Of porcelain and men
A story about the beginnings of Meissen porcelain
Once upon a time there were beautiful objects made of translucent, hard substance. Sometimes they were white, sometimes colourful but always very, very expensive as they were rare. They derived their name from an old Italian word ‘porcellana’ meaning cowrie shell but also were called Bone china as they were produced by the Chinese and included some crushed animal bones.
Nowadays you can buy porcelain in many shops around the world. When you look at it from a scientific point of view it is a kind of ceramic made by heating raw materials, generally including clay in the form of kaolin, in a kiln at high temperatures. Complicated a bit but after all nothing special. In the 17th and 18th century in Europe, though, the status of porcelain was totally different. Fine pieces of Bone china were so rare and sought-after that they were called white gold. The Chinese invented the way to produce it long before Europeans, most probably during the Tang Dynasty period (618–906). With lack of fast ways of transport it was imported to Europe at horrendously high cost, often involving the loss of human life.Some monarchs had a thing for porcelain, though – they considered it the very symbol of the highest status, luxury and power. Here comes our second hero – a king who liked porcelain a bit too much. When you come to think of it, he liked good life a bit to much too. I give you His Majesty Elector Frederick Augustus I of Saxony (1694–1733) and King Augustus II of Poland a.k.a. Augustus II the Strong.
He was the second son of Elector John George III, and Anna Sophie, daughter of King Frederick III of Denmark. At the time of Augustus’s birth, his grandfather, John George II, ruled Saxony, Augustus’s father, John George III, was only twenty-three and had already sired Augustus’s elder brother, John George IV. There seemed to be little likelihood that the mew baby boy would ever have to be a monarch. Small wonder little Augustus grew to be a totally spoiled brat – his general disinterest in formal study and an early marked inclination to pursue pleasure hunting, soldiering, and womanizing were apparently tolerated by indulgent parents.
The fate decided to test him as a king, though, after a series of unpredictable deaths. After his grandfather died of plague (1680), his father of apoplexy (1691), and his brother of smallpox (April 1694), Augustus became unexpectedly the heir elector and then, in 1697, he decided to buy himself something larger, better suiting his own royal persona and he managed to become the king of Poland.Unfortunately for the new king, the Polish crown came at a steep price – Augustus had to spend lavishly on votes to ensure his electoral victory. In order to have enough money he pawned his jewels, and sold his rights to the duchy of Lauenburg. Seeing that it wasn’t enough, he levied oppressive taxes upon his Saxon subjects, the majority of whom were Lutheran. As you might guess it wasn’t the most popular move but those days no king asked people their opinion. While the election was costly, Augustus reasonably expected that Catholic Poland, a country twenty times bigger than his native Saxony, would provide lucrative markets for Saxon manufactured goods and was certain that his new title would enhance the status of the Wettin dynasty. From his point of view it was a perfectly wise and logical move. But he was broke. Before we progress let me describe what Augustus was like as a man.
Perhaps it is not so visible in the portrait on the right but he was a tall, strapping fellow, weighing 260 pounds and enjoying every ounce of it, being known as the “Saxon Hercules”. His zest for life and love of hunting, fishing, parties and firework rivaled only his bulk. He was said to have arranged scraps with the biggest and toughest men he could find just to show off his muscles. He was also known to fight bears and bulls. Augustus often rode his horse through Dresden, with the reins in his teeth and carrying two urchins in each hand. I wonder where the said urchins came from and whether they were willing enough. One story tells of his horse throwing a shoe. The village blacksmith made a replacement. Augustus took the horseshoe in his hand and broke it in two to prove his strength. He then tossed the blacksmith a coin to pay for a new one. The blacksmith, not to be outdone, then bent the coin in his hand. Augustus laughed aloud and gave the blacksmith a third coin for the final horseshoe. As you see he was a public relations genius – Augustus didn’t mind paying three times the price, since it made for a good story. I guess common folk simply loved this king, so close to their own idea of a rich, generous, powerful ruler, enjoying their own pleasures.
Augustus was also famous for his amorous adventures and many mistresses. He was said to have a luxurious court full of the most beautiful wanton women. Legends have it that he fathered more than 300 bastards but officially there were only 9 illegitimate children acknowledged by the king himself, all of them having high-born mothers. Count Karl von Pöllnitz published a biography of Augustus the Strong one year after his death, in 1734. He reported that the king had only one official mistress in Saxony (for nine years) and the second in Poland, after becoming the king of Poland. Moderation itself. Of course he couldn’t know about the unofficial ones. Or wouldn’t like to know.
|Aurora von Konigsmarck|
The king was officially married but he openly despised his Lutheran wife who was plain and didn’t want to renounce her faith in order to be crowned as the Queen of Poland. Instead of divorce she was given a palace of her own and asked to stay away. I bet the fact that she grudgingly obliged was a perfect excuse for taking all these lovers. Poor Augustus was so lonely…His favorite mistresses were Countess Cosel and Countess Maria Aurora von Königsmarck . The career and the fall of both women, but especially of Countess Cosel, is a good example of this king’s more cruel nature. When it came to disposing of a lover he wasn’t a gentleman, far from it. One time Countess showed her jealousy towards a daughter of a Warsaw wine merchant, with whom the king was rumored to have had an affair. She fell out of grace immediately. Augustus found another mistress, Countess Maria Magalena von Denoff, of Warsaw. She bore Augustus’ son. Madame Cosel’s spies told her so and she went to Warsaw to win the heart of her royal lover back but she was stopped and ordered to go away at the city gates. She persevered. Finally Augustus locked her up in a fortress until she died in 1765. She was imprisoned for forty-nine years even though Augustus himself died in 1733 and she pleaded for clemency time and again. Apparently the orders of the spiteful king were respected even after his death. Imagine how mean he sometimes must have been and how full of himself. There were rumours she dared to blackmail the king with a signed promise of marriage.
Another mistress was a Mademoiselle Dieskau, a strikingly beautiful girl. She had platinum blonde hair, blue eyes, fresh rose-petal skin, exactly like one of those little sweet porcelain shepherdesses. She was a virgin so Augustus II had to pay her mother a huge sum of money to have her in his bed. Well, he never spared money if he wanted pleasure. However he grew tired of the purchased girl very quickly, claiming that she was too “lifeless”, and sent her back. I haven’t found what happened to her afterwards but such a behaviour shows clearly how Augustus treated people who somehow stopped being useful to him. Like a porcelain figurine broken beyond repair.
It’s high time we introduced the third hero and returned to porcelain. You might risk a statement that if the king hadn’t been broke after purchasing the Polish crown and if he hadn’t been so fond of jewellery, the Meissen porcelain manufacture would have never existed. Around 1700, an apprentice chemist with the pharmacist Zorn in Berlin, Johann Friedrich Böttger, claimed to discover in private the “Alltinktur”, a substance with which any disease could be cured and base metals converted into gold. His activities did not stay secret for long and soon he was regarded as an adept in alchemy. It seems that in his native Prussia, in the court of Freidrich Wilhelm I, people soon found out that he was just a braggart. Johann fled to Saxony where he was captured by Augustus II.
Poor lad was taken before Augustus himself and, although he tried to beg himself off, admitting that he couldn’t do as he had boasted, the king, who always needed gold very badly with two kingdoms to rule, didn’t believe him. He took Böttger into his personal “protective custody”. Böttger escaped, but was detained and taken back to Dresden. As you see you can never be too careful with your tongue unless you want to get out of the frying pan into the fire. Let’s remember that the 18-year-old Johann Böttger had committed no crime but still Augustus practically imprisoned him just in case. If gold was to be made, Augustus was taking no chances – he was determined to keep the secret and guard it like a big, bad greedy dragon.
Böttger was to work with Walther von Tschirnhaus, a scholar and chemist. Presumably by involving Böttger in his experiments, von Tshirnhaus spared him the fate that overtook former alchemist adventurers. Maybe he also noticed that Böttger, although mendacious, was talented nevertheless.. Böttger refused any cooperation till September 1707. He did not want to be involved with porcelain which he thought was von Tschirnhaus’ business. Only when ordered by the king, Böttger started to cooperate. The king could be really nasty to people he didn’t need anymore, even if they were his own mistresses so there was no other option I suppose. Under von Tschirnhaus’ supervision and with the assistance of miners and metal workers from Freiberg, they conducted experiments with different clays. After many years of work, both men ended up making first a porcelain-like pottery and then the real white porcelain.Tschirnhaus died at Dresden, in October 1708, from dysentery. Böttger had to continue the research on his own.
In 1708, a practical formula was produced and production began in the Dresden laboratories in 1709. The first pieces, red in colour and known as Böttger stoneware, went on sale at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1710. It was a rare event. Augustus finished building a royal porcelain factory in Meissen in June the same year and the operation was transferred there.. By 1713, however, Meissen was producing delicate white porcelain and coloured glazes followed within the next few years. Augustus never made money from the factory as he bought most of the best pieces to add to his own collection and he never let sell the pieces produced in Meissen during his life.
Böttger, so unwilling at first, now was passionately proud of his creations. Yet he directed the Meissen factory from confinement in Dresden. He had the luxury of a free house in the fortress, but he couldn’t leave it unguarded. Augustus, a really tyrannical employer, remained resentful that he had been given porcelain rather than gold, finally released Böttger in 1714 but without the right of leaving Dresden. The prison just got larger and it was considered a favour. I just hope the man was proud of his achievement.
In 1719, Johann Friedrick Bottger, still in his early thirties, became extremely ill and died prematurely. Despite being quite young he looked like a man twice his age. The prolonged exposure to dangerous, corrosive substances undoubtedly deteriorated his health. You might say his death was a side effect of certain king’s porcelain addiction.