufacture with Augustus.

He had a clear understanding of what constituted hard paste porcelain and desperately wanted to be the first European to discover the secret of China’s seemingly magically translucent wares, which had fascinated consumers at the European and English courts for centuries.

From 1700 Augustus the Strong was also involved with the fate of a young alchemist of dubious reputation Johan Friedrich Böttger, who was in trouble in Prussia for failing to transmute base metals into gold.

Augustus was a powerful prince whose passion for porcelain was all consuming.

So he provided Tschirnahaus with a laboratory for experimentation and brought he and Bottger together. Although he resisted at first, Bottger inevitably became involved with Tschirnahaus’s porcelain experiments.

Carrying out trials to test the heat resistance and chemical changes of Saxony’s earths and minerals at high temperatures by 1703 the duo had achieved a hard paste style stoneware, and produced a small range of products in imitation of imported Chinese red wares.

In 1708 Tschirhause died of dysentery, just a year before a report to the King on the 28th March, 1709 which claimed Böttger ‘could make good white, porcelain with finest glazing and painting in such perfection as to er at least equal, if not surpass, the Eastern production’.

This was a boast because it took several more years for the porcelain to eventually rival oriental wares.

By then the laboratory was too small for growth so in 1710 they moved it into an old fortress at Meissen in Saxony.

At the Leipzig Easter Fair of 1710, the Meissen Factory exhibited their wares for first time. Black glazed red stone wares (right) promoted Saxony’s industries and their  luxury goods.

They were described in the Leipzig Gazette as ‘lacquered like the most beautiful Japanese products.’ The painting on these wares is traditionally attributed to Martin Schnell, who was known to have worked for Meissen between 1711 and 1715.

The manufacture of the new European porcelain differed from the Chinese by its relatively high proportion of the mineral kaolin. About 50% against the Chinese of 30%.

They were experimenting and it would be wrong to imagine at all that they were very scientific about what they doing.

All they really knew was that in order to reproduce porcelain they had to fire the wares at a very high temperature.

This bowl of hard-paste porcelain (left) has two delightful loop handles that extend from its interior. They are formed as twisted rose stems and extend out over the surface in modeled and applied foliage and flowers.

The body itself is a creamy paste with a slightly greenish glaze.

It was all about trial and error and the construction of the kilns . These remained a carefully kept secret, almost as precious as that of the composition of the paste.

European pieces were fired twice, against a single Chinese firing process.

After the first firing they were painted and the colours embedded by the high temperatures of the second firing.

The immediate public response was disappointing, because many of Böttger’s original stonewares were left plain, or had minimal gilded decoration, which we would today think was wonderfully minimalist.

However at the time they were competing against a highly coloured and sophisticated product from the established market of China, and the burgeoning market of Japan, so this would have been viewed in a different light.

Enamelers, outside the factory, often acquired slightly imperfect, or outdated white pieces quite cheaply. They would then embellish them with fashionable designs to sell at a profit.

To assist the factory Augustus the Strong asked court Goldsmith Johann Jakob Irminger to provide both designs and ideas for new shapes.

This large jug of Böttger porcelain (right) made c1715 has ‘Irminger overlay’, a technique he developed for applying delicate reliefs, in this case beautiful blossoming branches. This style of porcelain was meant to be fashionable and valuable.

At Meissen they copied the palette of colours of iron/red, bluish/green, yellow and light blue used by Japanese potter Kakiemon Sakaida with sometimes the surface enriched with additional gilding.

In this case the additional painted decoration is beautifully restrained and it is easy to see why Meissen would go on to great things.

With improvements Boettger’s red stonewares (left) also became extremely fashionable at court.

Much use was made of Chinese models at first, but within a very short time an indigenous style emerged with its own shapes, symbols and styles.

New techniques for polishing and engraving were developed and eventually, with artistic innovation, the appropriate response came from the public. The Meissen Porcelain factory was well on its way to success.

Around 1716 Böttger produced beautiful porcelain wares with pink-lustre inner surfaces. The lustre was achieved by a dangerous technique whose recipe included mercury, which gave a metallic glow to the glaze.

The mixture for making lustre also contained pure gold and enamels and was therefore extremely expensive.

Only a few experimental pieces survive where lustre is applied as lavishly as with this tea bowl and saucer.

This tea bowl has a matching saucer and is a now rare example of the earliest type of porcelain developed by Böttger who wrote to the King in 1717 saying

‘these works are, so to speak, my first-born children and I trust you will therefore not take it amiss, when I say that, for myself, I love them tenderly and… I try to bring them into the high esteem and opinion of others‘.

Böttger and his key workers were sworn to secrecy about the many different factory processes they refined, as well as those in development. They were well treated and given reasonable salaries, but security was tight and they were virtually prisoners.

Böttger, we are told, eventually took to drink and bad companions and died in 1719 at the early age of 37.

The coffee pot (left) with its hinged cover is painted in enamels and gilt, with the addition of a silver-gilt mount; It was made around 1720, but the decoration was added in Augsburg, attributed by scholars to the workshop of Johann Auffenwerth, ca. 1725-30.

The colours green and mauve are similar to those of a palette preferred at the court of the Chinese Emperors named for the longest reigning Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty who ruled on the throne of heaven from 1661 – 1722.

Böttger’s contribution to the glory and fame his princely patron Augustus the Strong enjoyed would live on in the traditions he established at Meissen. At the time of his youthful demise the factory was in the ascendancy in Europe.

Appointed manager in 1720 Samuel Stolzel earned respect when he improved the kilns for the factory.

He brought to Meissen the man who would take its reputation world wide.

Gregorious Horoldt, who became Court Painter in charge of decorating the wares.

Horoldt’s work was so much in demand by 1725 he had ten journeymen and five boys working for him. By 1731 that had increased to twenty five journeymen, eleven boys and two colour grinders

Johann Gottlob Kirchner was put in charge of the modeling. He taught drawing and modeling to the apprentices and recorded all the new and existing patterns in use at the factory at that time.

The king’s greed for porcelain never diminished and with these two workers he had the ability to decorate with porcelain the newly bought Hollandische Palais (later renamed the Japanese Palace).

He planned to furnish all the rooms with vases, life sized sculptures of animals, the apostles and, in the chapel, even a ceramic altar, pulpit and organ.

Nothing on this scale had been attempted before and new techniques had to be invented and mastered.

The enormity of the task was hindered by the impatience of Augustus.

Kirchner was the only man capable of undertaking such a daunting commission and he employed Johan Joachim Kandler to help extradite matters.

Bust of Baron Schmidl 1740

Joachim Kandler (1706 – 1775) was trained as a sculptor in Dresden and was destined to become the greatest German porcelain modeller, responsible for much of the success of the Meissen porcelain factory during the 18th century.

A bust of Gottfried Schmiedel modelled by Johann Joachim Kandler c1739  delights through its virtuosity.

It is a work of great skill and invention. Kandler found nothing too difficult to attempt and his efforts were extremely productive.

His works were naturalistic in style and imitated throughout Europe. He joined the factory in 1731 and produced seven large birds about four feet high and one of the apostles for the Japanese palace and was designing its table ware when the King died, his successor vowing to complete the task.

During his forty four years at Meissen the reputation of the factory reached dizzying heights. His elaborate vases were nothing short of sensational.

The best known of all Kandler’s works are his figurines of  characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte which are among the best works of this kind.

They include Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot, All his figures were engaging and delightful.

The production was enormous – more than a thousand different subjects in all including people, animals,  mythological and allegorical pieces.

It was around 1728 that Kandler produced the ‘swan’ set whose embossed decoration on plates depicted swans floating on water surrounded by water plants and bullrushes.

The tureens were in the shapes of enormous shells adorned with mermaid handles and the oil and vinegar cruets, took the form of little putti riding swans.

Its new style of floral decoration, inspired by the work of Japan’s wonder ceramicist Sakeida Kakiemon would in the end become a wholly new European concept.

The disastrous Seven Year’s War in Europe 1756 – 1763 heralded the death knell of Meissen glory. The factory was ransacked and pillaged by Frederick the Great. Throughout this period Kandler held the workers together.

Following the peace of 1763 the new Elector Frederich Christian attempted to put his country and the factory back onto its feet. But while they were recovering other European and English factories were in the fashionable ascendancy while the struggling Meissen was in decline.

Although the porcelain marked with the crossed swords, symbolic of the Elector of Saxony may have been preferred by many, it was not enough to save Meissen from closure. Kandler, whose originality, fertile imagination, skill and determination, together with an unsurpassed artistic talent had given the factory its greatest success died in 1775.

Though it was later resurrected and continued it was never again to reign supreme.

Swan Service Tray, 1735, Meissen courtesy Hermitage Museum

Today Augustus the Strong’s claim to fame rests on his patronage, his well known passion for porcelain and subsequent ownership of the first European factory to produce porcelain in the west,  rather than on the battles that he fought.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014

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