The Intriguing History of Porcelain

The first production of hard-paste (true) porcelain dates to 8th century China. It was made of a very fine white clay, kaolin, an aluminum silica compound, combined with petuntse, a mineral when heated to a high temperature (1400°C) forms natural glass. Porcelain's whiteness, translucence, smoothness and impermeability differed from the fired clay earthenware that had been made since the beginning of mankind, and thus made it the exclusive domain of emperors and the very rich.

Porcelain is first described by an Arabic traveler in China and India in the 9th century; he wrote of vases made of extremely fine clay with the transparency of glass. However, Chinese porcelain only made its first appearance in Europe in the 14th/15th century.  In 1557, the Portuguese in Macao began to trade in Chinese porcelain, sending large amounts to Europe. By this time, the race was on in Europe to try and discover its formula. Under the patronage of Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, a factory was set up in 1575 in an attempt to replicate Chinese porcelain. The Medici factory, which lasted for only twelve years and closed in 1587, was only able to produce a soft-paste replica, fired at a lower temperature than Chinese porcelain and much less durable

The Dutch then moved into the trade, setting up the Dutch India Company in 1602, which sold not only Chinese but Japanese porcelain. They sent over three million pieces to Europe in a little over fifty years. The amount of money leaving the West for these ceramics drew criticism from economists, the English writer Daniel Defoe stating that 'chinamania' was destroying whole families. Interestingly, this parallels the 17th century 'tulipmania' in the Netherlands and even the 19th century 'blue and white porcelain' collecting craze, especially in England. 

However, it was the obsession, determination and money of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, that brought the production of hard-paste, or true, porcelain to Europe. An extremely high temperature was needed for porcelain’s manufacture, and it was the Bohemian nobleman and member of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, Ehrenfried Walther, Count von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), who founded several glassworks and experimented with heating techniques. Johann Friedrich Böttger, a nineteen-year-old alchemist, who claimed to be able to turn lead into gold, was brought to Saxony from Prussia in 1703 and ordered by Augustus to work with von Tschirnhaus. Böttger attempted to escape several times and was imprisoned, but eventually the two were able to produce hard-paste porcelain with a white, translucent body in 1708.

Augustus created the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory in Meissen on January 23, 1710. The secret formula for manufacturing hard-paste porcelain was known as the 'arcanum,' and the person who knew the process, an 'arcanist.' Apparently only three people at Meissen, including Böttger, knew the porcelain arcanum, but the secret slipped out. Those who knew it were bribed or even kidnapped by other neighboring Northern European rulers, so that they could set up their own factories. Vienna was the second hard-paste factory in Europe, established in 1719, followed by Furstenberg, Hochst, Nymphenburg, etc. From these locations, it was only a short time before factories were found in Italy, Spain and France.

The first porcelain factory in England was established in 1743-45 in Chelsea, London. Nicholas Sprimont, a silversmith, and Charles Gouyn, a goldsmith, both from French Huguenot families, were the founders. They based the designs of much of their wares on metalwork, as well as on pieces manufactured in Meissen.

The Collection of Bennett and Judie Weinstock

On January 25, 2017, Doyle will auction the Collection of Bennett and Judie Weinstock, which features many fine examples of Chelsea porcelain. Among the highlights are a Chelsea Porcelain Melon-Form Tureen and Cover, circa 1755, with a red anchor mark (Lot 193), a Chelsea Molded Porcelain Polyanthus Tureen Stand, circa 1758 (Lot 182) and a pair of Chelsea Porcelain Leaf and Basket Molded Stands, circa 1750 (Lot 204). An example from another English factory, Derby, is represented by a pair of Derby Porcelain Peony Dishes, circa 1750 (Lot 232).