OF MEISSEN MEN (with apologies to that nice Mr Steinbeck)

Meissen porcelain – Europe’s finest, by Royal Command ?

Meissen is one of the singularly most notable names in the panoply of
porcelain’s highly regarded manufactories, so revered for its finesse
and high quality as to be known even to the uninitiated, non-collecting
rank and file as a watchword for remarkably exquisite material and
workmanship. As a departure from the norm, I thought that I would take a
look not at the vagaries of its production processes, or even by whom
the constituent parts were crafted in to the finished pieces once the
formulation had been developed – but rather why it was made in the first

As is the convention with porcelain, the name is taken
from the place in which the material came to be produced, rather than
that of its progenitors or manufacturers, or the later stewards of what
was to become one of Europe’s first properly recognised brands. We must
look to what until recent times was best known as East Germany – and to
the farthest extremities of this once arcane and archaic state, to a
small town a few miles north and east of Dresden, and barely a decent
day’s horse-ride away from the Czech border and the Bohemian hinterland

This meant that the town would have been found not only
in the midst of its own margravate, or principality, but under the
auspices of the Electorates of Poland and/or Saxony (an ever-fluid state
of constant political flux) which, albeit by way of a somewhat
convoluted set of circumstances, lead to the discovery of the hard paste
porcelain for which the town was to become famous.

In spite of
the advances in science which were to overtake the world with such
impetus in the latter part of the 18th century and beyond, the early
1700’s saw a great many less empirical, long-cherished beliefs still
having a great deal of currency, one of which was the enduring allure of
potential riches to be made from from alchemy – the purported ability
to effect the transformation of base metals in to gold. The pursuit of
this ultimately fruitless quest drew a great many scholarly minds to
centres of research, especially those which were state-funded, as was
the case with Dresden where two individuals in particular were engaged
in all manner of experimental work under the auspices of King Frederick I
of Prussia and Augustus II of Poland – a perpetually impoverished
leader who was always on the lookout for an easy source of fiscal

The two gentlemen in question were Ehrenfried
(Walter) von Tschirnhaus and Johan Böttger, with the latter engaged
specifically to explore the possibilities of fanciful gold fabrication
by Augustus. Tschirnhaus, some thirty years the elder of the two, was
perhaps more circumspect and had, by 1704, produced some remarkable
results in the development not of synthesised gold, but of porcelain.
This may seem a strange departure from the general sphere of endeavour
in which others were engaged, but genuine Chinese porcelain, widely
known throughout Europe and manufactured in the Orient by entirely
obfuscated means, was so highly regarded as to have almost the
equivalent value of gold – and certainly that of silver – so it was an
equally sought-after commodity, and ownership of a viable production
facility was just as attractive a proposition to avaricious heads of
To his credit, Augustus recognised the potential of
Tschirnhaus’ work, and set him up in a state-funded laboratory on
Brühlsche Terrasse in Dresden, but with significant monies both made
immediately available and promised pending favourable results,
Ehrenfried was unable to take advantage of his king’s largesse – largely
as a result of suddenly dropping dead in October 1708.

there was a brief hiatus in the work, until a gentleman by the name of
Melchior Steinbrück arrived on the scene -nominally to administer
Tschirnhaus’ estate – in March of the following year. Steinbrück noted
the existence amongst Ehrenfried’s effects of the recipe for his
strikingly fine porcelain, and was moved to discussed the matter with
Böttger who up until this point had been nominally under Tschirnhaus’
tutelage, though having shown little interest in his master’s work in
replicating Chinese pottery. Steinbrück evidently managed to convince
Böttger that there was far more potential in developing porcelain than
there would ever be in pursuing his futile and increasingly fallacious
quest for Goldmachertinktur. Johan immediately took this sage advice on
board and barely eight days after first meeting Steinbrück, he presented
himself to Augustus and announced unequivocally and with great fanfare
that he was able to reproduce Chinese porcelain.

Augustus was
beyond rapture to be presented with this discovery which was tantamount
to a license to print money, and – by royal proclamation – Europe’s
first porcelain manufactory was immediately incorporated and would open
the following year in The Albrechtsburg – an imposing gothic castle
looming over the River Elbe in Meissen, which was the former palace of
the Wettin dynasty who once ruled Saxony and Thuringia. The concern was
given the suitably regal name of the Royal-Polish and Electoral-Saxon
Porcelain Factory (Königlich-Polnische und Kurfürstlich-Sächsische
Porzellan-Manufaktur), and with its regal provenance thus established
from the very start, it was almost inevitable that the products would
come to be positioned at the very highest table in the firmament of
finery which is today’s most collectable porcelain.

As ever, link below for all our currently listed Meissen pieces:

site search for meissen

for more articles about European glass and porcelain, check the following links:

European Art Glass (part one)

European Art Glass (part two)

Italian Porcelain

German Porcelain

French Porcelain

Maltese (Mdina) Glass