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Maladie de porcelaine

The Dresden Porcelain Collection

Today, we all know the ingredients to make porcelain clay: two quarters of kaolin and one quarter each of feldspar & quartz. But the Chinese, who invented porcelain 1,000 years ago, didn’t follow a recipe: they just took earth from the ground, which happened to be of the right composition. Only the Dutch & English had access to china through their East India Companies, and rulers elsewhere in Europe sought ways to unearth the secret to making porcelain themselves. The first to succeed was Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony & lifelong sufferer from maladie de porcelaine, when on 15 January 1708, after much experimentation, Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist in his custody, discovered the recipe. As a result, Europe’s first porcelain manufactory started production two years later, in 1710, at Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen.

The Porcelain Collection in Dresden
Japanese sake bottles from the Edo period, 1690–1730

Of the 35,798 porcelain artefacts that Augustus amassed, the most stunning & rare are to be found in the Porcelain Collection at the Zwinger in Dresden. It’s the most exquisite ceramics collection in the world, not least on account of the outstanding holdings of early Meissen porcelain as well as porcelain from China & Japan dating from the 17th & early 18th centuries. Highlights include blue & white china from the Ming & Qing dynasties, especially the eighteen large ‘dragoon vases’ acquired by Augustus in 1717 from the King in Prussia in exchange for a regiment of 600 soldiers, and the porcelain aviary & menagerie from his own manufactory. Our children loved the many colourful birds, such as the owl, hoopoe & parakeet, and above all the rhinoceros that was modelled after the well-known 16th-century woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.

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In his book History of the Staffordshire Potteries (1829), Simeon Shaw describes (p. 194–198) how in the early 18th century the French & Saxons tried to learn about the manufacture of porcelain: the former through enquiries made in China by Père d’Entrecolles, an amiable Jesuit priest, in an early case of industrial espionage; the latter by means of reverse engineering conducted by Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist with a yet to be confirmed track record for inventing a philosopher’s stone. In the end it was Böttger, while incarcerated by Augustus the Strong to transmute base metals into gold, who, after relentless experimentation, found the secret to making white gold.


Shaw missed the fact that Böttger didn’t work alone, possibly because his mentor Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus had died five months before Böttger announced their invention — originally composed of kaolin, the hitherto secret ingredient that makes the porcelain so hard & glassy, and alabaster as a flux — by noting it in a memorandum to Augustus on 28 March 1709.


The Saxon State and University Library in Dresden has recently digitized the book Festschrift zur 200jährigen Jubelfeier der ältesten europäischen Porzellanmanufaktur Meißen (1911) by Karl Berling, Julius Heintze & Paul Gesell, which further elaborates on the history of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory.


A more recent book about the history of porcelain is The White Road (2015) by sculptor & writer Edmund de Waal, aka ‘the great Waal of china’. In this book — both a history & a travelogue, even a quest perhaps — De Waal shares with us his own very special case of porcelain sickness.


In 1717, Augustus the Strong gave to King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia six hundred of his best soldiers, in exchange for a total of 151 pieces of Chinese porcelain, including eighteen king-sized blue & white vases, the so-called ‘dragoon vases’. The short film Die Dragonervasen aus der Porzellansammlung Dresden (2¼ min., in German, with subtitles in English) tells the story of one of the most extraordinary diplomatic deals ever struck between two European rulers.


Making porcelain is not only about the ingredients for the clay — indeed 50% Al₂Si₂O₅(OH)₄, 25% KAlSi₃O₈ & 25% SiO₂ — you need to know the right temperatures for firing as well: initially at around 1000 °C, and after decoration & glazing at 1300 °C or greater.


At The Mesdag Collection in The Hague is a dish with scenes of a porcelain factory, which illustrates the production of Japanese porcelain in nine independent scenes. Depicted are the extraction of raw materials in a quarry, the processing of the clay, and the forming of the porcelain stoneware. The decorating, glazing, firing, and ultimate selling of the wares are pictured as well.

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