Porcelain in history
Pots of fame
European porcelain was invented 300 years ago in Germany. Or was it?
Mar 31st 2010 | from the print edition
DISAGREEMENTS about art history in Europe can be just as heated as political squabbles. Three tiny glazed pots, decorated with cherubs, provide new evidence that European hard-paste porcelain was invented not in Germany, as has been thought for three centuries, but in England. German experts vehemently disagree.
The Chinese were the first to invent white, translucent hard-paste porcelain under the Tang dynasty (618—907AD) when they learned to fire a mixture of china clay and china stone at very high temperatures. The Chinese kept their recipe secret and with that their monopoly on production. In the mid-16th century Chinese porcelain began to be exported to Europe, first by the Portuguese and then also by the Dutch. European grandees quickly developed a craving for this elegant, exotic material. Increased supply only increased demand. Hundreds of thousands of pieces came to be traded in Amsterdam. Porcelain was so expensive that Europeans called it “white gold”. The race to discover how to make it in Europe was won in 1708 by Johann Friederich Böttger, working in the Dresden court of Augustus the Strong. Or so it was believed until the news about the little English pots.
The two slender lidded vases and a plump round bowl (pictured), standing barely three inches (7.5cm) high, were first listed in an English aristocrat's inventory of luxurious bequests in 1683. A few years later they entered the collections of Burghley House, a stately home in Lincolnshire where they have been ever since. Earlier this year Burghley House issued a press release comparing the recent findings to learning that Russian astronauts had landed on the moon 25 years before the Americans. Ulrich Pietsch, director of Dresden's famous porcelain collection (where Böttger's pots are proudly displayed), answered with a press release of his own, refuting the English claims. Böttger's discovery, Mr Pietsch reaffirmed, “is still to be regarded as the hour of birth of European hard-paste porcelain”.
Transactions, the bible of the small but influential English Ceramic Circle, has included a series of six papers about the pots in its latest issue. The tone is academic, but the message is clear: the pots are hard paste; a European first.
Tucked inside one of the little vases is a slip of paper that reads “Lord Buckingham's china”. Inside the other, a note that has now gone missing, identified him as the patron of its manufacturer. The second Duke of Buckingham (1628-87) was one of England's richest men and a keen amateur chemist. Did he really commission the pots? That is one of many questions examined in the first Transactions paper by Morgan Wesley, a young graduate who made the Buckingham pots the subject of his dissertation for his master's degree. Mr Wesley is hugely excited by them. “In every way this little group is trendsetting and unique,” he says. Two more examples have now been discovered elsewhere. One is at Dunham Massey, another English stately home. A fifth pot was recorded in the royal collection at Windsor Castle but has since been lost.
John Mallet, sometimes called the pope of porcelain, wrote the last article in the Transactions series. He discusses the vexing question of how to define hard-paste porcelain. He points out that the recipe used in the Buckingham pots differs from Böttger's, and both differ from that used by the Chinese. In his view the little pots are close enough to “represent a clean break” with previous Western experiments. They have a claim to be Europe's earliest hard-paste porcelain, he concludes.
Böttger will remain important whether or not he is considered the first. The Wright brothers were not the first to fly, but they are still regarded as the fathers of manned flight. Böttger's discoveries enabled Augustus the Strong to open a factory to produce hard-paste porcelain at Meissen. Its initial goal was to replicate Oriental wares. Soon something entirely new and marvellous occurred. Hard-paste porcelain with a European aesthetic was created.
The early Meissen menagerie of life-size, hard-paste creatures on view in Dresden is a breathtaking example of what the porcelain inventors achieved. Lord Buckingham's china was a crucial step along the way. The three pots are beauties with a remarkably powerful presence. Spotlit in their own vitrine, they dazzle visitors to “Art in Miniature”, a special exhibition at Burghley House until October 31st. Their maker clearly knew what he had achieved.
from the print edition | Books and arts