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The Elegance of the Breakfast Set

The elegance of the breakfast set forced itself on Catherine’s notice when they were seated at table… He was enchanted by her approbation of his taste, confessed it to be neat and simple, thought it right to encourage the manufacture of his country; and for his part, to his uncritical palate, the tea was as well flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden [Germany] or Save [France].
Northanger Abbey

Surprisingly, many of the recognizable names in china and dinnerware were already established by Jane Austen’s Day. Sèvres (France, 1740), Villeroy & Boch (Germany, 1748), Royal Worcester (1751), Wedgwood (England, 1759), Spode (England, 1770), Minton (England, 1793) and others trace their roots back to the china making heyday of the mid seventeen hundreds (Royal Doulton was a bit late to the [tea]party, being founded in England, in 1815, the same year Emma was published)

A French Silver Dinner Service 1819-1838

Chinese porcelain had long been a staple import of the East India Companies and manufacturers in Europe were wild to discover just how it was made. Experiments abounded, some more successful than others, and for centuries it simply could not be replicated. Those who could not afford porcelain services imported from the East ate from silver, pewter, tin or wooden dishes.

A Delftware Urn

Finally, during the 1600’s, artisans in Europe began producing passable imitations of Chinese porcelain. With an interruption in Asian exports, due to the death the Wanli Emperor in 1620, the Dutch had the opportunity they needed to take a foothold in the market, with their Chinese inspired Delftware. These earthenware pieces at first featured the blue and white patterns so popular in the Chinese imports, though later pieces incorporated other colors as well. The patterns were created by drawing sketches on the shaped pottery, and then coating it with a white enamel finish, before hand painting the final design and firing the piece to preserve the paint and give the piece it’s glassy finish.

The first earthenware (also known as Stoneware) pieces were certainly crude compared to later innovations and each successive generation refined the process. The goal was a white porcelain base on which to add colors and patterns. Earthenware tended to be darker, creamy…earthy. The Dutch fought this with a lead based white enamel coating until 1707, when a German, Johann Friedrich Böttger, discovered the secret to hard paste porcelain, like that used by the Chinese. Known as Meissen China, it was characterized by an extremely high firing temperature, something earlier innovators could not duplicate with the resources available to them. The high temperatures made the porcelain glossy and water resistant without the addition of glaze, and this process continues to be used today by companies such as Hummel and Royal Worcester.

Meissen China dominated western markets until the mid 1750’s when Josiah Wedgwood (grandfather of naturalist Charles Darwin) broke on the scene, changing the face of “China” forever. His experiments with porcelain, carried out in his factory in Staffordshire (hence General Tilney’s famous quote) led to cleaner, whiter earthenware, in particular Creamware, a line of which became known as ‘Queen’s Ware’ when Queen Charlotte ordered  ‘A complete sett of tea things’ in 1765. This “sett” included a dozen cups for coffee, six fruit baskets and stands, six melon preserve pots and six hand candlesticks.

Part of Wedgwood's Creamware (Queen's Ware) Green Frog Service, on display at the Hermitage.

In 1766, a notice, run in the Aris Birmingham Gazette announced: “Mr Josiah Wedgwood, of Burslem, has had the honour of being appointed Potter to Her Majesty.”  This notoriety brought an onslaught of orders for his creamware, and later his pearlware (earthenware whitened further by the addition of a cobalt overglaze) Empress Catherine the Great, of Russia, ordered a complete set of Queen’s Ware (the Green Frog Service, now on display at the Hermitage) and by the turn of the century, Mrs Papendiek, Assistant Keeper to the Wardrobe of Queen Charlotte, was able to write “Our tea and coffee set were of common India China (known today as Chinese Export Porcelain), our dinner service of earthenware, to which, for our rank, there is nothing superior. Chelsea porcelain and fine India China being only for the wealthy. Pewter and Delft ware could be had, but they were inferior.”  In fact, creamware was so widely used that it became known as ‘Common Wedgwood’.

A Wedgwood imitation of the Portland Vase, now on display at the V&A

Wedgwood, by now the most famous name in porcelain, was not satisfied in having transformed English dining, and making prized porcelain available to the burgeoning middle class. He also developed Jasperware, the famous “Wedgwood Blue” porcelain consisting of a colored (most often blue or sage green) base with a raised, white motif, often of a scene or portrait. Later in life, Wedgwood dedicated himself to reproducing the Portland Vase (one of the earliest known examples of porcelain, dating from the first century, BC) Wedgwood labored for year, recreating the vase, finally perfecting it in 1790. This marked his last major achievement in porcelain production.

By this time, a newcomer, Josiah Spode, had improved Wedgwood’s creamware recipe, creating what is known today as Bone China (a soft paste porcelain), by literally adding bone ash to the clay mixture. In 1783, Spode perfected transferware—this method of decoration involved stamping an engraved design onto tissue paper and applying the still damp tissue to the porcelain dish, literally “transferring” the pattern from the paper to the dish. The tissue was washed off in water and the piece was then given a coating of clear glaze and fired. While allowing for “mass production” in place of previously hand painted designs, it was nonetheless a tricky business, as each piece of tissue had to be meticulously hand cut and applied to the curves and contours of each piece of porcelain. Color choices in transferware were limited to shades that could withstand the heat of the furnace, with cobalt blue being the most commonly used (you can also find red or pink, green and brown transferware from this period.)

Clockwise from the Top: Creamware by Wedgwood, Blue Willow by Thomas Minton , Blue Onion by MeissenBlue Italian by Josiah Spode

Blue and white transferware became a hallmark of the Staffordshire potteries (Wedgwood, Spode, Minton and others all set up factories in this county) and many of the patterns they created, from Blue Willow (created by Thomas Minton in 1790) to Blue Italian (by Josiah Spode II, introduced in 1812) evoke exotic locals and hearken back to the original Chinese patterns imported centuries before. Even the Blue Onion pattern, first created by the German Meissen factory in 1740, was based on extant Chinese pieces, with the unknown Asian flowers being replaced by more recognizable European Peonies and Asters (some experts believe that the “onions” depicted were mutations of the Chinese representations of peaches and pomegranates.)

Regardless, by 1797, English pottery was so well established as superior to any other kind that a visting Frenchman remarked , “Its excellent workmanship, its solidarity, the advantage which it possesses of standing the action of the fire, its fine glaze, impervious to acid, the beauty, convenience and variety of its forms and its moderate price have created a commerce so active and so universal, that in travelling from Paris to St Petersburg, from Amsterdam to the furthest points of Sweden, from Dunkirk to the southern extremity of France, one is served at every inn from English earthenware. The same fine articles adorn the tables of Spain, Portugal, & Italy, and it provides the cargoes of ships to the East Indies, the West Indies and America.” (Voyage en Angleterre by Faujas de Saint Fond)

If one wished to purchase ‘English Earthenware’, you had only to visit the showrooms, like those set up by Josiah Spode and Josiah Wedgwood. Here you might peruse a selection of ready made articles, and see displays of porcelain artistry, such as a Portland Vase reproduction, which was on display in Wedgwood’s London showroom.

The Austens were loyal Wedgwood patrons and owned many sets of china, some ordered by Jane herself, who wrote to her sister after one visit, On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking, and approving our Wedgwood ware. It all came very safely, and upon the whole is a good match…There was no bill with the goods, but that shall not screen them from being paid. I mean to ask Martha to settle the account. It will be quite in her way, for she is just now sending my mother a breakfast set from the same place. I hope it will come by the Waggon tomorrow; it is certainly what we want and I long to know what it is like: and as I am sure Martha has great pleasure in making the present, I will not have any regrets.
(Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, June 6, 1811)

Wedgwood & Byerley showrooms, York Street, London, taken from Ackermann's Repository of Arts, 1809

On visiting one of the China show rooms, you might be greeted by a manager (in 1771, Wedgwood’s Bath shop was managed by the father of Ann Radcliffe, Austen’s contemporary in women’s literature and author of The Mysteries of Udolpho) If you could not be tempted by the wares on display, you could always search the catalog of available patterns (Spode offered close to 2000 assorted pieces and patterns at the time) and create your own special set of dinner ware, as Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s brother, did, in 1813. Jane described the purchase of this china, which was, until recently on display at the Jane Austen Chawton House Museum: “We then went to Wedgwoods where my Brother and Fanny chose a Dinner Set. I believe the pattern is a small Lozenge in purple, between Lines of narrow Gold, and it is to have the Crest.” (Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, September 16, 1813)

The Austen-Knight China, which was recently on display at Chawton cottage, until being sent up for auction.

Wedgwood and Spode, and to a lesser extent, their contemporaries remain highly collectible, and easily obtainable—‘Fine China for the Masses’. Many of the patterns available to Jane Austen on her visits to the London showrooms are still manufactured today and used by households around the globe, including mine. Most of the dishes used in Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends, were from my personal collection of Spode dinnerware, added to by friends and family over the years; many are reproductions of pieces available during Austen’s lifetime. It fascinates me to think that she might have eaten off these same patterns, or have seen them on display as original works of art during her time in London. Eating foods made from their own recipes on what might have been her dishes feels about as close to dining with the Austens and their friends as you can get.

 


 

Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories. Her book, Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends, is available from the Jane Austen Centre Giftshop.
Visit Austentation for a large range of custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and Jane Austen related items.

Historical information from Wikipedia and The Wedgwood Museum.

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Meissen’s White Gold

Many of the object d’art familiar to Jane Austen (and used extensively as set pieces in the many adaptations of her works) are based on the pieces produced by the famous Meissen Porcelain factory in the mid 1700’s. The company became known for their exquisite china patterns, including the Blue Onion pattern, still in production today, clocks, vases, figurines and just about any other decorative item which could be made of porcelain. Among the first to discover the secret of China’s “White Gold”, craftsmen in the artist town of Meissen protected and improved the recipe long before Josiah Wedgewood or Josiah Spode set up their showrooms in London or artisans in Sevres could create their first vase.

The Chinese had mastered the production of porcelain long before the west became aware of it, and by the seventeenth century oriental porcelain had become a valuable export commodity in the China trade. Mostly provided by the Dutch East India Company, porcelain from China and Japan represented wealth, importance, and refined taste in Europe, while local attempts to produce porcelain, such as the brief experiment that produced “Medici porcelain” had met with failure.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century Johann Friedrich Böttger pretended he had solved the dream of the alchemists, to produce gold from worthless materials. When the Elector of Saxony Augustus the Strong heard of it, he kept him in protective custody and requested him to produce gold. For years Johann Friedrich Böttger was unsuccessful in this effort. At the same time, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a mathematician and scientist, experimented with the manufacture of glass, trying to make porcelain as well. Tschirnhaus supervised Böttger and by 1707 Böttger reluctantly started to help in the experiments by Tschirnhaus. When Tschirnhaus suddenly died, the recipe apparently was handed over to Böttger, who within one week announced to the Elector that he could make porcelain. Böttger refined the formula and with some Dutch co-workers, experienced in firing and painting tiles, the stage was set for the manufacturing of porcelain. In 1709, the Elector established the first Meissen manufactory, placed Böttger’s laboratory at Albrechtsburg castle in Meissen and production started officially in 1710.

The first type of porcelain produced by Böttger was a refined and extremely hard red stoneware known in Germany as Böttgersteinzeug. It retained very crisp definition in its mold-cast applied details, on bodies that could be polished to a gloss before firing. Models were derived from Baroque silver shapes and Chinese ceramic examples. Meissen’s production of a hard paste white porcelain that could be glazed and painted soon followed, and wares were put on the market in 1713.

An example of Böttgersteinzeug pottery

Böttger’s experimental wares rapidly gained quality but never achieved successful painted and fired decor. The first successful ornaments were gold decorations applied upon the fired body and finely engraved before they received a second firing at a lower temperature. Multicolor enamelled painting was introduced by Johann Gregorius Höroldt in 1723, with an increasingly broad palette of colors that marked the beginning of the classic phase of Meissen porcelain. His enamel paints are still the basis for ceramic paints today. Initially paintings often imitated oriental patterns. The signature underglaze “Meissen Blue” was introduced by Friedrich August Köttig. Soon minutely detailed landscapes and port scenes, animals, flowers, galante courtly scenes and chinoiseries— fanciful Chinese-inspired decorations— were to be found on Meissen porcelain. The Kakiemon vases and tea wares of kilns in Arita, Japan were imitated as Indianische Blume (“Flowers of the Indies”). Paintings by Watteau were copied. Wares were also sold in solid glazed colors, to be enamelled in private workshops (Hausmalerei) and independently retailed. The support of Augustus’ patronage attracted to Meissen some of the finest painters and modelers of Europe as staff artists.

The Albrechtsburg was utilized to protect the secrets of the manufacture of the white gold. As a further precaution, very few workers knew the special secret (arcanum) of how to make porcelain, and then perhaps only part of the process. Thus, for a few years, Meissen retained its monopoly on the production of hard-paste porcelain in Europe. By 1717, however, a competing production was set up at Vienna, as Samuel Stöltzel sold the secret recipe, which involved the use of kaolin, also known as china clay. By 1760 about thirty porcelain manufacturers were operating in Europe, most of them, however, producing frit based soft-paste porcelain.

In order to identify the original Meissen products, Meissen developed markings that initially were painted on, but were soon fired in underglaze blue. Early markings such as AR (Augustus Rex, the monogram of the King), K.P.M. (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur), M.P.M. (Meissener Porzellan-Manufaktur), and K.P.F. (“Königliche Porzellan-Fabrik) were eventually replaced by the crossed swords logo. Introduced in 1720, it was used consistently after 1731 by official decree. Variations in the “crossed swords” logo allow approximate dating of the wares.

Augustus II charged first Johann Jakob Irminger with the design of new vessels. In 1720 Johann Gregorius Höroldt became the director and introduced brilliant colors which made Meissen porcelain famous. The next sculptor, Johann Jakob Kirchner, was the first to make large-scale statues and figurines, especially of Baroque saints. His assistant was Johann Joachim Kaendler; in 1733 Kirchner resigned, and Kaendler took over as chief “modelmaster”. He became the most famous of the Meissen sculptors. Under his direction Meissen produced the series of small figurines, often depicting scenes of gallantry, which brought out the best of the new material. His menagerie of large-scale animals, left in the white, are some of the high points of European porcelain manufacture. His work resulted in the production of exquisite figurines in the rococo style that influenced porcelain making in all of Europe. Supported by assistants like Johann Friedrich Eberlein and Peter Reinecke, he worked until his death in 1775.

In 1756, during the Seven Years’ War, Prussian troops occupied Meissen, giving Frederick II of Prussia the opportunity to relocate some of the artisans to establish the Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur Berlin. With the changing tastes of the neoclassical period and the rise of Sèvres porcelain in the 1760s, Meissen had to readjust its production, and in the reorganization from 1763, C.W.E. Dietrich of the Dresden Academy became artistic director and Michel- Victor Acier from France became the modelmaster. The practice of impressing numerals that correspond to moulds in the inventory books began in 1763. Sèvres styles and ventures into Neoclassicism, such as matte bisque wares that had the effect of white marble, marked the manufactory’s output under Count Camillo Marcolini, from 1774.

In the nineteenth century Ernst August Leuteritz modernized many of the rococo figurines, and reissued them, creating a “Second Rococo” characterized by lacework details (made from actual lace dipped in slip and fired) and applied flowers; English collectors used the term Dresden porcelain to describe these wares, especially the somewhat simpering and coy figurines. Under Erich Hösel, who became head of the modelling department in 1903, old styles were revived and reinterpreted. Hösel also restored eighteenth century models. Some appealing work in the Art Nouveau style was produced, but Meissen’s mainstay continued to be the constant production of revived eighteenth-century models.

After 1933, the artistic freedom of the artists became restricted by the State of Saxony in accordance with the contemporary indoctrination process in Germany. Some artists (i.e. Ernst Barlach) who had contributed to progressive Meissen during the Weimar period were banned.

After World War II and under Communist rule, the manufactory that had always catered to the rich and wealthy had some difficulty finding its way. The danger was that Meissen would become a factory merely producing for the masses. It was not until 1969, when Karl Petermann became the director, that Meissen went back to focus on its old traditions and was also allowed a freer artistic expression. Production continues to this day. Meissen products can be found online, in antique stores world wide (look for the crossed swords logo) and at buymeissen.com.

Information from antique-china-porcelain-collectibles.com, Victoriamag.com and Wikipedia.com

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