What makes porcelain so special?
For many centuries, porcelain was a desirable and expensive product outside fabulous China. Up to 1600 Chinese porcelain reached Europe incidentally as a rarity, but after that the floodgates opened. Around 1708, the German alchemist Böttger deciphered the porcelain mystery during his search for the Philosopher’s Stone. His discovery heralded the start of European porcelain centres.
Porcelain or Tz’u has possibly been made from pure clay ever since the days of the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Kao-lin or China clay comes from the ‘high mountain’ Gaoling east of Jǐngdézhèn in Jiāngxī and is granite sediment. A part of kaolin is mixed with a part of quartz and a part of petuntse or felspar. Petuntse or ‘China stone’ refers to the pai-tun-tzu or the white tiles, the form in which it is transported.
But what does the average man on the street know about porcelain or glazing, even today? Ceramic glazing means a bit of colour, a surface that feels nice and which is easy to wipe. Yet glazing is the ‘icing on the cake’. The first porcelain captivated Europeans because of the transparent earthenware, decorations that were often blue and the miraculous shine of the glaze.
Average citizens did not see too much of it then. Novelties disappeared into the display cabinets and collections of noblemen and monarchs. Used at the table, porcelain provided the nifty benefit of showing up poison in food. The rest of the population bought majolica earthenware. On the beautiful side, majolica has colourful motifs on tin glazing under a transparent lead glaze that covers the object. It is beautiful on the table, easy to wash, but fairly rough nevertheless.
Glazing is not essential for porcelain. The thin earthenware sinters enough to be waterproof, but glazing protects against dirt and provides shine. Was it the shine that made the discoverer Marco Polo (1254-1324) think of the name porcellan? After 24 years of travel and discoveries, Polo returned to Venice, the city where he was born, around 1295. The people of Venice call a sea slug shell ‘Cypraeidae’ a Porcella or pig (Porca), because of its mother-of-pearl shine. Did Marco talk about ‘porcellana’ from China in the Il Milione because of that likeness? In that Book of wonders Rustichello of Pisa describes Marco’s peregrinations around 1298. But did he visit China?
Either way, there is no doubt about the battle of Saint Helena. After three days, the Portuguese merchant ship San Jago surrendered to Langebark and Zeelandia of De Verenigde Zeeuwse Compagnie on 14 March 1602. The spoils included plenty of Chinese blue and white 'kraak’ porcelain that was auctioned in Middelburg and raised a fortune. This pirated porcelain was intended for Francesco Carletti. This Florentine man wanted to see his money and instigated court cases for many years. Solicitor Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was involved, and it inspired him to write his De iure praedae (On the law of spoils).
As an ‘export’ product Chinese blue and white 'kraak’ porcelain is of a lesser quality than the porcelain for WanLi (1563-1620), one of the last Ming emperors. But if you don’t know, you don’t care and the Chinese blue and white porcelain became a sensation overnight. ‘Kraak’ porcelain has nothing to do with the equivalent ‘cracking’. The Dutch word kraakporselein, is a derivation of Kraken as a reference to the Portuguese Nao, merchant vessels with Spanish/Portuguese names such as Carreira da India, Caraques or Caracca. 'Kraeckgoet' mainly refers to bowls and plates.
It didn’t take long before majolica potters attempted to produce kraeckgoet by covering earthenware with expensive tin glazing on all sides. This porcelain ‘look’ obscured the red, brown, yellow-red or yellow-grey ‘ruuw goed’ or biscuit. The tin-powder layer was painted with black-coloured cobalt oxide. After firing, lead glazing produced a transparent layer over the now shiny cobalt blue on an opaque white background. Did the newfangled Hollants Porceleyn-bakkers really believe they could make porceleyn, despite the fact that they didn’t know its composition?
According to a deed from 1625, the Amsterdam citizen Willem Jansz Verstraeten (c. 1594-1656) invented “the art and science of making faience”. Willem learned the trade in the Delftware factory ‘De Porceleyne Schotel’ in Delft. Together with its owners he applied for a patent on making ‘Hollands Porceleyn’, which they probably did not get. So in 1625 Willem started his own ‘Geleyer Plateelbackerije’ in Haarlem. With 40 to 50 workers, he made ‘geleywerk’ or majolica and sparsely decorated ‘Hollands Porceleyn’.
His son Gerrit (1622-1657) acquired the family business in 1642 and produced Hollands Porceleyn with copious decorations. Willem started a new geleybakkerij. On 15 April 1642, they recorded a division of labour, but this was followed by family feuds and court cases about breach of contract. The son had a storage ship of his dad broken open, and surprise…surprise…Willem repaid the compliment. In 1651 the Hof van Holland ruled that only Gerrit could produce ‘porceleyn’.
Just like Gerrit, many Delftware painters happily continued copying the porcelain decorations whose meaning escaped everyone. Because of the demand for ‘Chinese curio’ any suggestion of something oriental would do. In their turn, the 17th-century ceramics centres in Japan and China also copied to their hearts’ content. The five chosen museum vases speak volumes - two Japanese and two Chinese vases are made of porcelain; one is of Delft Faience.
Around 1701, the chemist's assistant Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) told the whole of Berlin that he could make gold. Not smart, because King Frederick I in Prussia liked the sound of that and put a price on the head of Böttger. However Johann obtained protection from the Elector Friedrich August I, the Strong, of Saxony (1670-1733) in Wittenberg, but was then locked up in a laboratory in Dresden. In 1602 Böttger met Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708). Ehrenfried was tracking the porcelain mystery for August and even visited Delft. In 1701 he saw the red stoneware a la Yíxīng by Ary de Milde.
In 1703 Böttger escaped, because he could not get to grips with making gold with the Philosopher’s Stone. August had him intercepted and locked up again. Back in Dresden Ehrenfried and Johann tested a number of clay types and firing temperatures by means of burning glass. At the end of 1707, Böttger and Von Tschirnhaus launched their ‘Chinese’ red-brown Böttgersteingzeug.
Did these gentlemen, who were so busy unravelling the arcanum, know that they bumped into kaolin in Colditz near Meißen? Was it by accident? On 15 January 1708 some porcelain tests succeeded. After the death of Ehrenfried, Böttger claimed the ‘discovery’ by presenting white porcelain on 28 March 1709. In 1710 he became Director of the Königlich-Polnische und Kurfürstlich-Sächsische Porzellanmanufaktur in Albrechtsburg. It was only in 1714 that Böttger became a 'free' man within the boundaries of Saxony. August finally got his sought-after gold by means of the Meissener porcelain.
During the ‘reactions’ the crystalline glazing is a sparkling addition to the porcelain ‘histoire’.
Quoting a source would go too far in this instance. The above is a résumé of many sources that often contradict each other. Ronald E. Brouwer Erfgoed Delft en omstreken. Department Public: Presentation & Education