top of page

April 2022 Seminar

Summary of Lectures

From the First Experiments to the Golden Age: The Origins and Evolution of European Porcelain

Errol Manners, Dealer in European Ceramics and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London, England

The secrets of the manufacture of porcelain, exported from China since the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and coveted in the West, were teased out in the alchemical laboratories of princes and prelates through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, culminating in the establishment of the great porcelain factories of Europe in the eighteenth century. The two talks will trace this early development and show how the different technologies of soft-paste and hard-paste porcelain spread throughout Europe. It is a story of traveling arcanists, industrial espionage and artistry. We will see how the hard- and soft-past factories vied for supremacy, rose and fell, and produced some of the most defining objects of their age.

     Lecture 1:  "Early Experiments and the Soft-Paste World"

The first talk will explore the early experiments that led to the establishment of the soft-paste factories of Italy, France and England. It was not without initial struggles, but through the support of the insatiable Medici, the earliest recorded porcelain manufactory in Europe was established in Florence, Italy, in 1575. Without the essential ingredients of hard-paste porcelain, the result was a soft-paste porcelain, whose production, while beautiful, was expensive and limited, and the factory survived only until the death in 1587 of its patron, Francisco I de'Medici (1541-1587), the Grand Duke of Tuscany. A century elapsed before a subsequent effort to produce porcelain was made in Rouen, France, where faïence (tin-glazed earthenware) had been manufactured successfully for well over a century. The porcelain made at Rouen from about 1673-96 again resulted in a soft-paste body, and although it wasn't a commercial success, it inspired further experimentation in France at St. Cloud, Chantilly, Mennecy, Vincennes and several smaller factories. Eventually it was eclipsed on the Continent by the hard-paste factories, but once established in England in the 1740s, it became one of the great triumphs of the British Empire.

     Lecture 2:  "The Success of Hard-Paste Porcelain and the Spread of the Arcanum"

The second talk will look at how the high-fired hard-paste porcelain was achieved at Meissen in 1708 by the mathematician, physicist and philosopher, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708) and the young alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719), and how it spread throughout the Germanic world and beyond. It is the story of the eighteenth-century "Sport of Kings" with factories rising and falling through the varied interests and support of the local ruler: the king, elector, empress, prince or duke. While true hard-paste porcelain and a hybrid hard-paste porcelain were produced only briefly in England, and not until the late eighteenth century, there is evidence that an anonymous manufactory, probably in London, discovered the formula before the end of the seventeenth century, and possibly won the race for the secret of the arcanum.  

bottom of page