Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Three Centuries of Meissen White Gold, 1710-2010

The Gardiner Museum of Ceramics at Bloor & Avenue Road in Toronto; photo SwF

Snowball vase with birds, model probably by Johann Joachim Kaendler, Meissen, 1741, Lustheim Palace Porcelain collection, Bavaria; every detail and individual rosette is painstakingly applied while moist and pliable, later hand painted, and then the piece is fired

the above piece is a special, highly limited edition in the "snowball" style, made almost 300 years after the early 18th century piece above; it is priced at €45,000.00; photo Meissen Porcelain

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in the historic town of Meissen, located in Saxony, Germany. Prior to 1710, the only fine porcelain in Europe was imported from China and Japan. In Europe, there have been special exhibitions marking this amazing anniversary, but in North America, there has been little if any recognition of this culturally significant discovery. The blossoming of a highly specialized craft, the manufacture of fine porcelain art objects, table wares, and utilitarian things, has influenced our lives in the way we eat at every meal, and through the objects we use in our home, such as porcelain sinks or wall tiles. Porcelain is highly suitable for objects that are both functional, decorative, or both.

Fine, translucent porcelain fired at very temperatures had been available since the Han Dynasty (approximately 100-200 B.C.). As Europe began to trade with Asia, porcelain, along with other luxuries like spices and silks, was greatly admired and valued. Because of the distance and great difficulty of importing porcelain from China, it was extremely valuable, reserved only for royalty and the rich, and called "White Gold."

From Renaissance times, Europe tried, unsuccessfully to come up with a formula to approximate fine oriental porcelain. In the early 18th century, there was success at Meissen in Germany, and the production began under the patronage of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. In the ensuing decades, it became a mark of great prestige for the royal houses of Europe to have their own porcelain factories, and some of these that began with royal patronage such as Berlin (KPM), Meissen, Royal Copenhagen, and Nymphenburg, have existed since the 18th century. It can be argued that western porcelain reached the finest period of creativity and excellence in the 1700s. The arts of 18th century Europe cannot be discussed or understood without reference to the mania that society embraced for this refined product, and the story is linked to changing fashions and tastes for tea, coffee, and chocolate which were also imported at great cost. To drink oriental tea from a fine porcelain cup was to be educated, au courrant, and successful.

The Meissen style was widely copied by other factories, and a style derivative of Meissen exists to this day in the prestige porcelains of Nymphenburg, Royal Copenhagen, Herend, Richard Ginori, and of course Meissen. The Meissen influence was also continued in lines by great British manufactories, but sadly the great majority which were located in Staffordshire, have closed in the last decade, after 250 years of continuous production.

The Meissen manufactory has gone through various periods of difficulty, notably during World War II and after, and the factory was in the east zone until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. In spite of these difficulties, the firm was regarded as culturally and historically significant, and received the financial support of the government. I had the pleasure of visiting the factory and museum of Meissen in 2008, and found it beautifully maintained. The renovated, restored, and expanded exhibition halls of the museum, and the extensive showrooms for new products were bustling with delighted visitors from around the world.

Meissen Porcelain of Germany continues to produce pieces in the manner of the 18th century and takes great pride in maintaining highly specialized skills such as modelling, painting, and gilding, in every way as superb as in the 18th century. Some of the most detailed and elaborate pieces are not for the faint of heart. An historically accurate limited edition of the snowball flower teapot, completely covered with dimensional white blossoms, is priced at €45,000.00. While maintaining the skills of the 18th century with absolute fidelity, they also produce new designs that are extremely original, innovative, and unusual. After 300 years in production, their archives hold documents and artifacts of priceless historical and cultural value, making it the most esteemed and important manufacturer or porcelain in the world.

Here in Toronto, Canada, The Gardiner Museum, on Queen's Park directly across from the Royal Ontario Museum, has an exceptional collection of international repute, of early and later 18th century Meissen porcelain. Representative pieces show the development of the porcelain as different formulae were tried, until it was perfected and works of great beauty and technical expertise were achieved.

For those who wish to see more works of Meissen, I highly recommend visiting the porcelain factory and museum in Meissen, and the major museums devoted to Meissen in nearby Dresden, Germany.

For a fascinating account of how this historically and culturally important discovery evolved, I highly recommend "THE ARCANUM, THE EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY," by Janet Gleeson, Warner Books, 1998.

a Meissen yellow-ground chinoiserie single-handled beaker and saucer , c.1735-1740 G83.1.591a-b, The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; the yellow ground colour of this cup and saucer is much sought after

pair of beaker-form vases , Manufacturer: Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Date Label: c.1735-1740 , G83.1.681.1 -2 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; the "sea green" ground colour of these vases makes them rare and desirable

confectionery dish from the "Swan Service" , Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, c.1737-1741 G83.1.642 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner

cup and saucer from the "Swan Service" Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, c.1737-1741, G83.1.644a-b, The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner ; not evident in the photo is the highly detailed relief of the pattern, depicting aquatic elements and wave-like ripples

Dolphin Saltcellar for the "Swan Service," Meissen, c.1737-1741 , G83.1.641 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner ; this dinner service is considered one of the most fanciful and extravagent ever created

figure of a pug-dog and a pug-dog with pup, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, c.1745, G83.1.668.1 - .2, The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; in 18th century Europe, the pug dog was a popular pet among the royal and aristocratic classes; in the 20th century the Duchess of Windsor had a collection of Meissen pug dog figurines

the Greeting Harlequin, Meissen c.1740 , G83.1.0908 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; the Commedia dell'arte was popular among the upper classes

Royal hunting clock for Augustus III , Meissen, c.1732-1733, G87.1.1 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto,Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; not evident in this photo is the great attention to fine detail in figures, details, and decorative painting on a hunt theme

cased tea and coffee service with harbour scenes, approximately 68 pieces, (G83.1.616.1)-(G83.1.616.53), Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, c.1740-1745 G83.1.616.1-31 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; a fully fitted case of porcelain suitable for serving tea, chocolate, or coffee would have been a costly and very prestige product

Meissen Dish with harbour scene, c.1721-1722, hard paste porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue and iron oxide, G83.1.657 , The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; this piece of porcelain recreates the sought after blue and white Asian porcelain that was imported at great cost

a Böttger red stoneware covered jar, made at Meissen circa 1704, The Gardiner Museum of Toronto, Gift of George and Helen Gardiner; the formula for this type of stoneware was discovered in the quest for fine white porcelain; the hardness of the ware allowed it to be cut, engraved and polished like stone

late 18th Century coffee or tea pot with the desirable Meissen Yellow" ground and strewn Saxon flowers; note the simplicity of the form which allows for the brilliance of colour and hand painting to be fully appreciated; image courtesy of Hide and Go Keep Antiques, Durham, New Hampshire

Meissen saucer, 19th century, after an 18th century original, turquoise ground with quatrefoil cartouche painted with a courtly musician couple in the style of Watteau, collection of SwF; in this fine example of Meissen painting, the details are microscopic

Square with Flair gratefully acknowledges the help and assistance of the Gardiner Museum, Toronto, Canada.