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The European quest for porcelain: 16th-18th century

After the establishment of a Portuguese trading post on Macao in 1557, the first few examples of Chinese porcelain (as opposed to earthenware) find their way to the courts of Europe. It is immediately appreciated that this is a commodity much finer than any European pottery. Indeed in English the early term 'china-ware' gradually becomes abbreviated and more widely applied, until china is the accepted word for any porcelain wherever made.

There are immediate attempts to create European ceramics of this kind, but the Chinese secret proves hard to discover. Because of the translucent quality of porcelain, experiments for the most part involve the mixing of powdered glass with the clay.

The result is a convincing imitation of true porcelain, but slightly softer. It is first successfully made at the Medici court in Florence in the 1570s, remarkably soon after the arrival of the first Chinese examples.

During the 17th century imports of china become much more common, particularly of delicate wares to accomodate Europe's new craze of tea-drinking. From 1664 Louis XIV grants privileges to a few potters to attempt porcelain. Their experiments lead eventually to the great 18th-century tradition of French pottery of which Sèvres (a factory founded at Vincennes in 1738 and moved to Sèvres in 1756) is the leading example. English porcelain begins at much the same time, at Chelsea in about 1743.

Both the French and the English porcelain of the 18th century is of the artificial kind using powdered glass - with the frequent addition in England of ash from charred bones, beginning the specifically British tradition of bone china.

Porcelain of this kind is known as soft-paste porcelain. It is less hard than true porcelain (it can be cut with a file) and it is fired at a lower temperature (1200°C as opposed to 1450°C). Those who make porcelain of this kind in the 18th century are well aware that the true porcelain of China is different and superior.

True porcelain contains two substances known from their Chinese names as kaolin (a very fine white clay) and petuntse (a rock which fuses at a high temperature to form natural glass). When the secret is discovered in Europe, the ingredients are at first imported from China. But they can be mined also in Europe, where they are known as china clay and china stone (or feldspar).

The secret of true porcelain is found independently in France and England during the 1760s. But both nations are half a century behind the Germans. True porcelain is manufactured at Meissen from 1710.

The porcelain prisoner: 1700-1714

The origin of Meissen porcelain is a famously macabre incident in industrial history. In 1700 the 18-year-old Johann Friedrich Böttger is arrested in Wittenberg and is brought to Dresden by order of Augustus the Strong, the elector of Saxony. Böttger has committed no crime, but Augustus has heard that the young man is an alchemist hoping to manufacture gold from base materials. If gold is to be made, Augustus wants it.

Böttger is kept a prisoner in Dresden, carrying on his fruitless experiments. In 1703 he attempts to escape to Prague. He is captured and brought back.

In this impossible predicament a solution of a kind is suggested by a Dresden scientist, Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus. He has been attempting for at least twenty years to discover the secret of true porcelain. There is evidence that he has made considerable progress, but not yet sufficient to produce wares on a reliable basis. Recognizing Böttger's talent, he suggests that he join him in a quest less hopeless than the alchemist's for gold.

Böttger, still under guard, moves to Meissen in 1705 to work with Tschirnhaus. The work is interrupted for a year when the Swedes occupy Saxony in 1706 (Böttger is removed for safe keeping to a distant fortress).

In September 1707 Böttger is brought to Dresden, where a laboratory is established for him in a fortress. In January 1708 he achieves a practical formula for porcelain. Production begins in the Dresden laboratories in 1709. The first pieces are on sale at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1710. Already Augustus is building a royal porcelain factory in Meissen, to which the operation is transferred in June of that year.

These first wares are red (known now as Böttger stoneware). By 1713 Meissen is producing delicate white porcelain. Coloured glazes follow within the next few years.

Böttger is passionately proud of his creations. He inspires Augustus with his vision of pieces designed by leading artists to outdo even the Chinese, and his achievement in this field gives Saxony its greatest single distinction. Yet he directs the Meissen factory from confinement in Dresden. He has the luxury of a house in the fortress, but there are guards on the door.

His tyrannical employer, still on occasion resentful that he has been fobbed off with porcelain rather than gold, finally releases Böttger in 1714. Although still in his early thirties, he is extremely ill - probably from working with kilns and crucibles in an unventilated laboratory. He dies in 1719.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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