Porcelain in Central Europe had its epoch. It ends in the present, up to which Suzanne Marchand’s depiction in “Porcelain” extends. Invented and perfected in China, and from there introduced commercially in Europe since the sixteenth century, porcelain was one of the great technological challenges of the early eighteenth century. How could you make yourself independent of Chinese imports? It was not enough to track down the Chinese chemical recipe. High-heating furnaces and a well-organized cooperation of technicians and artists, financiers and marketing experts were also necessary.
From the middle of the eighteenth century ambitious royal courts strove to have their own porcelain manufacture. Some of these factories were among the largest businesses of their time. They produced for the representational needs of the rulers and the nobility, who decorated their banqueting tables and the walls of their jewelry rooms with porcelain objects. Vases, dishes and figurines – mythological figures, soldiers, animals or serenissimus himself in biscuit porcelain – became the currency in the exchange of gifts among the elite. As recently as 1815, the Duke of Wellington received the finest Sèvres porcelain from the redeemed victims of Napoleon at the Congress of Vienna, as well as the 460-piece “Waterloo” service from the production of the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur zu Berlin.
Struggle for better working conditions
At the end of the story, the Chinese are again. Cheap mass imports from the Far East support the trend from decorated mocha cups to paper cups to go. Porcelain no longer counts and customers no longer pay for it. The bourgeois housewife, who delights her guests with retro rococo or clear Bauhaus optics, is disappearing. After aristocratic obsession and costly ensuring respectability of the middle class, the dishwasher resistance of consumer goods is sufficient today. Porcelain factories are being turned into museums. In 1959 there were 31,000 employees in the Bavarian porcelain industry, in 2016 there were only 3,400. As the last state-owned manufacturer in Central Europe, the Meissen porcelain factory continues a mercantilist tradition that never fully surrendered before the porcelain capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But even this prestige brand is only a shadow of itself.
Three centuries after the European reinvention of porcelain, a story ends that includes not only art, design and technology, patronage and entrepreneurial skill, but also much more: the lung diseases of workers and (since the early nineteenth century) women workers and their struggle for better working conditions, the Use of painted and printed porcelain supports for visual messages of all kinds, the new market for insulators in the early age of electricity, the rise of the bathroom and with it the emergence of a huge need for tiles and “hygiene dishes”. After all, the history of porcelain is also that of its endangerment and destruction. The virtual heap of broken glass lurks behind the deceptively smooth surface.
Suzanne Marchand reports on the German states and Austria from August the Strong to Philip Rosenthal (1916 to 2001), the last publicly known porcelain entrepreneur and temporary SPD member of the Bundestag. In England and France she finds the rival business models between which one orientated oneself in Central Europe: monopoly state government since the Sun King and state distant capitalism since the industrial captain Josiah Wedgwood (1730 to 1795). In order to interweave cultural, economic and social history as artfully as it happens here, great historiographical experience is required. Anyone who studies the history of ideas in Germany in the nineteenth century will admire Suzanne Marchand’s books on the reception of antiquities and Orientalism. Now she has surprised us with something completely new.
Suzanne L. Marchand: „Porcelain“. A History from the Heart of Europe. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2020. 544 pp., Hardcover, € 34.99.