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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


Wiping off the crumbs of Meissen Flummel that had found their way to my chest, I was reminded of Charles Darwin's observation that a dribble of soup on a man's beard is disgusting, though the soup itself might be delicious. What is it in our aesthetic sense that appreciates something as sublime and something else as pretentious or tedious?

This question had a particular point here in Meissen - world-famous for the porcelain that has been produced here since 1708. Over the years, I have gazed at many exquisite examples and wondered why I am not really interested. Which is odd because the Race Marshal and I belonged to a ceramics society in Hong Kong and had many visits to spectacular collections. To this day, I look at a celadon plate with pleasure. Part of this is historical appreciation of the gentle grey-green glaze that originated during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC); part is the pleasure associated with trips to nice places in Asia; but I'm sure that part also is just instinctive, whatever that means.

a carved Longquan celadon floral bowl (c)Christie's

Given that we are in Meissen for a couple of days, it is time to challenge the misguided instinct that bars me from enjoying some of the finest porcelain in the world. Even East Germany's last despot, Erich Honecker, not perhaps a sensitive soul, liked Meissen enough to commission his official tableware here – perhaps a case of four legs good, two legs better.

We have only been making porcelain in Europe for three hundred years. While we hugely valued the imports from China and Japan – maladie die porcelaine, like tulip mania, claimed many sufferers - no-one could replicate their manufacturing processes.

Europeans could manage the so-called soft-paste porcelain, a form of glass rather than of pottery, which can be moulded into shapes as thin as true porcelain. But we could not make the ancient Chinese-style porcelain – light, translucent and hard enough to resist the scrape of steel. We had not discovered the ingredients which make true hard-paste porcelain – even though the principal ingredient, kaolin, was just lying there in the Ore Mountains.

Lacking sophisticated chemical analysis, the riddle could only be solved by trial and error: different substances mixed in different quantities heated to different temperatures. The solution was virtually impossible - not unlike the quest for the Philosopher's Stone, the magical substance that cures ills and turns base metal to gold. But, as it happened, an alchemist was destined to make the breakthrough.

In 1700, the eighteen-year-old Johann Boettger, showing alchemical promise, was locked away by the Elector of Saxony until he made gold. At the same time, the Elector – who by his own admission suffered from maladie de porcelaine - had another captive, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, working on its secrets. Recognising Boettger's skills, Tschirnhaus made him help in his research, not unreasonably given that porcelain had a value equal to gold (and was in fact known as 'white gold').

Tschirnhaus and Boettger tested clay after clay. Then, so the story goes, Boettger tried the powder that men used on their wigs - kaolin - and the secret was revealed. Bizarrely, no-one told the Elector of the triumph. Only after Tschirnhaus had died and a new man was put in charge did the discovery see the light of day. Meissen alone now held the most precious secret of the East – and the Elector of Saxony held imprisoned the men who had discovered it.

Across Europe, the Saxon miracle was recognised as the key to huge wealth. One man in particular was particularly attracted by the prospect. Claudius Innocentius du Paquier, a Dutch court official, was in Vienna and he took advantage of an economic stimulus package offered by Emperor Charles VI to support new ventures and set up his own porcelain factory.

Of course, he did not know the secret of porcelain but had to hand a Jesuit missionary recently returned from China where he had seen the process. Unfortunately, the missionary's knowledge, though detailed, was insufficient and Pacquier's venture seemed doomed. The only answer, as he saw it, was to steal the secret from Saxony.

Back in Meissen, Boettger himself was dying and his successor had brought into the business a somewhat flaky relative who was open to bribery. He did not have detailed knowledge of the manufacturing process but did send to Vienna a paper model of the Meissen kiln for Paquier to copy. But this was hardly enough, and Pacquier knew that only a Meissen employee with sufficient knowledge of the process could save his failing venture.

Here the Judas enters the picture: Samuel Stoelzel, the man in charge of mixing the paste and firing the kilns at Meissen. Stoelzel, a perfect candidate, in Paquier's eyes, was also vulnerable. Stoelzel was badly paid and resentful – and had just made pregnant a girl whose family was demanding money. To add to Stoelzel's problems, he was also engaged to another girl in Meissen. So when Paquier offered him 1,000 silver thaler, free accommodation and a job somewhere else, Stoelzel jumped at the chance. Somehow he managed to evade the duke's guards and he headed off to Vienna, free of both fiancee and pregnant girlfriend.

Albrechtsburg Castle (where Boettger and Stoelzel were imprisoned) and Meissen Cathedral on the Elbe river (c)wikicommons

Even then, with the method of manufacture clear, Paquier's enterprise still could not produce ceramics. The clay they were using was wrong and Stoelzel persuaded him to use the same kaolin that they used in Meissen. But to get this, Paquier needed to arrange one more betrayal. An easy task, as it happened: the owner of the kaolin mine in the lee of the Ore Mountains, a man named Schnorr, deeply resentful at having always to wait months for the Elector to pay him, was happy to accept Viennese cash.

The wagons were loaded and they set off for Vienna. But the Elector had guards on the kaolin as wel las well as the scientists and several of the carts were intercepted. Unfortunately for the Saxons, some made it through and within two weeks, Stoelzel had crafted a tall two-handled cup engraved with the words “To God alone and to none other be the honour”.

The cup, dated 3rd May 1789, was the first porcelain to be made in Europe outside Meissen: the Saxon monopoly was broken.

Poor Stoelzel was miserable in Vienna. He desperately wanted to return home but knew he would be executed for treason. But the world turns and tastes change. As Thomas Nugent noted on his Grand Tour in 1749, “the manufacture of Porcelane surpasses that of China because of the beauty of the paintings”.

Meissen scent bottle 1725 (c)Sotheby's

Decorated porcelain was the next evolution. In Vienna, Paquier's company was developing enamels far superior to those of Meissen – and forging ahead on the design front through the brilliance of one of the porcelain immortals, the painter Johann Gregor Herold.

Meissen recognised the threat but they could not improve their designs or techniques. So they turned the tables on Paquier and poached Herold from Vienna; he arrived in Meissen with samples of work to copy that had been stolen from Paquier by none other than Samuel Stoelzel.

Herold went on to make wonderful designs for Meissen - and he introduced chinoiserie to their output. But the technical expertise needed to translate painted pots into commercial porcelain was still lagging. Meissen decided that Stoelzel, with his in-depth knowledge of the Pacquier process, was the man they needed. So they brought the unhappy Stoelzel home, gave him a job and forgave him.

So, time to head to the factory to look at Meissen porcelain. Perhaps with fresh eyes: after all, as Psychology Wiki tells us,“... aesthetic judgements might be seen to be based on the senses, emotions, intellectual opinions, will, desires, culture, preferences, values, subconscious behaviour, conscious decision, training, instinct, sociological institutions, or some complex combination of these, depending on exactly which theory one employs”.

A little tour round Meissen -

A DW film for Meissen's 300th anniversary -

The V&A's film of their Meissen Fountain -

The full 1939 film of Mice and Men -

Moby performing Porcelain (rated the twenty-sixth best single of 2000) -

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