Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cecil Higgins and the Philosophers Stone

Many years ago in a land called Prussia there lived a young man who, it was said, had discovered the legendary Philosophers Stone and with it could turn metal into gold. Word spread amongst the land of this extraordinary power until it reached the ear of the King who summoned the young man to his court. The night before the meeting, as the King dreamed of untold riches, the young man trembled with fear as he hadn’t really any powers at all. He had tricked his friends by slight of hand and though he had asked them to keep his alleged power a secret they had been so excited that they had not been able to keep it to themselves. He could not face the King with his lies, so he fled under cover of darkness to the neighbouring land of Saxony where he hid.

When the young man did not arrive at the Prussian King’s court he sent out soldiers to find him, and offered a huge reward of for his capture. Tales of the young man's powers had already spread beyond the borders of Prussia and it wasn’t long till Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, had heard of the young man hiding in his lands. Augustus wanted the young man's power for himself, so locked him away in a castle in the city of Dresden until he could make him piles of gold. If the young man told the truth he would surely face his death, so instead he continued his lie. For three long years he toiled in his castle prison trying to turn metal into gold, and every time the King asked if he had finished he would lie and say ‘not long now’.

Finally, the King had had enough and demanded that his prisoner set a definite date when the gold would be made. The young man promised that in sixteen weeks he would be able to produce gold and in the eight days following those weeks he would produce two tonnes of gold for the King. Sixteen weeks and eight days came and went and the King, realising that no gold could be made, planned to execute the young man for his lies. However, his wise advisors intervened and told the King that he would look a fool for all the money and time he had spent waiting, and instead suggested the young man be set another task.

As you read this you may be thinking what has this story to do with Cecil Higgins? Well, the young man's name was Johann Friedrich Böttger, and the second task that the King set him was not to produce gold but something far more delicate…. porcelain. There is some debate as to whether it was Böttger who can be fully credited with making porcelain, or the court official and scientist in charge of the project Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhausen. In 1707, a year after Böttger was spared death, the two men succeeded in producing a red stoneware with similar properties to porcelain.

On the strength of this discovery Augustus the Strong set up a factory in Meissen. Early shapes were made by moulding or casting from Chinese originals with either no decoration or simple reliefs of sprays of plum blossom.

Teapot made from red porcelain moulded with plum blossom, about 1710 - 1713, Meissen

The teapot above, bought by Cecil Higgins in 1934 from one of his favourite dealers Hyam & Co, is an example of these early wares. It is dated about 1710 and is very similar in design to Chinese originals, such as this one in the V&A collection. These red wares described by the factory as 'red porcelain' or where only produced until 1713 by which time Böttger's second invention, white porcelain, became the standard porcelain produced.

In 1715 Böttger was finally granted his freedom, but the years of imprisonment had taken its toll on his health and he died four years later at the age of 37. Despite the fact he had never managed to make gold from metal, his porcelain was the finest in Europe. The factory he ran went from strength to strength producing the most inventive and beautiful works in Europe for many years to come. As for Augustus the Strong, although he never got his magical gold, he made plenty of real money from Böttger’s invention and his name will forever be remembered as the owner of the first European porcelain factory.

Victoria Partridge
Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant story-telling!
    I went to the Meissen factory in Dresden in 1990. Amazing works of art and intricate flowers etc. A bit fussy for my taste but the Zwinger building was interesting and the early works like this teapot are rather elegant.