A Brief Introduction to Porcelain – Part 2
PRISONER OF PORCELAIN
Tradition has it that an aspiring young alchemist Johann Fredreich Bottger, whilst incarcerated in Konigstein fortress in ‘the service’ of Saxony’s Augustus the Strong, isolated kaolin—the secret ingredient of Chinese porcelain, when his attention was aroused by the powder he was using on his wig. Unfortunately for Bottger, his unlocking of the secret recipe was not as easy in reality as this classic fable of illuminated curiosity and flash invention would indicate.
The invention of porcelain in China had been no sudden discovery, hut the result of a long and gradual evolution. One essential element in this had been the ability to fire pottery to extremely high temperatures, which enabled the Chinese in quite early times to make stoneware—hard, vitreous and impervious to liquids. This was largely owing to the superior construction of their kilns. At the same time the development of suitably tough glazes that would not disintegrate or peel off with long usage brought a further gain through its potential to vary the quality of the surface. It was through the use of certain white primary clays (kaolins) and mineral rocks (petunse)—with which China, as its name implies, was geologically well endowed—that the development of porcelain proceeded. Chinese potters of Tang times used ,methods of repeated washing and settling and long storage times to refine these clays Eventually carrying their achievements to the ultimate stage of creating a fine homogenous substance that was both white and gleamingly translucent. This was true porcelain and it was to this ideal that the abject and imprisoned Bottger, was to aspire some 800 years later.
The tale of the discovery is a fascinating one. Involving as it does the- insatiable Royal spendthrift Augustus the Strong, the dark sycophantic satellites and charlatans of his court and the shadowy figure of the mathematician and crypto alchemist Tschirnhausen with his burning mirrors and optical furnaces. And of course, the wretched but illuminated figure of the soi-disant alchemist Bottger, himself.
The curious will find an excellent account of the whole epic in Janet Gleeson’s recent book ‘The Arcanum’, published by Bantam Press and available from Imprints Bookshop.
Alchemists rarely uncovered any secrets and when they did they could not keep them.
Disgruntled minions and spies were at work and Augustus the Strong’s dreamed-of monopoly soon evaporated. With this break through manufactories of porcelain spread and there poured forth a torrent of rich and varied pieces including some master chinoserie works by Horodolt, Stadler and Herold. While the modelers Kirchner and Kandler took the medium to new heights with their modeled porcelain menageries.
Good porcelain pots have lost none of their appeal. Historical pieces still set record prices at auction houses. Potters working with porcelain today achieve some of the top exhibition sales levels in Australia.
The regional influence of Asia on studio porcelain in Australia today is not the narrow bandwidth of fantastic and whimsical oriental exotica that it was in King Agustus’ time. Styles have changed. Today the cooler deliberations and restraint of modern European porcelain provide inspiration. Geographically the colours, tones and light of the Australian landscape have influenced potters. The vibrancy and diversity of Australia’s multi culturalism has also informed practice. Particularly on the tabletop. Eor example the cuisine influences and ingredients of Pac-Rim, Oz-Asia have expanded our tastes and altered our dining styles. And studio pottery has benefited from this practical acclimatization of taste.
Where once to work in porcelain meant to pay fairly strict homage to what was fashionably accepted as a picaresque oriental work regime—centered on the image of the venerable master presiding over a series of ever more humble and earnest acolytes, all bent, literally to the task of learning by producing mountains of anonymous pots. Up-lifted now and then by a piece from the kiln that took the breath away and brought with it a sprinkling of Zen illumination to a system of self abnegation and obedience.
Today’s better studio potter still finds the uplift but no longer relies on fictive notions of imported Zen hegemony or the cultural constructs of an archaic apprenticeship system. It took some determination to free porcelain from this thralldom, and for contemporary studio potters the process of finding an authentic voice within the medium continues.