Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Janet Gleeson - The Arcanum

Old-fashioned and dowdy are probably the words most associated with porcelain these days. But once it was nothing less than white gold, an art form so precious and admired, so exotic to Europeans that when the first pieces started making their appearance in Europe, Chinese porcelain collecting soon became the hobby of kings everywhere.

For a king to be able to produce his own porcelain, to crack the Arcanum used by Chinese artisans, was a dream on a par with possessing the alchemic formula to transform base models into gold, so close in value were the two materials in XVII century Europe.

“The Arcanum: the extraordinary true story of the invention of European porcelain” narrates the tale of the man who was first able to produce porcelain, Johann Frederick Bottger, as well those of a couple other historical characters that would help shape the famous Meissen manufacture, after Bottger passed away.

Still in his early twenties Bottger was already on the run, because of some unfulfilled promises: more specifically he had claimed he could change copper and silver into gold. Even though he had managed a good sleight of hand before, when observed carefully he was unable to repeat the trick and had to flee in order to escape the wrath of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

But Bottger wasn’t (just) a con artist: trained in the ways of alchemy he straddled the line between magic and science, a line that was barely visible in the XVIII century, anyway. When the king finally captured him and decided to spare his life, Bottger swore he would give him the secret of porcelain – and kept his promise.

After experimenting with different combinations of regional clays and other substances, after perfecting the then existing kilns, Bottger made Augustus a very wealthy and envied man, indeed. The factory was set up in the town of Meissen and its secrets set under lock and key with good reason. There were always a couple of spies around trying to snatch the Arcanum for other monarchs.

Bottger’s chronic depression, (he was after all, a royal prisoner until his last years and kept up his impossible search for the alchemic secret of gold – the price of his freedom) made him turn to alcohol and over the years commit more than a few indiscretions to fellow factory workers who were quick to run away with the secrets and establish manufactures in nearby kingdoms.

Incredibly, only decades after his death would Meissen become a viable economic venture – Augustus may have enjoyed the perks of his own personal porcelain vending-machine but he would seldom pay for what he purchased - or salaries for that matter.
I knew of the name Meissen only through its figurines featured in a short chapter in Bruce Chatwin’s Utz – I read it somewhere in the foggy night of adolescence and for some reason, even though I don’t recall the actual narrative, historical figurine collecting became a fascinating hobby to my mind.

In “The Arcanum” I learnt that figurines were actually one of the last stages of innovation in Meissen: dinnerware was the bread and butter of porcelain for many decades. Figurines were actually the brainchild of Johann Joachim Kaendler, who looked at the sugar and marzipan statuettes that adorned the banquet tables of the filthy wealthy (like spoiled two-year-olds they had to be continually entertained, even between courses) and thought of turning them into a perennial object. Soon, Meissen was cranking out shepherdesses, arlequins and pierrots like there was no tomorrow. And exorbitant though the prices might be (a Meissen factory worker, for instance, could never dream of buying a porcelain piece in his lifetime) there seemed to be no shortage of collectors.

Janet Gleeson’s book is an easy read although, I must be honest and say it gets a little tedious at times. In think it’s the single subject thing: I felt the same with "Tulipomania" – these are interesting subjects but if you adhere too close to the script it starts lagging. I prefer it when single subject books take the transversal view and pull every curious or interesting story into it, even if it’s not strictly related to the narrative at hand. You might end up with a mammoth of a book like "The Song of the Dodo”, “The Medici Giraffe” or “Krakatoa”, but those are the kind of books that really make a difference in your reading life.

So I guess the conclusion is that you can take or leave “The Arcanum” (unless you are a huge porcelain fan – a slight interest doesn’t qualify) and it won’t make much of a difference, although I will say this: a decorative arts book without a single illustration is a publishing offence and should be prosecuted somehow.

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