Posts Tagged ‘European Pottery’

The Battle of Trafalgar

June 12, 2009

On October 21st, 1805, the English Navy squared off against the combined fleets of France and Spain near the Cape of Trafalgar in southern Spain.  Most historians would probably agree that this pivotal Napoleonic Era sea battle had little, if anything, to do with pottery history.  Those historians may be right, even though ceramic “hand grenades” – jars filled with burning oil – were used in the battle.  And, of course, gaining complete mastery of the seas could only help British dominance of the global pottery trade throughout the 19th century.

Nevertheless, to get an idea of what it must have been like for those hapless sailors, press-ganged into naval service in the early 1800’s – some of whom, surely, must have been from coastal pottery centers like Barnstable and Bidford in Devonshire – follow the video link below.  The entire sequence lasts about 4 minutes.  Be prepared for an initial minute long plot synopsis.  The film itself, though, is quite smashing!

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.