Saturday, 26 May 2012


This is the second instalment of a three-part feature. I am telling the story of how Europe came to desire Chinese porcelain, and the ability to make their own. Here is part one.



After the opening of sea routes to China allowed large quantities of porcelain to be safely transported across long distances, European elites - those who could afford it - became obsessed. As I mentioned previously, it was at first a predominantly royal fixation - according to a disapproving Daniel Defoe, the craze for luxurious 'china rooms' in England was started by Queen Mary (1689-94):

"The custom or humour, as I may call it, of furnishing houses with chinaware, which increased to a strange degree afterwards, piling their china upon the tops of cabinets, scrutores, and every chimney-piece, to the tops of the ceilings...became a grievance in the expense of it, and even injurious to their families and estates." 

In the seventeenth-century, there was even a moralising backlash in Europe against what Samuel Johnson termed "a contagion of china-fancy." This was partly just another manifestation of exasperation at wanton decadence. 

But in an age of growing Puritan influence the hostility was sharper towards collecting porcelain, which, because of its rarity and exoticism, was used by the playwright William Wycherley to symbolise sexual intercourse.

In The Country Wife (1650), Wycherley has a female admirer entreat the libertine Mr. Horner, "...don't think to give other people china, and me none; come in with me too." The married Lady Fiddler interjects, "What, d'ye think if he had any left, I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough." Mr. Horner seems to be exhausted when he replies, "I cannot make china for you all." Anyway, you get the idea.

Europe's insatiable appetite for porcelain was first and foremost about conspicuous consumption, and the desire to signal one's elevated social status, particularly as the pressures of social change kept pressing - firstly the centralisation of absolute monarchs seeking to curb the autonomy of their aristocrats, secondly the ascendant merchant classes of the Industrial Revolution. In the midst of material change, traditional landed elites grew anxious about status-distinctions in society becoming blurred by the purchasing power of the nouveau riche.

This need was acutely felt in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, when mercantilist doctrines - the belief that a nation's wealth was a function of its store of precious metals, and the protectionist measures that flowed from that belief - determined economic policies over much of the continent. Mercantilist monarchs asserted centralised control over industries with potential for growth, offering advantageous terms to entice new commercial ventures to set-up in capitals and major cities, where they would be more easily regulated. Urban populations grew as aristocrats and merchants alike congregated to ply for royal patronage. As Janet Gleeson observes in her magnificent 'The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain': "In such refined, moneyed surroundings there was clearly a ready market for new luxury products... Here was a golden opportunity. Porcelain was the white gold for which all of Europe cried out."

Oriental porcelain - and the cult of refined "taste" that went with it - seemed at first to serve this purpose of maintaining a visible hierarchy in a society that was being shifted about and shaken up. But for the European elites to have to depend for such a valuable prop on workshops in inland cities on the other side of the world was intolerable. In the bumpy transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty in the first half of the seventeenth-century, the flow of export porcelain was temporarily suspended, and European consumers had to switch to inferior imitation porcelain from Japan and the Netherlands. 

Here is a pair of Kakiemon-style porcelain elephants (featured in Radio 4's A History of the World in 100 Objects) that would have been exported from Japan via the Dutch East India Company as a seventeenth-century substitute for Chinese exports:

On the one hand, constraints on supply served their purpose, by preserving its aura of exclusivity, but on the other hand it meant that monarchs and aristocrats competed against each other ever more fiercely to differentiate themselves.

More to the point, as time went on the porcelain trade became a one-way haemmorage of currency from Europe to China, and the source of a disconcerting balance of trade deficit. It was as if the trade was expanding to treat the symptoms of mercantilist economics whilst exacerbating the underlying condition.

What was needed was to get the means to produce porcelain for oneself. But only the Chinese knew how it was made, and - given its important function in their domestic politics - they had kept it a closely-guarded secret. Solving the mystery would require cunning, imagination - and espionage.


There were many efforts to relieve this "maladie" before the first porcelain was successfully made in Europe. To begin with, all they had to guide their experiments were the vague and inaccurate reports from Western visitors to China. Marco Polo, who visited the court of Kublai Khan (1215-94) provided an early and misleading description:

"They collect a certain kind of earth, as it were from a mine, and laying it in a great heap, suffer it to be exposed to the wind, the rain and the sun, for thirty or forty years, during which time it is never disturbed. By this it became refined and fit for being wrought into the vessels." 

Even this was probably of more practical use than contemporaries who, by leaps of imagination, proposed that it was made from powdered eggshells, lobster shells, or ordinary clay buried for over a hundred years.

Commercial centres in Italy were amongst the first Europeans to attempt reproduction, in the sixteenth-century. The guiding hypothesis was that the hard and translucent properties of porcelain indicates compositional similarities with glass. Following this lead, Venetian traders in the sixteenth-century only managed to make a kind of cloudy glass. Their Florentine rivals managed to produce something more akin to a distant imitation by adding glass and sand to imported kaolin clay, but it would still have fooled no-one, and was unsustainably expensive to make.

Almost a century passed before the next serious attempts. In the 1660s, separate efforts by John Dwight of Fulham and the Duke of Buckingham yielded partial successes but were not followed-up with adequate financial backing. At the St. Cloud factory near Paris, attempts to imitate the Florentine formula yielded the surprising invention of "soft-paste" porcelain. According to Gleeson, "it was far finer than anything else that had so far been made" but was "still lacking the perfection of true porcelain."

In the seventeenth-century, potters in the Netherlands were mass-producing tin-glazed earthenware to take advantage of the political unrest in China that had halted their porcelain export. This 'Delftware' was a good surface imitation, but lacked the translucence that made real porcelain so desirable.

Here is an example of a blue-and-white Delft vase from the seventeenth-century:

Europeans would have to settle for making tin-glazed earthenware, stoneware and soft-paste porcelain - all somewhat lacklustre substitutes - until a twist of fate would bring together in their hands both the scientific knowledge and the practical know-how.


The first detailed description to reach the West of how the Chinese made their porcelain was contained in the letters of a French Jesuit priest called Pere Francis Xavier d'Entrecolles.

The role of the Jesuits in Chinese society is a curious anomaly. Amongst foreign visitors, they were granted unparalleled access to the hidden sanctums of state power. They won their special treatment by providing scientific and mathematical knowledge that was highly valued by the imperial court, such as astrological advice. But they also attained their status by conforming to Chinese cultural norms and downplaying features of Christianity that had no clear Chinese reference-points - so much so that they stood accused of heresy by rival orders, and were officially disbanded by the Pope.

Thanks to his status, Father d'Entrecolles was able to observe the porcelain production-lines at work during his travels around central China in 1698, and he inscribed what he saw in two letters, in 1712 and 1722. 

He denied that he was motivated by financial considerations: "Nothing but my curiosity could ever have prompted me to such researches, but it appears to me that a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work might, somehow, be useful in Europe." The second part of that sentence is something of an understatement.

I especially like the way that Father d'Entrecolles describes learning the secrets of porcelain-making whilst trying (and, like most Jesuits, probably failing) to convert the potters, painters and sculptors: "These great workshops have been for me a kind of Areopagus, where I have preached Him who fashioned the first man out of clay." He portrays a rationalised and restless industry, with over eight thousand kilns blazing day and night to meet the desired production: "The heavens are alight with the glare from the fires, so that one cannot sleep at night." Centuries before "Asian values" would be used to explain the competitive edge of East Asia, Father d'Entrecolles tells us that Christians are disadvantaged by the highly specialised division of labour:

"Within these walls live and work an infinite number of workpeople, who each have their allotted task, and a piece of porcelain, before it is ready to go into the oven, passes through the hands of twenty persons, and that without any confusion... This is very laborious work; those Christians who are employed at it find it difficult to attend Church; they are only allowed to go if they can find substitutes, because as soon as this work is interrupted all the other workmen are stopped."

He make some rather telling remarks about the international dimension of all this, noting that many European consumers who appreciated the porcelain but were disparaging about the painted designs were unaware that these designs had been sent over to China from Europe, perhaps because some particularly savvy merchants realised there was a market for unflattering comparisons: "Certain landscapes and plans of towns that are brought over from Europe to China will hardly allow us, however, to mock at the Chinese for the manner in which they represent themselves in their paintings."

The letters are also proof that the secrets of making porcelain were fought over as fiercely amongst the Chinese themselves, as they were between China and foreigners. We are told that the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) ordered the imperial porcelain manufactory to be transported to Beijing so that he could learn the secrets from firsthand observation.

The attempt failed, most likely because the producers chose to subvert the authority of the court. As I mentioned in the previous instalment, porcelain had an important function as a symbol of the Emperor's standing.  Although the Emperor had annotated diagrams, withholding from him the infinite subtleties and contextualised knowledge of production was in effect denying him the means to exert increased power across his territories from the centre.

This was taking place in the context of the Qing dynasty re-imposing Ming-era demands and controls on the industry after a brief, more experimental "transition period". The dynamics are reminiscent of the more unrealistic, utopian schemes attempted in China during the twentieth-century - social actors withheld information from the state as a way of resisting centralisation, but the resulting information-deficit only exacerbated the discconect:

"The history of Jingdezhen speaks of different pieces, ordered by the Emperors, that the potters have tried in vain to make. The father of the reigning Emperor ordered some boxes... They worked at these pieces for three consecutive years, and made nearly two hundred examples, not one of which was successful... These, said the old people of Jingdezhen, cannot be done, and the Mandarins of this province presented a petition to the Emperor supplicating him to stop his work."

As it happened, the earliest production of European porcelain would follow a strikingly similar pattern...


There was one crucial problem with Father d'Entrecolles's letters - he got the days mixed up.  A court official of Dutch origin named Claudius Innocentius du Paquier had tried to recreate the Chinese process by following the letters, "but even after careful scrutiny of d'Entrecolles's descriptions and numerous painstaking trials, all his early attempts to make porcelain were dismally unsuccessful."

Despite these false starts, at about the same time, another European stumbled upon "white gold" whilst trying to make real gold. 

The story of the first real porcelain production in Europe is fascinating, and Janet Gleeson's book really brings the episode to life with a sense for historical drama.

Several years before d'Entrecolles's first letter, a brilliant and ambitious alchemist named Johann Frederick Bottger had persuaded Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, that he could use his knowledge of the 'arcanum' - the mythical formula for transmuting base metal into gold - to replenish the royal coffers. Augustus needed to find a way to fund Prussia's costly war with Sweden, but when Bottger failed to deliver the goods on time Augustus had him imprisoned indefinitely.

In 1705, he was transferred to Albrechtsburg, a royal castle overlooking Meissen, where he was allowed to experiment in a laboratory-cum-prison. Here is Albrechtsburg, otherwise known as the 'Saxon Acropolis':

At Albrechtsburg, Bottger collaborated with one of the king's councillors, a nobleman called Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnaus. Tschirnaus was an expert in glass manufacturing, and he was convinced that glass held the secrets to making porcelain. Together, they began to focus on unlocking the secret.

Here is a short feature about Albrechtsburg, and Augustus's royal collection:

Although he learned a lot from his colleague, Bottger pursued a different strategy. As Gleeson describes it, his approach was both more 'modern' and more 'medieval' than Tschirnaus - he treated the problem of turning rock into porcelain as equivalent to that of turning lead into gold; the solution, as he saw it, was not to discover how porcelain was like glass, but to identify the precise ratios of the various ingredients that would yield the desired substance - and he "embarked on a series of carefully conducted experiments" to methodically ascertain the truth.

Here is a portrait of Bottger:

The crucial discovery was made in 1708, but it was not reported to the King for another year, by which time Tschirnaus had died, so history has tended to downplay his contribution.

Augustus was ecstatic - he was no different to his contemporaries in succumbing to "china-fancy." In his youth he had witnessed the extravagance of Versailles, and "under his rule Dresden metamorphosed into his own version of Louis XIV's splendid court." To showcase his achievement, in 1710 he transferred production to a factory in Meissen. But there were deep-seated contradictions between the King's desire to make the industry a commercial success, and to keep his monopoly on the "arcanum" of porcelain.

Arriving at the arcanum by a mixture of scientific method and imagination, it took time to get to grips with large-scale production. To begin with the factory was notoriously inefficient (Tschirnaus had called the Dresden kilns "bowls of chance").  More problematically, the entire organisation was conceived so as to minimise the amount of valuable knowledge accessible to any individual worker at any particular stage of production. As word of the 'miracle' at Meissen spread, the town became filled with spies hired by rival industrialists and foreign princes, and the factory became a virtual prison for its underpaid employees:

"Non-payment of wages caused obvious hardship and unrest among the hard-driven staff, who were still kept as virtual prisoners in the Meissen precincts and officially forbidden to come and go as they pleased. Forced to work for weeks, sometimes months, on end for no pay, they became audacious and lawless. On one occasion they ignored the usual restrictions and abandoned their jobs, marched to Dresden and confronted the King during his leisurely morning ride. On this occasion their wages were paid but they were not always so lucky."
Gleeson cites 'An Historical account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea' (1752):

"In order to preserve this art as much as possible a secret, the fabric at rendered impenetrable to any but those who are immediately employed about the work, and the secret of mixing and preparing the metal is known to very few of them. They are all confined as prisoners, and subject to be arrested if they go without the walls; and consequently a chapel and everything necessary is provided within." 
Whereas d'Entrecolles had compared the factories at Jingdezhen to chapels, at Meissen the factory had really become a chapel...inside a giant prison.

This is the exterior of the factory (it even looks like a prison):

The segmented production meant that the workers often worked for years to acquire such specialised, context-specific skills that, even if they were free to leave, they would have few other options. But in case he had left them in any doubt, "Augustus inculcated the workmen with the fear that if they were discovered to have discussed what they knew with any outsiders they would suffer the severest punishments. Talking about porcelain-making was in Augustus's eyes tantamount to treason."

A more dangerous side-effect of fragmentation in the long-run was that the factory was riddled with corruption, top-to-bottom. Feeding the air of paranoia, it bred toxic rivalries between different sections of the factory. Workers supplemented their meagre incomes by smuggling out blank pieces, painting them in their homes, and flogging them on the black market. In response, Augustus ordered that all Meissen wares be stamped with an iconic pair of crossed swords, as a guarantee of quality (he did not live long enough to see it become one of the most faked logos in history).

On his deathbed Bottger was confronted with the dilemma of choosing a new "arcanist" to inherit his secrets: "The safest way to ensure that these secrets were secure was by sharing them among several trusted employees. Each would be taught part of the formula and no-one would fully understand, or be able to replicate, the entire process." So strong was the prevalent atmosphere of mistrust that, in the end,  his secrets only survived him because he had disclosed them whilst very drunk: "Bottger's porcelain-making genius had, in effect, died along with him. It was, ironically, largely thanks to his indiscretions that the secrets of his later discoveries were passed on at all."

Those "later discoveries" pertained to the most important stage of refining the process - producing porcelain that was equal to, or better than, that which was made in China. Unfortunately for Augustus, the recipient of this information was one of the several workers at Meissen who escaped and defected to his rivals. In his case, the rival in question was none other than du Paquier, the court official who had earlier tried to recreate d'Entrecolles's Areopagus, and whose factory in Vienna produced "the first piece of true European porcelain made outside Meissen" in 1719.

Augustus's ambitions only snowballed in the last remaining years of his life, even as the foundations of his pre-eminence were being eroded from within. Deciding that 'china rooms' did not befit a man of his stature, he called for the construction of an enormous "porcelain palace", to be made entirely - or to the greatest degree physically possible - of porcelain. A visitor in 1730 described his astonishment at the plans, which included a 'porcelain zoo', "of a hundred and seventy feet in length."

Here are some porcelain herons built for the zoo in 1732:

The King never lived to see the palace being built, and his son and heir Augustus III abandoned the project. But if he had survived into the late eighteenth-century, he would have seen the pre-eminence of Saxon porcelain pass, first to Vienna, then to France, and spread across the continent.

And this process of diffusion unleashed waves of innovation that would soon re-orient the pre-eminence of porcelain on a global level. 


In the third and final part, I will explore how European porcelain came to outshine that of the Chinese. The focus will then return to China, examining how the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen preserved their political importance in the post-imperial era, and why traditional porcelain-making in China today is kept alive by the thriving market for fakes.

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