Porcelain Perfection

Ever since I started at Polesden I have been facinated by the large amount of ceramics that Mrs Greville collected. From the plates of the dining room table to the figurines in the Saloon, ceramics feature in almost every room. Judging by the amount of ceramics that were in her bedroom when the inventory was taken Mrs G’s particular favourite were her staffordshire tulips  – My favourites however are the intricate figurines in the Saloon. Many of these are Meissen.

Conservation and Learning Assistant Sophie updates a sketch of a saucer on a condition report.

A picture from last year – Sophie cleaning the Meissen

Regular readers will have learnt all about the way we clean the ceramics in Sophie’s blog post “not suitible for dishwashers” last year. As we have recently been doing our annnual clean of the ceramics, I wanted to look a bit more in depth at the history of Meissen ceramics and just why they were so popular.

I knew very little about meissen when i first started as an Intern at Polesden in 2013 – i had never even heard of it. I loved the detail on each piece and particularly the insects which decorate the tea set on display in the Study. I learnt more while working at the V & A where they have a large collection of meissen, i even watched the conservation team put together a large meissen table fountain which will go on display for the first time later this year. I was just amazed at how this pefectly white pearly porcelain could be fashioned into so many useful practical but also decorative objects. It was highly sought after by euopeans royalty and elite and can be seen in many country house displays today.

Meissen was established in Germany in 1710 when a German alcamist was searching for the secret ingrediant to create porcelain in the style of chinese porcelain Johann Friedrich Bottger discovered the arcanum, the secret process that helped to create this perfect porcelain. You will sometimes hear Meissen described as White Gold as in 1710 it was a more expensive commodity, but rather amusingly also due to its inventor’s outlandish claims. Bottger found himself on the run after he made claims that he posessed the philosophers stone and thus the power of turning things into gold.  He saught sanctuary in the saxon court of Augustus the Strong. However Augustus the Strong imprisoned him within Meissen castle near dresdan and challenged him with the task of making him lots of Gold. Of course this was something he was unable to do – but luckily for him Augustus the Strong was not only obsessed with Gold but with white gold too – Porcelain.  Teaming up with another fellow scientist, Von Tschirnhaus, Bottger set to work. Sadly Von Tschirnhaus died soon after leaving Bottger to complete the porcelain on his own. The Mesissen Factory was founded in February 1710 producing red polished stonewear but a white polished porcelain soon followed and were being sold in 1713. As time passed by the Meissen factory grew and new talent developed more flexible and creative porcelain.

Meissen not only created practical tablewhere but also intricate figurines in the elaborate Rococco style of the period and even continue to produce porcelain products today having celebrated their centenery in 300 years in 2010. Mrs Greville had not only a collection of table ware but also figurines. Cleaning these beautiful figurines gave me an excellent chance to get up close and personal with them.

Examining a meissen figurine during this years clean

Cupid sharpening his arrows. A Meissen figurine on display in the saloon at Polesden Lacey.

These figurines are both bizzare and beautiful all at the same time, the above photograph shows cupid (a common depiction on meissen figurines) sharpening his arrows on a grinding stone. Other figurines are small with a dual purpose. The below iimage shows a woman holding a dog. In fact the head of the little dog can be removed, it is in fact a very tiny scent bottle! This one, although not meissen, is very similar to some others Meissen scent bottles in the collection – is an excellent example of how Meissen was copied.


Scent Bottle – in the Meissen Style

Meissen was so popular that many companies produced copies of their work and as such you will often see porcelain “in the style of” meissen and in some cases identical works, with minutely differnt finishes. Many people will know that the easiest way to distinquish if the porccelain is meissen is by the marks. Each porcelain or pottery manufacturer of course had their own mark. Meissen is distinquished by the cross swords. Each ediffernt maker or year was marked in a differnt way , and although i’m no expert with a handy guide I can usually identify when each piece was made. The Scent bottles date from around 1765 and the cupid figurine around 1830-1870.

Theres so much more to Meissen than first meets the eye which is what makes it my favourite type of ceramic. What’s your favourite ceramic piece in the collection?


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