While attempting to trace the history of porcelain, one comes across two continents and a traveller whose journeys have become part of legend. It was Marco Polo who introduced the prized ceramic to the European mainland when he travelled with it to Italy in 1295. But its birth took place thousands of miles and hundreds of years away during Tang Dynasty-ruled China (618-907 AD). However, in epochs since, porcelain-making has come to represent yet another peak of refined European craftsmanship.
Edmund de Waal, who has worked with porcelain for 25 years, recently came out with a book, The White Road, which maps the journey of the magical clay. But instead of being a dry scholarly tome, the book is replete with anecdotes and memories. De Waal says, “It’s really quite simple. For me, it’s a pilgrimage of sorts– a chance to walk up the mountain where the white earth comes from. I have a plan to go to three places where porcelain was invented, or rather reinvented– three white hills in China, Germany and England.” The writer travelled from China to Dresden and Cornwall after beginning his journey in Jingdezhen in south-eastern China, rightfully known as the porcelain capital of the ancient times.
According to the book quoted by the New Statesman, the process, which was kept secret for centuries, begins with the mining of two substances – petuntse, or porcelain stone, and kaolin, or porcelain clay.”First, they are dug from the earth and then purified, mixed, shaped, glazed and fired. It was an industry that once involved thousands of different labourers who excelled in now half-extinct skills and techniques, among them were six categories of decorators, three specialists in packing kilns, three for firing kilns, mould-makers, carpenters for crates, basket-makers and ash men among others”
The journey of porcelain in Austria started with Claudius Innocentius du Paquier who in 1718 founded Europe’s second porcelain manufactory in Vienna. It was called Augarten Porcelain and was set up after Augustus II, King of Poland, founded the first European hard paste porcelain factory at Meissen, Germany in 1710.
Augarten pieces bear the shield from the Dukes of Austria’s coat of arms as a trademark. The Austrian connection with porcelain developed further with Duke Alexander of Lorraine’s famed collection, which was comprised of pieces brought from the Far East around 1700. Parts of that are now on display at Hofburg Place in Vienna. The mad rush for porcelain peaked with the tableware collection of Empress Maria Theresa in the mid 18th century.
Some of the surviving pieces from Duke Alexander of Lorraine’s collection represent an interesting symbiosis between Far Eastern and European culture. European manufacturers created a unique combination of silver and gold with porcelain sourced from Japan and China. Their blue, red and gold painted decoration is in the typical colours of the Japanese porcelain of that epoch, which is known as Imari ware. "Tambours" or bronze-gilt stands that held sweetmeats and decorated the imperial dining table belonged to the New French centre piece acquired by the young Emperor Franz Joseph. In 1803, Emperor Franz of Austria ordered a porcelain service comprising 120 items for the court table, including 60 pictorial plates for dessert and 24 "panorama" soup plates of exceptional quality.
The choice of motifs was both patriotic and Romantic. Framed by gold rims, the scenes include erupting volcanoes, icy glacier landscapes or imposing Viennese architecture – with each plate displaying three views from Austria, Switzerland and Italy. They were executed by the best porcelain painters from old engravings– a painstaking task that took five years. The white and gold dinner service was acquired for Emperor Ferdinand in 1851. Ferdinand, abdicated from the throne during the course of thebourgeois revolution of 1848 and subsequently moved to Prague,where he lived until his death. The white and gold dinner service was ordered for the imperial household in Prague from the porcelain manufactory of the Counts of Thun at Klösterle in Bohemia. The design represented the height of up market fashion of the time. Tastes changed around the middle of the 19th century, with the emphatically clear lines of the Biedermeier era giving way to a softer, more flowing formal idiom. The rich gold decoration expressed the growing need to demonstrate feudal magnificence, a tendency that was also felt at the imperial Viennese court.
Another magnificent service with the green ribbons was a precious gift as a sign of increasing rapprochement between France and Austria after the bloody wars of succession– from the French king, Louis XV to Empress Maria Theresa. Green intertwining ribbons represent the main decorative element while between the ribbons are delicately ornamented motifs representing love, poetry, music, painting and sculpture. Such elegant wares were produced by the royal French porcelain manufactory at Sèvres (France), which was founded in 1738. They are made of a special type of porcelain known as "frit", which while more fragile, allows the colours to develop a particularly intense radiance due to the lower firing temperature.
There was a tradition, which dictated every archduke of the Habsburg family to learn a manual craft or trade. The Vienna Porcelain Manufactory was commissioned to produce two series of floral plates dedicated to Emperor Franz II/I (1768-1835) who had learned gardening and loved flowers. These plates were used as dessert.
The first porcelain manufactory in Europe was established at Meissen in Germany around 1710. Meissen china is the first European hard-paste porcelain developed from 1708 by Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a German mathematician, physicist, physician, and philosopher considered to have been the inventor of European porcelain. This Meissen service made around 1775 is striking for its exquisite floral painting. The shapes of the individual pieces are good examples of "Baroque Classicism". The perforated fruit basket displays elements of Classicism with its predilection for the formal repertoire of Antiquity.
A remarkable exhibit is the unusual English dinner service that Empress Elisabeth gave to Emperor Franz Joseph for his hunting lodge at Offensee. Dating back to 1870, it was designed by William Coleman and is decorated with naturalistic representations of insects, birds, sea creatures and plants. The Palace was without a bathroom till Empress Elisabeth had her own one installed in 1876. Even after that, most of the court house hold had to make do with sets of sanitary porcelain consisting of washbasins, water jugs, footbaths, shaving bowls, soap dishes, chamber pots and what have you. Most of them were made of white porcelain and decorated with a gold rim and a gold imperial eagle.
The manufactory dropped out from business in 1864. The ceramics from the Vienna manufactory are often referred to as "Alt Wien" (Old Vienna) porcelain, to distinguish it from the products of the new Augarten manufactory, which was established in 1923, and revived the traditions of the old Vienna porcelain manufactory.
Modern designers such as Josef Hoffmann, Walter Bosse and Hertha Bucher characterised production in the 1920s and 30s. The preference for clarifying simplicity that prevailed in the 1950s is on display, as are works by Arik Brauer from the 1970s.
Albin Denk is another name that can’t be avoided when depicting Viennese porcelain. It was founded in 1702 as the first porcelain house in the city centre of Vienna and awarded the title of imperial purveyors in 1878.
Eventually, they collaborated with internationally renowned and traditional suppliers over the years. They select their products on the basis of standards with greater emphasis on traditional manufacturing in innovative, high quality products and brands.