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The Art of Monarchy - 'White Gold'

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 11:51, Friday, 2 March 2012

Editor's note: To coincide with the Art of Monarchy, the Radio 4 blog is running a series of posts by the Royal Collection's curators on different aspects of the collection. In this post Kit Maxwell considers porcelain in the Royal Collection - PM.

Porcelain in The Royal Collection

Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012

Porcelain ranks among the Royal Collection's greatest treasures, yet the importance of the material and its significance as a demonstration of wealth and status has become somewhat lost in the twenty-first century, when porcelain or 'china' is available in every high-street homestore - we can even buy it with our groceries at the supermarket. It's difficult to imagine that this opaque, vitreous material, now industrially produced around the world, was once so precious and highly sought after that it was known as 'white gold.'

Until the early eighteenth century the method of its production was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese and Japanese, and porcelain was only available in the West as costly imports. However, this compelling and enigmatic material soon became an essential component in the furnishing of princely apartments; Europe became gripped by 'porcelain mania', and as fortunes were spent on this precious cargo, China was dubbed 'the bleeding bowl of Europe'.

For several centuries, the monarchs and princes of Europe vied with one another to be the first to discover the secret of porcelain manufacture and to add a porcelain factory to the glory of their state. Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland was the happy monarch to first succeed in this endeavour, having essentially imprisoned an alchemist to this purpose (actually, he wanted to turn base metal into gold, to replenish the royal coffers, but the accidental discovery of porcelain was the next best thing). The essential ingredient was a particular type of high-firing clay known as kaolin, which it's alleged the alchemist chanced upon whilst attempting to make crucibles strong enough to resist the high temperatures necessary to melt the base metals. This momentous discovery resulted in the foundation of the Meissen factory, just outside Dresden, in modern Germany, in 1710.

The workers at Meissen were jealously guarded, to prevent the factory's secrets being spread. However, espionage soon became the order of the day, and several workers were enticed to defect to other countries and within a decade or so there were several notable European porcelain factories.

In France, the absence of known deposits of kaolin resulted in a slightly different type of porcelain; less resilient to high temperatures than 'true' porcelain, this became known as 'soft-paste' porcelain.

Its different composition gave it a slightly creamier tone and enabled a wider range of luxurious colours to be fired into the glaze. What initially had started out as a substitute porcelain, in the absence of kaolin, soon overtook the production of 'true' or 'hard-paste' porcelain in other European countries and came to dominate the European market for luxury goods.

At the head of soft-paste porcelain production was the royal factory at Sèvres, just outside Paris. It had started out, in the 1740s, as an experimental concern in the disused royal château of Vincennes, but had quickly caught the attention of the Louis XV and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. The king was so impressed by the factory's productions that, in 1756, he bought it out right. With the support of the most powerful monarch in Europe, the factory attracted the most talented alchemists, designers, sculptors and artists of the day (including the painter François Boucher). Its wares were at the very cutting edge of fashion, reflecting contemporary trends in textile patterns and colours, the latest sculptural forms of the rococo and neo-classical styles, and often incorporating painted scenes adapted from fashionable pictures. New designs were launched every year and previewed in the king's apartments at Versailles. A single teacup and saucer could cost several times the annual salary of a labourer, and Sèvres porcelain was the must-have brand in royal and aristocratic houses across the continent.

Following the French revolution, the dispersed collections of the ancien régime were eagerly snapped up on the art market. Without a doubt, the most voracious buyer was George IV. Although many of the items were already several decades old when he acquired them (first as Prince of Wales, then as Prince Regent and finally as King), they had lost none of their allure as unmistakable signifiers of princely magnificence. So obsessed was George IV with Sèvres, that he was buying it until the very day he died (an event which had a noted impact in the salerooms), and the British Royal Collection can consequently boast the finest assemblage of Sèvres porcelain in the world. From dinner services to pot pourri vases, visitors can see much of the collection at Windsor Castle or in the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace.

Once you get your eye in and imagine the context in which, and for which, it was created - the rich brocades and silks; the carved, painted and gilded wood panelling; the heady perfumes; the whitened complexions heightened with rouge; the powdered hair and flickering candles bringing to life the gilded decoration - you can soon appreciate how evocative these objects are of a brief period of unparalleled luxury during the final decades of the eighteenth century in France.

Whilst the ruling houses of Europe considered a privately owned porcelain factory an essential asset, the British monarchy left the success of porcelain manufacture to the entrepreneurial spirit of its people. This resulted in a remarkable run of comparatively short-lived factories, producing wares of considerable artistic and technical accomplishment. These did not escape the attention of the royal family. Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, purchased an extremely fine dinner service from the Chelsea factory in 1783. It was a gift for her brother, the Duke of Mecklenburg Strelitz. Its style is overwhelmingly rococo, with many of the shapes inspired by gold and silverwares, demonstrating the close competition between precious metals and porcelain on the dining table. The service re-entered the Royal Collection as a gift to Queen Elizabeth (consort of King George VI and the future Queen Mother) in 1947. It can be seen in the Bow Room at Buckingham Palace during the annual Summer Opening of the State Rooms.

The service commissioned by William IV from the Yorkshire-based Rockingham factory in 1831 is, however, arguably the most ambitious and accomplished service made by a British manufacturer. It has a nautical theme, reflecting the King's service in the navy and Britain's maritime achievements. Encrusted with coral and shells, it's also decorated with the national flowers of the United Kingdom, with modelled exotic fruits to represent Britain's overseas dominions. It was such a work of skill and craftsmanship that it wasn't completed until Queen Victoria's coronation, some seven years later. The service is still used at State Banquets for the third and fourth courses and parts of it are on display in the China Museum at Windsor Castle. It has particular significance this year as the inspiration for The Queen's Diamond Jubilee commemorative china; the delicate 'Brunswick blue' ground overlaid with gold oak leaf swags remains every bit as appealing as it was over 150 years ago.

Kit Maxwell is Art of Monarchy Project Curator at The Royal Collection


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