Meissen porcelain or Meissen china was the first European-made hard-paste porcelain. The production of porcelain at Meissen, near Dresden, started in 1710. Its signature logo, the crossed swords stamp, was introduced in 1720 to protect its production; the mark of the crossed swords is one of the oldest trademarks in existence.
The story of Meissen porcelain begins with eighteenth century Emperor of Germany, Augustus the Strong, locking alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger in a laboratory.
Exquisite porcelain was Augustus’ passion, so much so that during his lifetime he invested a great deal of his fortune in the unsuccessful completion of a “porcelain palace”. At the time of his death in 1733, Augustus had commissioned more than 35,000 show-items for his “porcelain palace”.
Augustus favoured the expertly created, hand-decorated porcelain which was imported in large quantities from the Far East during the eighteenth century. Since porcelain is so fragile, and the shipments had to travel all the way from China, the price of fine Chinese porcelain was prohibitively high. Porcelain was therefore the preserve of the very wealthy – a sort of white gold bought in order to demonstrate wealth and status as well as refined tastes.
Augustus employed Bottger to perfect a formula for his beloved hard-paste porcelain. According to Bottger’s working records, on January 5 1708, after a 12 hour firing, and by dint of a combination of fierce heat and a mineral substance known as kaolin, he produced the first ever European-made hard paste porcelain – milk white and translucent as any Chinese-made product.
Piggy-backing on Bottger’s scientific breakthrough, Augustus the Strong founded the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory in Meissen, in 1710. Although Bottger had simulated the look and density of Chinese porcelain, it would take the Meissen painters and potters several more years to perfect their glazing techniques.
Bottger served as the manufactory’s first modeller until his death in 1719. From 1727 until 1733, Johann Gottleieb Kirchner worked at the factory, specialising in crating the 1:1 scale animal figurines for the King’s collection. (Augustus envisioned a menagerie of 597 animals and birds populating his “porcelain palace”, however, only 458 were ever completed. The project was abandoned in 1739 – six years after Augustus’ death.) Kirchner also served as the mentor to one of Meissen’s most significant potters, Johann Joachim Kandler, who began work at the manufactory in 1731, and remained there for 40 years.
Kandler, and his assistants Peter Reinicke and Johann Friedrich Everlein, are considered among the most important ceramists of the 18th century. Extraordinarily productive, Kandler is believed to have created over 1,000 individual figures and figural groups during his time at Meissen.
One of the most collected series from this era was the Affenkapelle – a porcelain monkey band – which comprised 21 monkey musicians as well as a monkey maestro. Hunchbacks, harlequins and dwarves were also popular porcelain purchases during the period, suggesting just how diverse and imaginative the factory’s output was throughout the mid-18th century.
As well as decorative and whimsical items, Meissen dinnerware was also produced in huge quantities. Seemingly endless varieties of bowls, plates and drinking vessels – each stamped with the factory’s crossed-swords mark – decorated with floral patterns inspired by Chinese wares, were produced. In general, services were named after the pattern they featured: Yellow Lion, Red Dragon and Swan services were all popular among the European elite.
The price of Meissen porcelain ensured that it remained the preserve of the upper classes. The Meissen manufactory took commissions from members of the Russian and French aristocracy and English noblemen; wealthy Europeans accumulated extensive collections, many of which have found their way into the world’s largest museums.
World war, also known as the Seven Years War, put an end to Meissen’s golden age in 1756 - almost all of Meissen’s employees fled after the kilns were destroyed, and although Frederick the Great of Prussia, who occupied the Dresden during the conflict, attempted to revive the factory by leasing it to an entrepreneur, it was Frederick himself who bought most of Meissen’s output.
Following the war, Meissen porcelain became more restrained, less exuberant. From about 1774 until 1815, Meissen wares conformed to the Neo-Classical fashions of the period, rather than playing to the eccentric tastes of a porcelain-mad monarch or the dizzying talents of artists like Kandler and Horoldt.
Meissen porcelain remains in production today, with a 175,000 original and new designs currently being made. There are, for example, more than 300 different dinner services to choose from – the beautiful, dark blue on white Blue Onion dinner service comprises over 750 pieces alone.
Newer items are worth considerably less than those pieces dating from the 18th century. Newer pieces are, however, closely modeled on original designs, meaning cash-constrained collectors need not make any sacrifices in terms of aesthetic enjoyment.
Meissen porcelain dating from before the Seven Years War, especially those items which can be attributed to a master ceramist such as Kandler, fetch the highest sums at auction. Those items made during the lifetime of Emperor Augustus very seldom come to auction - the vast majority now reside in museums.
Following the Seven Years War, the manufactory’s fortunes fell somewhat. The Kuhn period (named after Meissen’s then-director) lasted from between 1833 until 1870. Kuhn went some way towards rebuilding Meissen’s ailing fortunes, investing in production and launching a range of new colours and grand items. The modeller Leureritz, whose works served to resurrect the older, more ostentatious Rococo styles, is perhaps the most important Meissen employee from the Kuhn period.
After Kuhn’s death in 1870, Raithel became Meissen’s new director. His hiring prompted the start of the New Period. During the New Period, Meissen became popular with a new affluent class in America. Endrich Andersen succeeded Leuteritz in 1886 as head of the modelling department and was responsible for grand pieces such as large scale mirrors. The New Period was characterized by the new style of Art Nouveau which supplanted the older styles. Konrad Hentschel was a famous modeller of this period. He is known for the simple and plain details on his charming children and other figures.
Meissen produced (and continue to produce) an extraordinary variety of wares: birds, harlequins, hunters, miniatures and figural groups continue to prove popular among collectors.
For a comprehensive, visual archive of Meissen's output, see: http://www.meissencollector.com/index.htm
Meissen porcelain commands substantial sums at auction - and prices are rising all the time. Serious collectors are prepared to sell out tens of thousands for the finest examples, while a vast amount of Meissen porcelain resides in museums, art galleries and Royal palaces.
Two Meissen Bantam cock porcelain figures, circa 1732 (modelled by Kandler) sold for $508,800 at Sotheby’s in October 2005.
A pair of Kandler-modelled porcelain pugs sold for £361,250 at Sotheby’s in July 2008.
A pair of Louis XV and Meissen porcelain three light candelabra, circa 1745 sold for $232,000 at Sotheby’s in October 2003.
A Meissen mirror decorated with a pair of cupids sold for $180,000 at Mainichi Auction in July 2012.
A partia Meissen dinner service decorated in the 1740-1745 Bienenmuster pattern sold for $54,000 at Sotheby’s in November 2005.
A rare, five-lobed Meissen bowl, circa 1730 sold for $45,000 at Sotheby’s in November 2006.
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