Archive for the ‘Ehrenfried Von Tschirnhaus’ Category

Let It Be

September 8, 2019

“European ceramics were forever indebted to superior Chinese efforts, once exposed to those wonders.”

This nugget of received wisdom, initiated by a continent-wide, 200 year long porcelain recipe hunt, permeates the study of European ceramics from roughly the 16th century onward. That perspective even percolated down to the Fine Arts studio ceramics narrative after Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) put celadon, tenmuku, and other Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) stonewares on unimpeachable pedestals; many of these glaze types remain to this day (in name at least) routine options in European and American studios.

But what drove the West’s China obsession during the centuries preceding Leach’s book were not Imperial Sung jewels, but hybridized, prosaic Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) export porcelains. Few westerners even knew of those exquisite Imperial examples before the Middle Kingdom’s late 19th century implosion, just decades before Leach began his pottery career.

More to the point, export production was almost from the start led by aesthetic and functional dictates of the “devils of the western ocean.” These dictates stemmed from a highly refined Iberian, Mediterranean, and ultimately Islamic enameled earthenware tradition – which, incidently, also heavily influenced initial Chinese blue and white development. This earthenware tradition, plus a mature northern European understanding of high temperature materials and kilns, had already established ceramics as fine art worthy of Europe’s idle rich. China’s inspiration could not have been absorbed and acted upon without these pre-existing conditions.

Now consider post-China trade Europe, ie; the Industrial Revolution. Porcelain was by then widely produced throughout the continent. But the masters of the Industrial Revolution instead ran with earthenware clay and glaze materials combined with scientific analysis, increased machine power, and efficient transport of bulky supplies and fragile finished products (and a heavy dose of child labor, but that’s another story). Chinoiserie was certainly a popular decorative option, but one of many. The Industrial Revolution transformed earthenware into fine art and fine dining utensils available to nearly every level of society – a truly revolutionary development.

Interaction with China over the centuries has left an enormous and indelible mark on European and American ceramics. But leaving it at that is almost like writing a 300 page book on the history of Rock and Roll, 250 pages of which are about the Beatles. Yes, of course the Fab Four were musical geniuses who cast a long shadow.

But 250 pages? Really?


A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1940.
The White Road. Edmund DeWaal. Chatto and Windus/London. 2015.

The Arcanum

June 3, 2009

The most arresting image I’ve heard of relating to pottery occurred about 300 years ago in the dungeon of a pleasure palace just outside Dresden, Germany.  On hand was Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and Emperor of Poland.  During a party upstairs, he and a companion had come to see a nervous young alchemist (actually, Augustus’ prisoner) named Johann Böttger.

Years earlier, Augustus “hired” another man, Ehrenfried Von Tschirnhaus, to unlock the secrets of Chinese Porcelain, a trick nobody in Europe had as yet accomplished.  Von Tschirnhaus was a true proto-chemist, employing what would later be known as empirical laboratory practices.  But his efforts failed until Augustus was visited by (ie: kidnapped) a traveling alchemist named Böttger, who claimed to have discovered the Arcanum, the method of turning base metals to gold.  After repeated failures to replicate this feat, Böttger’s life hung in the balance.  He was paired with Von Tschirnhaus, who thought him somewhat of a gifted quack.  The combined efforts of these reluctant lab mates yielded not gold, but the first true European porcelain.  For Augustus, this would come to mean a very real form of white gold.

Anyway, on that fateful day, Augustus had descended to the dungeon where Böttger’s workshop and kilns were.  He wanted to see in person the miraculous process by which all those powders could be turned into porcelaneous gold.  At the very peak of the firing he demanded that the kiln door be removed so he could see the pots inside.  The Elector’s party friend tried to leave for fear of his life, but was held back by Augustus.  Böttger ordered his assistants to remove the bricks…


The Arcanum.  Janet Gleeson.  Warner Books/New York.  1998.