material, process, object and influence: an enduring secret

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a brief history of porcelain

(one of many histories that

may be written)

Traditional ceramics such as brick, tile, pipe, whiteware, pottery vessels and decorative items are now joined in a rapidly expanding field of material science, by tooth veneer, hip implant, body armour, nuclear reactor fuel, semiconductor, superconductor, super-magnet, ultrasound probe, jet-engine blade, knife… an extensive yet far from complete list.  Generally ceramics melt at what, in the biosphere, are considered high temperatures, are hard, conduct poorly, are inelastic and chemically resistant.

One ceramic, porcelain originating from China, provides “the first and most extensive physical evidence for sustained cultural encounter on a worldwide scale” (Finlay, 1998).  As Finlay argues, with considerable supporting evidence, Chinese porcelain was for well over a thousand years the most widely admired and imitated product in the world.  Yet, with monopoly over a finished material that couldn’t be recycled, for all this time the secret of production remained local.  The word porcelain derives from Marco Polo’s description of it as porcellana, an Italian slang for the shiny white, smooth cowrie shell, which in turn is said to derive from the shell’s resemblance to pigs’ (porcellini) bellies.

Porcelain emerged from a confluence of geological and cultural factors in China some 1,200 to 2,000 years ago (date depending on exact material definition).  In one limited sense, as a categorisation of a grade of ceramics, porcelain is a Western invention.   Due to incremental evolution of process, the material within China was traditionally viewed as ci, a continuum including what is now called stoneware and porcelain (porcelain now being distinguished by purity of whiteness, potential for translucency, extreme heat of firing and resistance to thermal shock).  Stoneware and porcelain, in contrast to earthenware, maintain their shape at the high temperatures required to fuse components into a non-porous state.  Kaolins and feldspars of low clay and iron content capable of withstanding such temperatures are found in deposits of weathered igneous rock (loess), some 640,000 km2 of which are found in central China.  Indeed this very centrality, the isolation from sea-port and foreign contact, may well have been a major factor in the secret of production remaining local for so long.  High-fired ceramics co-evolved in China together with metallurgy, as the small degree of shrinkage in high fire ceramics made them ideal for casting of bronze weapons and ritual vessels (Barnard, 1976).  The soft loess also facilitated the building of kilns into the earth and hills, allowing high chimneys to be formed, thereby increasing the temperatures that could be obtained (Franklin 1983).

Chinese porcelain heavily influenced nearly all traditions it encountered, in many places displacing existing practice altogether.  In much of South East Asia the vessels became imbued with supernatural powers.  For example, but by no means exceptionally, in Borneo and the Philippines the vessels were named, became clan members, were inherited through generations, talked, chased, became human, animal and/or spirit, healed and foretold (Barbosa, 1992).  Finlay reveals the extensive networks through which porcelain became the principle material by which artistic symbols, themes and designs crossed vast distances.  Distant influences, many predating the era of European exploration, in turn altered the nature of Chinese porcelain.  For example, the alluring white translucency of Song era porcelain only partly answered to Middle Eastern needs, where a tradition of colour was already established. Middle Eastern copies used low fire clays covered with opaque white tin glazes, in turn adorned with the blueness of cobalt.  Via Mongol invasions of the early thirteenth century the practice of cobalt adornment reached back into China, such that a major trade shipping cobalt oxide 6000 km from Persia to China became established.  There it became a secured asset known as Muslim Blue (huihui qing) (Medley, 1973).  As Middle Eastern copies of Chinese porcelain reached Europe, European practice was in turn substantially affected, and wholesale change from the browns of simple earthenware to white grounds overlaid with colour occurred.  Yet outside China the base material remained low-fire, porous, heavy earthenware (e.g. maiolica, faience, Delftware) or glass-based materials such as Medici-porcelain that were soft and not resistant to thermal shock (Zumbulyadis, 2010).  The demand for porcelain was such that, as Finlay states, the centre of Chinese production, Jingdezhen, was by the sixteenth century “the largest industrial operation in the world, with over 1000 kilns, 70,000 workers and a production process that anticipated modern methods of assembly line manufacture”.

Routes opened by Vasco de Gama, Marco Polo and others eventually led to direct European exposure to Chinese porcelain.  With a population of some 100 million in 1700, Europe became an important market. Margaret Visser (1991) describes how at the centre of the noble table, songbirds and sweetmeats gave way to prancing porcelain figurines, Lilliputian models of splendour and privilege.  This “weissener geld” (white gold) was collected by royalty throughout Europe, giving rise to an unrequited lust to acquire, the porcelain sickness “die Porzellankrankheit” as experienced and described by Augustus the Strong (King of Poland 1697-1704 and 1709-1733). Far from unique among European aristocracy, Augustus took extreme measures in acquisition of porcelain—in 1717 he traded 600 soldiers who later formed the Prussian Porcelain regiment for 151 Ming vases—(Walcha, 1991). Expensive and with manufacture out of direct control, porcelain production was of increasing European interest. Theories were whispered that porcelain was made from juices coalesced underground or “eggshells and shells of umbilical fish pounded into dust… then hidden underground.  A hundred years later they are dug up, being considered finished are put up for sale” (La Force, 2015).

Like porcelain, the alchemists’ Philosophers’ Stone—the substance within the earth that transmuted base metals to gold—was a material of secret composition, an Arcanum.  Johann Friedrich Böttger (1692-1719) an alchemist on the run from King Frederick I of Prussia for failing to enrich the state coffers by transmutation of gold, sought refuge with Augustus the Strong.  From the frying pan into the fire, Böttger became an employed prisoner of Augustus near Dresden, initially charged with gold production.  Perhaps fortunately for him he was put under the influence of one of the foremost minds of the time, Ehrenfried Walther van Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), a mathematician who worked with Boyle, Newton, Huygens, and knew Leibniz (Zumbulyadis, 2010).  Among Tschirnhaus’ inventions were “burning lenses”, essentially large lens arrays that focused a wide area of solar energy to a small point, creating extremely high temperatures.  Gradually emphasis appears to have moved from gold production to porcelain, presumably seeking whatever it might take to keep Augustus happy, and porcelain may well have seemed more attainable than discovery of the philosophers’ stone. The exact process by which Böttger, Tschirnhaus and assistants eventually cracked the secret of porcelain production remains contentious. However Zumbulyadis, having uncovered a history written in 1829 by the English printer Simeon Shaw, found a detailed description of the invention.  This suggests that it was in fact specialised triangular Hessian crucibles (clay vessels used to hold material subjected to extreme heat favoured by metallurgists and alchemists worldwide) that were themselves transformed into porcelain at the extreme temperatures reached by the burning lenses, in combination with calcium salts that were commonly used by alchemists in their attempts to create gold.  Under patronage of Augustus, Böttger was able to recreate the process using local clays and refined kilns, and the first European porcelain production was established in Meissen in 1709.

Despite his best efforts, and in contrast to the longstanding Chinese monopoly, Augustus’ hold over this particular Arcanum was fleeting.  Employees fled with secrets, enriching themselves elsewhere, such that porcelain was rapidly manufactured throughout Europe, and indeed a porcelain factory became “an indispensable accompaniment to splendour and magnificence” (Duke Karl Eugen of Wüttemberg quoted in Rawson, 1984).

It won’t have escaped notice that the development of porcelain as material is intimately tied up with metals, from co-evolution of process with Chinese metallurgy of 2000 years ago, to the synonymous white gold and the virtual gold of the search for the Philosophers’ Stone of 300 years ago.  Further, Chinese rulers of the Song dynasty considered that gold tainted food, furthering the use of porcelain, while Koranic tradition didn’t allow use of gold or silver for food or drink, for which elegant Chinese porcelain sufficed (Finlay, 1998).  There’s an intrigue to material relationships that suggest paths for exploration.


Barbosa, Artemio C. (1992) in A Thousand Years of Stoneware Jars in the Philippines. Jar Collectors (Philippines)

Barnard, Noel (1976) Bull. Oriental Ceramic Soc.2: 1-33

Finlay, Robert (1998) J. World His.9: 141-187

Franklin, Ursula Martius (1983) in The Great Bronze Age of China: A Symposiumed. Kuwayama, George. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles

La Force, Thessaly (2015) 29 May 2018)

Medley, Margaret (1973) in The westward influence of the Chinese arts from the 14thto the 18thcentury ed: Watson, William. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art. University of London

Rawson, Phillip (1984) in CeramicsUniversity of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania

Visser, Margaret (1991) in The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners(New York: Grove Press)

Walcha (1991) in Dresdener Kunstammlungen in 18. Jahrhundertsed; Heres, Gerald.  E.A. Seeman, Leipzig.

Zumbulyadis, Nicholas (2010) Bull. Hist. Chem.35: 24-32

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