MALADIE DE PORCELAINE
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.
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.
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."
Here is an example of a blue-and-white Delft vase from the seventeenth-century:
AN AREOPAGUS ON THE YANGZI
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."
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...
THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE
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.
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.
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 Meissen...is 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."
This is the exterior of the factory (it even looks like a prison):
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:
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.