The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has simply wonderful examples of European and English decorative arts, including a highly regarded collection of eighteenth-century European and English porcelain wares.
Among some of the most appealing are the porcelain sculptures, which were superbly modelled and painted highly regarded as works of art at this time.
By the 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty Chinese potters had perfected a clean white ceramic body, which was fired in large kilns at very high temperatures.
It only required one firing after colours, including cobalt were painted directly onto the body because in its raw state it was no longer porous.
This was important because the colouring agent cobalt had been prone to running when painted directly onto unfired earthenware’s.
This new product however became magically translucent and impervious to hot liquids when fired and was given the name porcelain by Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324).
The moment of differentiation between products bearing a resemblance to porcelain and something comparable to the Chinese body so long admired in Europe, was not a reality until the eighteenth century.
The manufacture of European porcelain differed from the Chinese by its relatively high proportion of the main ingredient kaolin; about 50% against the 30% used in China.
Kaolin, sometimes called china clay, is named for a hill in China where it was found and mined for centuries.
A French Jesuit missionary sent the first samples of this white soft powder to Europe around 1700. Since then it has been discovered and mined in France, England, Saxony (Germany), Bohemia (Czech Republic), and United States, where the best-known deposits are in the south eastern states.
Early producers were experimenting and it would be wrong to imagine they were very scientific about what they doing.
All they really knew was that in order to reproduce porcelain they had to fire the ceramic body at a very high temperature.
Trial and error plus construction of the new kilns remained carefully kept secrets, almost as precious as that of the composition of the paste.
European pieces were fired twice, against the single Chinese firing process.
After firing once it was painted with enamels and then the high temperatures of the second firing infused nearly all the colours.
Prestige over profit became the main reason for investment in Europe where it became a princely sport when after 1700 Elector Augustus the Strong of Saxony, a very powerful Prince with a passion for porcelain funded experimentation.
Factories represented in the show will include English Derby Porcelain factory, the Sèvres factory in France and mighty Meissen, where the secret of Chinese porcelain was first uncovered
Today Augustus the Strong’s claim to fame rests on his ownership of the first factory to produce porcelain in the west rather than on the battles he fought.
Many factories inspired by his results sprang up throughout the eighteenth century, producing diverse ranges of extraordinary wares.
In England the manufacture of porcelain was very different. It would depend on the middle, or merchant classes as well as entrepreneurs willing to invest for financial return. Investment was attractive as porcelain had, since Elizabethan times, been considered precious and beautiful, on a par with silver not earthenware.
The development of porcelain in England went through a similar process to Europe, with a thirty-year time lag in between. Soft paste was the first variety produced, with design and painting based on traditional blue and white wares intended for daily use.
By the eighteenth century harmony and proportion in all branches of the arts, were considered essential and relative to man’s well being, especially in the design of architecture, interiors and furnishings.
They were required to accommodate the expansive and seeming luxurious lifestyles enjoyed by royalty, wealthy, private influential families, as well as the now increasingly wealthier bourgeoisie, or middle classes.
The subjects of exquisite sculptures made by many of the great artisans of their day as an aspect of the richly symbolic visual culture of the courts in Europe, were often mythological and allegorical.
A popular and re-occurring theme in ever aspect of the visual and performance arts, were the Four Seasons. At the Ludwigsburg Porcelain Manufactory of Duke Carl Eugen of Wurttemberg the modeller Johann William Götz presented Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter in the form of couples in love. Seated together, music represents Winter, where a glowing brazier and a lapdog helped to keep them warm.
The visual language of the art of theatre and dance also informed much of the production, as well as portraits and devotional images in the taste of the times.
To achieve his aim at Meissen Elector Augustus the Strong provided German mathematician, physicist, physician and philosopher Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnahaus (1651- 1708) with a laboratory for experimentation where, with a young alchemist of dubious reputation Johann Friedrich Bottger (1682-1719), he achieved hard paste red stoneware by 1703.
In 1708 Tschirhause died of dysentery a year before a report to the King on the 28th March, 1709 which claimed Bottger ‘could make good white, porcelain with finest glazing and painting in such perfection as to at least equal, if not surpass, the Eastern production’
This was a boast, because it took several more years for the Saxon porcelain factory to eventually rival oriental wares with a larger laboratory required. It was 1710 when it moved to the old fortress at the town of Meissen and first exhibited at the Leipzig Easter Fair.
After Augustus the Strong appointed designer Johann Jakob Irminger (1635-1724) to join the team of workers in 1712, Meissen’s style of porcelain became fashionable and valuable, designed and created like luxury silverware.
The appropriate response came from the public, and the Meissen Porcelain factory was well on its way to success.
The Sévres porcelain tradition started outside Paris at Vincennes in 1740, specializing in imitations of Meissen porcelain.
Naturalistic flowers were incorporated into bouquets as the manufactory experimented with the production of soft paste wares. By 1750 some 100 workers were employed.
The appointment of J.J. Bachelier as art Director in 1751 heralded the beginning of its period of its artistic greatness.
In 1752 Louis XV became principal shareholder and Mme de Pompadour also took a financial interest. In 1753 it became the Manufacture royale de porcelaine.
An edict was issued prohibiting the manufacture of porcelain anywhere else in France (including earthenware imitating white porcelain). The royal cypher of crossed ‘L’s”, which had been used occasionally before this date, now became the official factory mark.
The colours produced at Sévres were outstanding. Similar ground colours had been produced at Meissen but they couldn’t equal the tone and texture of those at Sévres.
In 1756 the factory moved to a new building in the village of Sévres just below Mme de Pompadour’s chateau at Bellevue.
In 1757 sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791)., who was patronised by Mme de Pompadour, became head of the sculpture department, introducing a ‘noble style less subject to changes of fashion. A rose pink, later called Rose Pompadour was invented the same year.
This deep rich pink ground colour was similar to that first produced in China during the reign of the Emperor Kanxi, but was deeper and richer with a different consistency.
Falconet arrived at an opportune moment when figures and groups were much under demand, many inspired by the versatile painter and tapestry designer Francois Boucher (1703-1770) who was also under the patronage of Mme de Pompadour who has been identified with the Rococo style.
By 1774 the factory employed 4000 people and made a service for Catherine the Great in 1778-8, which cost over 300,000 livres, an enormous sum on which the profit was comparatively small.
Sévres was proclaimed a national property with the advent of the Revolution in France so it would be saved.
The use of Chinoiserie, with its focus on assymetry and curves, was tailor made for the Rococo period.
Its use in decoration expressed the very essence of the style, with its complete lack of pomposity, clear bright colours, amusing and fantastic qualities, preference for asymmetrical design and clearly non-classical provenance.
Many of the porcelain designs of the time are all at once frivolous, sophisticated and enchantingly pretty.
Sculptural figures were undeniably exotic, but also recognizable as paying homage to respected, sophisticated civilized and well bred citizens.
The extraordinary production at Meissen as it had done at Sévres, influenced and inspired the growth of small factories all over Europe, but only those able to gain and retain profitability would survive.
Works by the Fulda Porcelain Factory in Germany were in production 1764 – 1789. It was a city on the traditional east-west invasion route, which was used by many conquering armies including Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1764 Prince-Bishop, Prince-Abbot Heinrich von Bibra founded the factory, but shortly after his death it was closed down in 1789 by his successor, Prince-Bishop, Prince-Abbot Adalbert von Harstall.
Because of both the quality and rarity of the small amount of porcelain produced in this time, this porcelain is much prized by collectors.
The Vienna Porcelain Factory, the second to be established in Europe also like Meissen produced hard-paste porcelain wares. It went out of business in 1864.
The greatest period of its manufacture in its first incarnation, was when Conrad von Sorgenthal was its director until his death in 1805, producing beautiful wares in the neo-classical period.
The Vienna Porcelain Factory was re-established in 1923 at Augarten where it has revived traditions until today.
Some of the most delightful English porcelain ever made was by Huguenot Nicholas Sprimont, silversmith to Frederick Prince of Wales.
Many of his pieces are still in the royal collection.
His enterprise would see the establishment of a factory in the ancient settlement of Chelsea nearby to London in c1744, where soft paste porcelain wares of immense charm were produced,
The delight early producers of porcelain took in the beautiful and novel material is evident.
The enamels were painted onto the glazed and fired surface and fired on in a muffle kiln. They sank onto the glassy glaze giving a soft effect.
The factory was re-located to a little house on the corner of Lawrence Street and Justice Walk in 1749-50.
From this time onward the paste became denser and cooler in appearance with a clear glaze containing a tinge of green.
Figures, much in demand were stylised, rather than true to their source. Whether human or animal they had eyes that bulged and indented pupils.
Thirty different models of groups and figures are known from this period.
The wares and figures that mark the first output of the works on the Lawrence Street site are marked with a raised anchor and made c1750 – c1752.
The Raised Anchor body was thickly potted and sturdy, with far less lead and much more lime added.
When examined it looks extremely rich, with the smoothness and whiteness of whipped cream.
During the Red Anchor period c1753-57 the body and standard of naturalistic painting and gilding was of supreme quality and this period is considered the apogee of Sprimont’s manufacture.
Any survey of eighteenth-century London includes an account of the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall and Ranelagh, which for many years were of importance in the ‘refined’ social life of the capital.
The entertainments and antics that went on there each night were also considered to be responsible for much of its folly and immorality.
The most celebrated of all the Gold Anchor figures from Chelsea are known as the Ranelagh Masqueraders, traditionally associated with a famous masked ball held in the gardens on the 24 May 1759.
Each character is individual, their costume brilliantly rendered.
The masquerades becoming so notorious in their own right that in time they were suppressed.
The porcelain factory at Bow had a similar time span to Chelsea from 1774 onward where they catered to the mass market.
At its peak the factory employed 300 people producing the usual gods and goddesses and characters from the Commedia dell’Arte.
In January 1770, William Duesbury, the son of a currier from Staffordshire, who had been running a business for the enamel decoration of porcelain and salt-glazed stoneware, purchased the lease of the failing Chelsea factory.
Duesbury also purchased the Bow factory in England in 1775 and closed it, moving the moulds to Derby.
His English Derby factory went on to produce splendid figures characterised by their ‘dry edges’, the modelling and execution excellent, the porcelain soft and heavy.
He endured until the news delivered by the now famous letter on 18th February 1784, which records the destruction of the Lawrence Street factory at Chelsea.
‘I wright to inform you how we are pretty forward in the pulling down of the buildings at Chelsea. I think, in a little better than a fortnight, they will be all down to the ground and cleared of the primeses, wich I shall be glad to my hart, for I am tired of it…
Public programs with curators, leading academics and historians throughout the exhibition Eighteenth-Century Porcelain Sculpture now showing at the NGV provides audiences with unique insights into the eighteenth-century porcelain sculptures on display.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016