Books & arts
Craft and commerce
Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe.
By Suzanne Marchand.
It sounds like a fairy-tale.A visionary alchemist, arrested by a tyrannical ruler, is put to work turning scraps into riches. Yet for a few years in the early 18th century Johann Friedrich Bottger was a genuine Rumpelstiltskin. Seized by Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony, after he crossed Prussia’s frontier, Bottger was imprisoned and ordered to conjure up treasure—and, in a sense, he did. He didn’t make gold, but Bottger was the first European to create something almost as precious: porcelain.
As Suzanne Marchand shows in her meticulous new book, porcelain has been integral to German life since its reinvention in Saxony in 1708 (the Chinese perfected the craft centuries earlier). It was initially a plaything for princes, as Bottger’s incarceration suggests; Augustus and his rivals sponsored state-run factories for what one called the “splendour and prestige” of their realms.From that beginning, Ms Marchand traces porcelain’s role in German history, examining its uses from Romantic busts of Goethe to Nazi egg cups.
“Porcelain” is about more than culture. Because the commodity was prized and produced over centuries, the author uses it to explore wider economic changes. Ultimately it became thoroughly industrialised— porcelain’s use in false teeth and telegraph insulator tubes leads Ms Marchand to call it the plastic of its day—but the path to modernity meandered. Several early factories, including the famous one at Meissen, were just converted palaces or monasteries, run by courtiers in powdered wigs. Some idiosyncrasies survived into the 20th century: though they hated all things aristocratic, East German officials brought back classic rococo figurines after Marxist alternatives proved unsellable.