European Porcelain: History and Evolution

Nazia Safi
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The production of ceramics goes back thousands of years. However, the art of decorating ceramics, particularly porcelain, originated in China approximately 1,000 years ago. During the Song dynasty, Chinese emperors established porcelain factories. Chinese porcelain began appearing in Europe as early as the 1100s, but it was rare and expensive. By the 15th century, Europeans were obsessed with Chinese porcelain. The demand kept on growing, so they started producing their own. Soon, European porcelain ruled the world’s market.

This month, Bonhams will offer European porcelain spanning five centuries in its 500 Years of European Ceramics sale. Learn more about European porcelain before the bidding begins.

A Meissen coffee and tea service, circa 1755-60. Image from Bonhams.
A Meissen coffee and tea service, circa 1755-60. Image from Bonhams.

Early Developments & Soft-Paste Porcelain

Following the strong demand, Europeans tried to imitate Chinese porcelain. The first breakthrough in porcelain production came in Florence under Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The low-fired porcelain became known as soft-paste porcelain or Medici porcelain and was produced from 1575 to 1587. Several other early experiments tried to imitate high-value Chinese hard-paste porcelain. Among them was the soft-paste frit porcelain, produced at the Rouen factory in France in 1673. However, the factory was mostly unsuccessful in gaining profits.

The first successful attempt to manufacture a commercially viable soft-paste porcelain was in the 1680s at Saint-Cloud, outside Paris. The Saint-Cloud factory typically produced blue-painted porcelain with a yellowish or ivory tone. In the late 17th century, the porcelain industry settled in French cities like Mennecy and Chantilly.

A tin-glazed earthenware piece from the 1540s will lead the upcoming Bonhams sale (lot #1, estimate: USD 4,100 – $6,900). It comes from Deruta on the Tiber River, near Perugia, Italy. The tazza features a side bust of a woman against a shaded blue background. The rim is yellow, followed by red and yellow-striped bands and a ring of blue lines.

An Italian Majolica Tazza, probably Deruta, circa 1540. Image from Bonhams.
An Italian Majolica Tazza, probably Deruta, circa 1540. Image from Bonhams.

Discovery of Hard-Paste Porcelain & Birth of Meissen Porcelain Manufactory

Even though Europeans were manufacturing their own porcelain, the products were of poor quality compared to Chinese wares. However, chemist and physicist Von Tschirnhauser and the alchemist Johann Bottger succeeded in making hard-paste porcelain in 1708. The discovery resulted in the foundation of the Meissen porcelain manufactory in 1710 by Augustus II, King of Poland. It marked the beginning of ‘true’ porcelain production in Europe. Among its many innovations, Meissen gets credit for introducing porcelain figurines.

Augustus II of Saxony was the first European king to produce his own ‘true’ porcelain. Soon, he started selling it to the royal families and aristocracy of Europe. For almost a decade, the formula for hard-paste porcelain remained guarded within the walls of the Albrechtsburg Castle. However, after the technology became known in the mid-18th century, porcelain factories started to spring up around Europe.

Coming to auction with Bonhams is set of 21 Meissen Cris de Paris figures from 1755 (lot #38, estimate: $83,000 – $110,000). Made by Peter Reinicke, the set includes a peasant, spirits seller, pipe and drum player, oyster seller, violinist, vegetable seller, chef, and others. The figures bear shades of red, violet, yellow, green, and blue.

A set of 21 Meissen 'Cris de Paris' figures, circa 1755. Image from Bonhams.
A set of 21 Meissen ‘Cris de Paris’ figures, circa 1755. Image from Bonhams.

Competitive Beginnings

The German Meissen porcelain manufactory faced intense competition from French soft-paste porcelain factories at Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, and Vincennes. The Vincennes factory soon got the status of Manufacture Royale, its customers being King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. By the mid-1700s, the Vincennes premises were too cramped. Louis XV set up a new factory to create his own royal porcelain at Sèvres near the outskirts of Paris. By the late 1700s, Limoges produced countless porcelain blanks and shipped them to Sèvres for glazing.

While the initial Sèvres pieces bore a strong resemblance to Meissen pieces, the factory was quick to distance itself from its German competitor. By the 1750s, it had developed unique forms and decorations. Soon, Sèvres became a popular factory known for its commission of royal and diplomatic gifts and for direct purchases by royal families and the aristocracy.

The upcoming European porcelain event will present several Sèvres pieces, including a 12-plate set from the Service du Dessert Marly Rouge made for Napoleon in 1809. The plates were a gift from Napoleon to the Italian diplomat Ferdinando Marescalchi (lot #210, estimate: $140,000 – $210,000). Each plate features a unique butterfly and floral wreath in the center against a pale blue background. The edge of each plate has gilt followed by alternating red and gilt borders.

Twelve Sèvres plates from the 'Service De Dessert Marly Rouge' for the Emperor Napoleon, circa 1809. Image from Bonhams.
Twelve Sèvres plates from the ‘Service De Dessert Marly Rouge’ for the Emperor Napoleon, circa 1809. Image from Bonhams.

Artistic and Technical Innovations

By the turn of the 19th century, European porcelain saw developments in both artistic and technical directions. Manufacturers began to experiment with new glazing techniques, colors mimicking hardstones, and complex forms. European porcelain has since gone through various trends and transformations, from Victorian patterns to modern-day styles. 

Bonhams’ 500 Years of European Ceramics sale begins on July 6th, 2021, at 9:00 AM EDT. Register to bid and view each of the lots on Bonhams’ website.

Want to learn more about antique items crossing the auction block? Auction Daily recently looked at traditional Japanese art ahead of a dedicated Bonhams sale.

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