The beautiful and delicate porcelains of China and Japan were taken to Europe after the opening of trade with Asia. They created such an intense fashion for fine porcelain with the ruling classes that it was called a “china mania.” Kings vied with each other in attempts to discover the secret of true porcelain jealously guarded by the Asians. The nobility were no longer satisfied with vessels of opaque earthenware, and even gold and silver services gave way to the more highly prized porcelains.
As early as 1580 Francesco de’ Medici had manufactured in Florence a ware with a translucent body called porcelain. This was not the true Chinese porcelain but a soft-paste porcelain made of various mixtures of white firing clay and glass, or frit. The manufacture of this soft-paste porcelain spread through France, Italy, and England until it was finally displaced by true, or hard-paste, porcelain, whose secret of manufacture became known in Europe.
Augustus II the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, wanted to make porcelain in Saxony and thus put an end to the spending of large sums of money for Chinese porcelains. He had in his employ a young alchemist, Johann Friedrich Bottger. Augustus was convinced that Bottger would be able to bring him great wealth if he knew or could find the secret of turning base metals into gold. He had Bottger held as a virtual prisoner while he paid him for his work. When Bottger failed, the king’s patience was exhausted. He had him imprisoned in a fortress at Meissen, near Dresden.
There in 1706 Count von Tschirnhaus, a Saxon nobleman, got the king’s permission to have Bottger help him. Bottger soon developed a red stoneware so hard it could only be cut on the jeweler’s wheel. About this time a true kaolin, such as that used by the Chinese, was discovered in Saxony. In 1709 Bottger developed–independently of the Chinese–a true hard porcelain with this clay. From this discovery grew the great Meissen porcelain factory, often known as Dresden, which had an unbroken existence to World War II. At first the valuable secret was guarded carefully at Meissen. In 1718 a runaway workman carried the formula to Vienna. There its manufacture flourished under a great manager, Claude du Paquier, who was responsible for much fine porcelain in the baroque style. Other factories for the manufacture of hard paste soon were sponsored by various German rulers. Among them were factories in Berlin, Hochst, Frankenthal, Nymphenburg, Ludwigsburg, and Furstenberg.
Modeling of porcelain figures became a fine art in 18th-century Germany. Of particular significance is the work of Johann Joachim Kandler at Meissen, Franz Anton Bustelli at Nymphenburg, and Johann Peter Melchior at Hochst. Bustelli figures rank with the most valuable of all ceramic art works. The little figures of children molded by Melchior are among the most delightful examples of the potter’s art.
In the meantime soft-paste porcelain factories had sprung up in France, Italy, and England. Principal among the French factories were St-Cloud, Vincennes, Sevres, Chantilly, and Mennecy-Villeroy. Vincennes and its successor Sevres were under the personal patronage of the kings Louis XIV and Louis XV. Other French porcelain factories were subsidized by lesser nobles. For a time none but the royal factory could make use of gold in decoration.
Madame de Pompadour was a patroness of the royal factory. For her the factory created beautiful and naturalistic porcelain flowers mounted on branches of bronze. The magnificent and often ornate creations of the Vincennes and Sevres artisans in soft-paste porcelain reflect the splendor of the French royal court of the rococo period. The Sevres factory produced hard-paste porcelain beginning in 1769, when the secrets of its manufacture became known in France. The factory continued to turn out soft-paste porcelain until 1800.
In Italy soft-paste porcelain was made by the Doccia, Venice, Capo di Monte, and other factories. Capo di Monte was started in 1743 by Charles III, king of Naples. It was moved to Madrid in 1759 when Charles ascended the throne of Spain. There it was known as Buen Retiro. Genuine Capo di Monte porcelain is extremely rare. The ornate wares with designs in low relief falsely called Capo di Monte are poor imitations made in Italy and France from the 18th century until modern times.
Excellent hard-paste porcelain was made at Copenhagen, Denmark, during the last quarter of the 18th century. The royal factory executed the Flora Danica service for Catherine the Great of Russia. It was probably the most famous and most elaborate dinner service ever made. Work on it was started in 1789 and not finished until 1802. This service, numbering 1,602 pieces, was decorated exclusively with Danish botanical subjects. In the second half of the 18th century, both faience and soft-paste porcelain were made at Marieberg, Sweden.
These continental factories were usually sponsored by kings and nobles. In England the development of porcelain was left to private enterprise. Probably the first English soft-paste porcelain factory was one founded at Chelsea in about 1745. It grew to prominence under Nicholas Sprimont, a French silversmith. From its start until its close in 1769, the Chelsea factory, catering to the tastes of the nobility, produced some of the most valuable porcelains of all time.
Other factories–such as Bow, Derby, Longton Hall, and Lowestoft–made both ornamental and useful wares. Many fine figures were made at Bow, Derby, and Longton Hall. Many figures of biscuit, or unglazed porcelain, were made at Derby in the late 1700s and the 1800s. The best works in this medium, however, were the soft-paste porcelain figures, groups, and busts done at Sevres.
English Lowestoft is not to be confused with the vast amount of Chinese porcelain brought to America and Great Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This is sometimes wrongly identified as Lowestoft. Porcelain made in China for export to Europe and America is often erroneously called Oriental Lowestoft. This porcelain, usually distinguishable by a grayish glaze, is properly known as Chinese export porcelain.
Elaborate and handsome dinner services were made at the Worcester factory founded by Dr. John Wall in 1751. This factory also produced fine ornamental pieces. Vases and other objects of Worcester porcelain decorated by Jeffrey Hamet O’Neal and John Donaldson are considered great works of the potter’s art. The art of transfer printing on porcelain was developed by Robert Hancock of Worcester. When utilitarian china was mass produced in the 1800s, hand decoration was displaced by transfer printing.
The soft-paste bodies made by these factories were impractical because of their inability to withstand extremes of heat and cold and because of the high waste caused by warping in the kilns. The first true porcelain factory in England was founded at Plymouth in 1768 by William Cookworthy. It was transferred to Bristol in 1770 by Richard Champion. Most makers of fine English porcelain did not remain in business long, and only one or two lasted beyond the end of the century. Some delicate soft-paste porcelain was made in Wales at Nantgarw and Swansea early in the 1800s. By then porcelain had declined as a fine art, giving way to mass production.
Although bone ash had been used as a soft-paste porcelain ingredient at Bow many years before, Josiah Spode the younger developed the first English bone-china body. The firm of Copeland & Garrett took over the pottery operated by three generations of Josiah Spodes. About 1845 it developed a body known as Parian porcelain that resembled white marble. It contained kaolin, feldspar, ball clay, and flint glass. This was an improvement on the old biscuit, or unglazed porcelain, for figure modeling. Productions in Parian ware, however, have little artistic merit.
Modern European pottery and porcelain is no longer a handcraft, except for some very expensive one-of-a-kind pieces. Nevertheless it has maintained a high standard of quality. The fine porcelains of the Copenhagen factories and the Belleek factory in Northern Ireland are especially noteworthy. Belleek ware is eggshell thin, with a highly translucent body and a soft, ivory-colored lustrous glaze.