Monday, 15 January 2007

Magnificent Meissen: all that’s best in European porcelain

by Christopher Proudlove©

This feature is devoted to the breathtakingly beautiful, always valuable ... and sometimes quite saucy products of Royal Saxon Porcelain Factory. There, that's fooled you already. For those who have never heard of the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory, read the German Meissen factory - one of the few firms to remain in continuous production from its beginnings in 1710 until the present day.

Every serious porcelain collector knows the early history of the company. For nigh on 1,000 years, the only people who knew the secret of how to produce hard paste porcelain were the Chinese.

Augustus the Great, the Elector of Saxony, was a great fan of the Chinese pots and he spent a fortune on purchasing a collection of more than 20,000 pieces which filled his palaces and storerooms. Indeed, Augustus spent so much money on his passion for fine porcelain that China became known as "the bleeding bowl of Saxony".

He is even said to have swapped a regiment of dragoons for 48 Chinese porcelain vases, today still preserved among the 8,000 pieces that remain at Dresden, and known as the "Dragoon Vases"

In his quest for the means to pay for his obsession, Augustus engaged the services of a young apprentice apothecary named Johann Friedrich Boettger, who was said to have discovered a means of turning base metals into gold.

Boettger was virtually imprisoned in his laboratory, but, of course, never came up with the goods. Unwittingly, however, he did hit on a recipe that produced something very similar to Chinese hard paste porcelain.

Augustus was appeased - porcelain was worth almost as much as gold and production started in a factory in Meissen, near Dresden in 1710. Its success was legendary. Thanks to the massive demand for its products throughout Europe, particularly in England, Meissen became the ware every rich aristocrat wanted in his home. Designs copied those from China and Japan and, later, much of the best from English makers. The business thrived and enjoyed its golden years.

Today, pieces made from 1710 to the end of the 19th century are highly sought after by collectors. Small fortunes can change hands at auction sales, often for a single cup if two collectors battle it out for ownership. I watched a recent sale in which a tiny sugar bowl and cover, made in 1730 and decorated with armorials sell for a staggering £34,500.

Even more expensive, but many times more impressive was a pair of ormolu-mounted figures of a lion and a lioness modelled by the great Meissen artist Johann Joachim Kaendler in about 1748. Each an imposing six by eight inches, they were expected to fetch £25,000-35,000. They sold for £47,700.
Kaendler was sculptor at Augustus’s court and in 1731, Augustus installed him at Meissen to reorganise the modelling department. For the next 44 years Kaendler’s artistic genius, versatility and imagination brought the factory world renown.

He was assisted by three of the most distinguished pottery sculptors of the Rococo period: J.F. Eberlein, F.E. Meyer, and P. Reinicke and scarcely a palace in Europe did not contain Meissen figurines, dinner sets, vases, or other works of the Kaendler period.

Among his best-known works are his Commedia dell'Arte figurines, largely done between 1738 and 1740; his birds for the Japanese Palace in Dresden, executed between 1731 and 1735; and the 2,200-piece Swan Service made for Heinrich, Count von Brühl, from 1737 to 1741.

Finding – and affording – original Kaendler pieces is the stuff of dreams. But there is hope for collectors of lesser means.

Being one of Europe’s most successful porcelain manufactories, the company had been able to thrive by churning out copy after copy of an existing line of products to such an eager market that it never felt it necessary to produce anything new.

And then the Great War intervened. However, in 1918 a new managing director named Max Peiffer was appointed to revive the factory’s fortunes and he introduced new lines and new designers, notably Max Esser and Paul Scheurich, and output was concentrated on reviving Meissen's artistic strength.

The Second World War, or rather the crippling lead up to it with Germany in the grip of the National Socialist League, had a further devastating affect on the factory’s fortunes. Under that regime, any artistic creativity was stymied.

Peiffer was sacked and innovation and artistic creativity went with him. The situation grew even worse after the war. Being based in Dresden, Meissen came under the rule of the East Germans and the Communist regime and was left to stagnate, pouring out the old lines that sold to the home market.

However, all this means that today’s collectors can enjoy searching out examples of the huge range of Meissen products dating from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Figure groups like the examples illustrated here are a particularly rich area of collecting, many of which can be positively identified as being “after” works by the great modellers such as Kaendler and his colleagues.

For “after”. read copies, but that does not mean they are reproductions in any derogatory sense. Not a bit of it. They are beautifully and expertly crafted, hand-painted works of art that put the series ware produced by (whisper the names) Royal Doulton, Beswick and Coalport to shame.

Pictures show, top:
One of the best known works by Kaendler depicts the grandchildren of Augustus III. These examples date from circa 1870 and are worth £500-700

This trio of figure groups are the work of J.J. Kaendler, left to right “The Goose Seller”, young lovers in 18th century dress, and “Harlequin & Columbine”. The first dates from circa 1870, the other two from 1950, but I defy you to tell the difference. Each is worth £500-700

Bottom, left to right:
A pair of Meissen figures of young lovers in 18th Century dress dating from about 1870. They’re worth £700-900

“The Horse Tamer”, after a model by J.J. Kaendler, the figure of a rearing white stallion supported by a blackamoor. This example was made in about 1920 and is worth £1,500-2,000

Originally modelled by F. E. Meyer in the 18th century, these figure groups date from about 1870. On the left is a hurdy-gurdy player worth £800-1,200, while that on the right depicts the saucy mythological story of “Europa and the Bull”. It shows the Phoenician beauty Europa seated on the back of the white bull with two attendants dressing the animal with floral garlands. According to Greek mythology, Zeus became smitten with Europa and in order to woo her, he turned himself into a bull to get close to her. It’s worth £700-1,000.

lovershorseHurdy gurdy

numly esn 38770-070115-304833-90

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