Published 1st June 2012
I am sure many people are aware of the historical role of the alchemist as part-scientist and part-wizard. They were often perceived as in league with 'unholy' forces as they strove for the philosopher's stone, the means by which they could turn base metal into gold.
Johann Friedrich Bottger, a gifted chemist, was one such individual but having publically demonstrated his 'gold making' talents on several occasions the news travelled like wild fire. The upshot was the earnest and unwelcome attentions from both the Prussian and German monarchs; the latter eventually 'caught' him and demanded a personal demonstration upon pain of death.
His sleight of hand was uncovered and he was a very real candidate for execution. However, fortuitously for Bottger, the King had two loves gold and Chinese porcelain. In an act of tolerance the King chose instead to imprison the young Bottger until he 'discovered' the secret of making porcelain – it 'only' took six years but in 1708, if you excuse the pun, he struck gold and managed to create the first European porcelain and the Meissen Porcelain manufactory was born.
Today we are all familiar with porcelain but over three hundred years ago it was a truly desirable and miraculous substance (especially in comparison to domestic pottery) and there was not a European monarch that didn't have or desire a collection of it. During the first few decades of the 18th century its production was kept a profitable secret by both the Chinese and Meissen. Not surprisingly it was the mid 1740s before any successful porcelain production occurred on these shores.
During the 1720s production focussed primarily on tea and breakfast sets and was in the main quite plain, but did flaunt its rare and luxury credentials by the ostentatious application of gold and latterly with brightly coloured grounds. The King longed for larger decorative pieces such as the vases and jars he could get from China but during this early experimental phase Meissen's craftsmen were unable to pot and fire such large pieces without disastrous results.
An artistic compromise was reached when they took on a sculptor and were able to produce figures – something that had not as yet come out of China in any great numbers. Popular subject matter included Orientals and other exotic races that to modern eyes look like they were made by someone who had never seen a foreigner in the flesh, but had instead relied on some rather dubious book illustrations. Other subject matter was more home grown and included Italian Comedy, classically inspired groups, artisans, gardeners and a whole menagerie of animals and birds.
Three hundred years on porcelain is produced in every corner of the globe from the cheapest mass produced wares for daily consumption to the ornate and decorative pieces that are treasured by their owners. Although there is plenty of competition Meissen has never dropped its high standards or lost its position as the foremost producer of fine porcelain.
On the 12th July 2012, Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood are pleased to be offering a collection of twenty pieces from the Meissen factory dating from the 1720s up till the early 20th century with estimates up to £10,000-£15,000. So perhaps ironically it seems that Bottger was successful in producing gold after all!