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Porcelain, the State, the Living Room and the Deviant

Fig01, Porcelain tureen from the Count Heinrich von Brühl Service, JJ Kandler, Meissen, 1737

In the Eighteenth Century monarchs and princes in Europe were in competition with each other to acquire a secret. In times before the free availability of knowledge, when techniques migrated over centuries between continents, and even in such events were jealously guarded from country to country, it was normal for nations to be vying with each other to buy the relevant Arcanum and its workings from someone who purported to hold the key to its mysteries. It was normal and had been borne out through countless obsessive and futile attempts in the previous centuries to find potentially transformative (both on a national and a personal level) discoveries. As well as forming an intricate compound philosophy of their own, alchemists were fought over and jealously guarded as valuable assets because a part of their embryonic science was the ‘logical’ deduction that there must be a way to transform base metals into silver and gold, with the only necessary discovery being the amplificatory Philosopher’s Stone; another part of their understanding of science was that they should be able to create a universal Panacea, or Elixir of life which would indefinitely cure all disease and extend the taker’s life infinitely. Like gunpowder and the technique of ‘vaccine’, these pursued goals had concrete, measurable and valuable outcomes: if you discover the Elixir of Life you would be able to remain pursuing pleasure -or whatever your tangent in life maybe- forever, and if you acquire the Philosopher’s Stone you would be able to enrich yourself as much as you desire, and so long as nobody else acquires it –which would lead to the immediate


devaluation of that which was previously so precious and would render the Stone worthless- you and your country would be wealthy beyond comparison. I mention alchemy because it is from this murky world of mixed inference and deduction, and royal pursuit of material benefit and gain that there emerged after the turn of the century a real, unexpected, delightful but ultimately worthless (in a traditional sense) discovery which became a continental obsession. Alchemy had previously been pursuing an impossible goal of substantive material benefit using doubtful and imprecise techniques -which had led nowhere for centuries. With Johann Frederick Bottger, in one of his experiments in the pursuit of the Stone stumbling upon a strong, bright material, alchemy was transformed into a precise and systematic science in the pursuit of something genuinely attainable and utterly value-less when compared to its traditional pursuits of gold and silver. I am emphasizing the transition from obsession with true and set monetary value based on the certainties of resource-availability, into a drive for something that is traditionally valueless because the Eighteenth Century saw alongside -and because of- the flowering of the enlightenment, a new and entirely fascinating set of values relating to material products. In the time of Alchemy and throughout our long MiddleAges there were two indexes with which to judge the value of something material: first was the Rarity of the substances from which it was composed –gold and silver and gemstones being the rarest, and hence most valuable, and therefore the pursuit of precisely these in the workshops of the alchemists; secondly there was an item’s Religious significance –if an item was sanctified by the Church and/or had some significance with regard to a saint or was a worshipped icon, then it retained an intangible, but strong, value which was not clearly set and measurable but was related to the vagaries of faith. The Eighteenth Century saw a fast rise in material wealth in Central and Western Europe, with industrial development occurring in the most advanced states –a development which began to change the relationship between wealth and nation. It had been supposed that every country had a set quantity of capital based on its resources, and this could not be altered (hence the belief that one needed to conquer more lands in order to become more prosperous… or find the Philosopher’s Stone), but with the onset of industrial, agricultural and Civil invention countries (without realizing it for the best part of a century) began to multiply the revenue generated from finite resources. What I am trying to say is that by the C18th nations were effectively discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, only they were achieving the desired results through the rationalization of their governments, the reforming of their land-use and the development of their manufacturing centres. In the same spirit, the writers of the period were blasting the old certainties of religion out of the heavens and were busy proving that there were a whole range of phenomena in the world which held no definite correlation with men tapping rocks and


getting water to flow from it, or biblical descriptions of perfect and immobile celestial geometries. So wealth was in the process of transforming into a more complex system of measurement that related not only to a set quantity of material deposits, but also to the creativity and industriousness of a nation’s people –this meant that traditional material value was no longer primary, and at the same time Religious-value as a secondary set of scales was no longer a universally shared or respected system of valuation. And this takes us back to poor Mr. Bottger. He had actually been locked up in a castle by one of the princes of one of the many German-speaking states which at the time formed the Holy-Roman Empire (an ailing conglomeration of nominally connected nations), and he had been locked up specifically in order to discover the Philosopher’s Stone. This of course never happened, but fortuitously for him his jailer was Prince Augustus the Strong of Saxony, a monarch who was at the head of the wealthiest and structurally most advanced proto-state in the Empire, and a man who was more attuned than any of the other heads of state in Europe at the time to both the new realities of revenue-creation and the possibilities of a new system for the valuation of material objects.

Fig02 The Albrechtsburg, Meissen

In Bottger’s efforts to transmute base materials into pure substances, he mistakenly created out of his kiln a vitreous substance which was uncannily similar to the porcelain in Augustus’s personal collection of Oriental Ceramics. China had for two millennia been a vast Empire with a burgeoning population of hyper-wealthy courtiers for whom


wealth was immaterial due to its overabundant presence. These courtiers and their attendant poets valued qualities in objects that were other than those directly stemming from monetary value, and so porcelain had long been prized for its simple elegance, its ethereal transparency combined with its feather-like weight and extreme strength, and the way it made musical notes which came from somewhere inside it when tapped gently –as though its very matter was alive with sound. Chinese poets and even Emperors would gush about such qualities whereas in Europe, in minutes taken during traditional gift-giving ceremonies between monarchs, one rarely comes across a positive description of an object that goes beyond a detailed listing of the precious elements of which it was composed and what they were worth. For instance an exquisite piece of finely crafted goldsmith’s work (Dinglinger) wouldn’t be described as an aesthetically worthwhile creation but would be described as so-and-so ounces of the finest quality New-World Gold etc. Since the initiation of his reign, Augustus had been profoundly attracted to Oriental porcelain and was finely attuned to the appreciation of the qualities in the material mentioned above. As well as this collection he was the owner of a great selection of artistic treasures (including works by Giambologna) given to him by the Medicis in understand the strengths and possibilities of artistic ‘style’ as a tool of influence and primacy (Italy of the sixteenth century had seen the creation of value based on ‘genius’ and ‘style’, in that patrons would pay exorbitant sums for anything made by a famous artist solely in order to own an example of his ‘virtu’. This was the first time that ‘style’ became valued in-and-of-itself). His understanding of the ‘connoisseur’ value of the material porcelain, his education in the potential desirability of consciously created ‘style’, and his keen knowledge of the financial gain to be made from transforming existing resources into value-added assets meant that when Bottger reported his discovery Augustus saw its great potential, not only for his personal pleasure, but as a new instrument in his highly innovative state apparatus.

Fig 03 Piece from Elizabeth Service

04 Piece from Swan Service

05 Centrepiece from Elizabeth Service

Money flowed into Bottger’s experimentations, and he soon found himself surrounded by legions of staff, to the point where the operation was moved to a larger castle nearer Dresden at Meissen which, with the construction of new buildings became a large factory. Augustus contracted numerous artists and sculptors to work at the


factory and after an initial period where they were mostly imitating Chinese Ceramic archetypes, they began producing new artwork, miniaturized sculpture and highly elaborate and stylistically unprecedented table-ware. Europe had watched disbelievingly at Augustus when he had exchanged 600 soldiers of exceptional height with Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia (which were used to set up a new elite unit of guards) for 151 pieces of Oriental porcelain, but only a few years later, all the monarchs and titular heads of Europe were willing to pay any conceivable sum to get their hands on the Arcanum of porcelain discovered by Bottger. And the reason that they were all so eager was that Saxony was producing a product which materially cost nothing to obtain (clay and feldspar in small quantities from the mountains, and wood for the kilns from the forests), but which through Augustus’s injection of stylistic creativity and novelty came to be worth as much as many things produced using precious materials. Due to the value of this new porcelain not being based on anything as unchangeable as material value or religious significance, once a particular design or style of production had been around for a number of years, its value would drop, a fact that Meissen understood very quickly, reeling out an array of different styles ranging from the bizarre vegetal concoctions produced for the English Ambassador’s service, to the effeminate dissolution of form encapsulating Empress Elizabeth’s hunting service, culminating in the bizarrely Baroque spatiality of the Swan service made for count von Brühl (fig01). Value came to be based upon novelty, to the point where Augustus was able to use Meissen as a diplomatic tool; he would have services made in a new ‘style’ for state visits and occasions (including the three mentioned above), giving other monarchs and ambassadors porcelain services of no intrinsic material value, whilst receiving gifts of immense commodity value in return, and this was deemed more than acceptable because the receivers would be given something which in its later numerous imitations, would mark them out as ‘the original’, and hence become valuable as a mark of prestige. This was another outcome of the production of porcelain (and which later evolved partially in proportion to industrialization, and massively with the rise of consumerism): yes value would decrease as styles went out of fashion, and the industrial-scale manufacture of the items would mean that there were left in the world countless pieces whose value would be far lower than that paid at-point-of-purchase (revealing the intangibility of initial value), but the very number of copies made of the original pieces (here being the diplomatic sets) became directly proportional to the prestige, and hence the value of the original pieces and those following directly after. The more copies made, the more valuable the originals; a principle which ensured the satisfaction of the royal receptors of Meissen gifts, allowed many more common citizens to share in the glamour of courtly existence and grace, and at the same time ensured the profitability of the factory. Incessant originality and production volume were the keys to added value.


There was at this time a great bond formed between a newly mobile –both socially and economically- class of people, and the items with which they chose to adorn themselves and their interiors. Without this class of people and their method of voting with their wallets, industries like Meissen could never have accrued the requisite value to their products in order for them to be profitable; these were people who fashioned their environments and lifestyles as aspirational constructs; these were the new Lower-Aristocracy, a foetal Bourgeois in all but name who were upwardly mobile and creating wealth from areas other than feudal estates.

Fig06 Nymphenburg Porcelain Dessert Service, Franz Anton Bustelli, 1757

Here was a group of people for whom reinvention was normal, and they used all the stage-set items at their disposal in order to complete their transitions; porcelain products became vital elements in the dramatic concoctions that were Eighteenth Century dinners. These dinners were where fashions were set, families were judged and novelties tested; in fact they cannot quite be called meals because they evolved into highly organized, sequentially stylized events where each course (there were up to five of these) would be brought in with a whole new set of dishes, all in their own style, often with the servants being specially dressed to match the cutlery. In-between courses music would be played, new dresses and garments admired, whist played, and the courses would become progressively more stupendous until the dessert was reached, a course which towards the mid-century had reached an apogee of eccentric complexity. Because of its fragile and complicated nature the table for dessert would be prepared in a separate room over the passing of the evening and would be presented in full to the guests as they assembled on one side of a pair of double-doors and waited for them to be opened to reveal, well, to reveal the personally constructed Utopia of the family hosting the evening. This was no Thomas More, no complex intellectual construct, but rather an aesthetic implosion of everything that a person would want to achieve in the way he or she (and the “she� is important here because women were the key arbiters of taste in the aesthetic innovations of this time) was seen: architecture, art, landscape, fashion and decorum were all compressed into frozen scenes of delicate drama. The food was neither here nor there, what was important was the impression conveyed. Whether light-hearted elegance or allegorical allusion and hence erudition, the impression was


explicitly presented and pointfully discussed by the admirers gathered around the table –these vignettes were the summing-up conclusions in the essays of taste which masqueraded as dinners at that time; desires, aspirations, personal positions, personalities, even knowledge were transfigured into an aesthetic language by a new and highly sensitized class of Europeans, intrepid explorers into a world of constantly fluctuating value, grounded by no fixed points of reference. Where Meissen had combined novelty, style and mass production as a successful method for creating value beyond the dead-hands of religion and quantativity, the Lower Aristocracy used the shifting and flexible tools of style, fashion and novelty offered them by companies like Meissen in order to maintain social positions which did not have the traditional foundations of peerage, lineage, land and title. In sum: money was created from desire and aspiration, desire and aspiration were fed by art, and ultimately everything became transmuted into pure style, into a value-system whose units were style itself, an aestheticizing tendency beautifully encapsulated and passed down to us by the surviving desert services of that ornate century. Materials today are almost entirely transparent to the meanings we give the shapes into which they are fashioned. As machines are becoming able to print, cut, and chisel pretty much anything out of any material at the scale of our domestic interiors, the Arcanum has finally spread from the king, to the castle, to the factory, and from the shop now into the hands of each and every person who has a laptop and the will to make. Items, collections, strange objects with no intrinsic material value, no use value, no commercial desire value, artefacts can now be brought into this world which have no reason to exist other than the exigencies and idiosyncrasies of an individual, or group’s trajectory through life. Value in the material world can now be entirely generated from the intangible and deeply personal poetry of a Diary rendered in objects. The whole mechanism of production and value-creation can be bypassed and anyone, from any background, with any alternative, deviant, radical, or even highly banal agenda, can externalise their internal and verbal dialogues, can transmute their values and passions at any given moment into the silent eloquence of physical evocations.


Fig07, Collection, Madelon Vriesendorp

The 18C dinner was a theatrically complex display of social status symbols rendered in materials entirely subordinate to the artistry of man. Its audience were peers who were meant to be impressed, and who would in turn expect impressed affirmation at their own tasteful events. The contemporary interior will be a psychologically complex display of identity and becoming, rendered in materials entirely subordinate to the idiosyncrasies of the contemporary psyche. Its audience will be physically remote, and as connoisseurs and collectors of strangeness, will expect the mutual exchange of singular objects and designs in return for reciprocal affirmation. Where the 18C Lower Aristocracy purchased objects to maintain social positions, today we are producing them on our own, just to hold onto our sanity, to a domestic edifice of independence. The museum, the collection, the factory, the design studio, the shop, the bric-a-brac market and the special interest convention are collapsing into the tiny 35metre square space of our little studio flats, lonely but equally powerful and pregnant progeny of those glittering European Salons. It will be the surviving examples of these interiors, these rooms of ours that we will fill with meticulously designed and curated collections of eccentric things, that will beautifully encapsulate our current condition, the state of the early 21C mind, the hidden aesthetics of this delirious and wildly lonely century, for future generations. Just as we now stare into glass display cases full of Meissen tureens and cups and jugs and prancing Harlequins and Pulcinella’s, vividly hinting at the fingers which once held them, so our one-off 3d printed ceramic mug that stands on five legs, our laser sintered vase designed in memory of a lost friend who adored crystals, our array of bod-stimulation devices unique to the contours of our exact form will hint just as vividly of the contours of our existence for generations after us. We are Kurt Schwitters with Robot fingers. Our rooms are our museums, our mausoleums, our memorials.

Porcelain, the State, the Living Room and the Deviant  

An exploration of the origins of Porcelain in the courts of the 18th Century, how it evolved into an elaborate system of social significatio...

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