Meissen is a small town in Saxony. So why is its porcelain decorated with scenes of the exotic Orient? Waldemar Januszczak reports
Knowing that the Marouf Collection of early Meissen was coming up for sale at Bonhams, and finding myself salivating at the prospect, I did something the other day which I have not done for decades: I opened up my old schoolbook about the kings and queens of Poland. That will stop the drooling, I reasoned to myself, incorrectly.
The book, a tiny little thing published in Krakow in 1960, was filled with portraits of Poland's rulers, from 960 to 1795, from the first king to the last. The one I wanted to look up was Augustus II, 'August Mocny' as they called him in Poland: Augustus the Strong, who ruled Poland from 1697 to 1733. In his other guise, as Elector of Saxony, Augustus was, of course, the founder of the Meissen porcelain factory – and what I wanted to know was if he really was as bad a Polish king as I remembered. Thus I dug out the little book and reread the angry accusation that ranked him the worst of the lot.
Augustus the Strong – who could apparently snap a horseshoe with his bare hands and toss a fox with a single finger – betrayed Poland, said my schoolbook, corrupted the nobility, denuded the national coffers, cosied up to Russia, and ushered in the country's end. Also mentioned was the founding of the Meissen porcelain factory in 1710.
The way my schoolbook tells it, Poland's worst king was obsessed with matching the Chinese production of porcelain – the most closely guarded secret in the decorative arts. So he arrested a young German alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger, who had claimed he could turn base metals into gold, and locked him up in a cellar in Dresden until Böttger revealed his method. Alas, there was no method. Instead, after many years of house arrest, Böttger cracked the mystery of making porcelain. It's a fabulous story. Every Polish schoolkid of my generation grew up with it. It reflects shockingly on Augustus the Strong. And, amazingly, it is not that far from the truth.
We now know that the real inventor of porcelain was the multi-tasking Saxon scientist Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus, who died in 1708, leaving Böttger to claim the honor. But Augustus the Strong's obsession with 'white gold' is certainly not fictitious. Some of the exquisite pieces of early Meissen Chinoiserie from the Marouf collection, to be offered at Bonhams in December, would once have decorated the shelves of the extraordinary palace in Dresden that Augustus acquired in 1717 specifically to show off the 20,000 pieces of Asian porcelain he had amassed. This wasn't collecting. This was an illness. The French call it "une maladie de porcelaine".
It's contagious as well, across all distances and time zones, because Said and Roswitha Marouf seem also to have caught it. They began collecting only a short while ago, and by the time Meissen's 300th anniversary came around, in 2010, they had already made themselves the guardians of one of the rarest selections of Meissen porcelain
in private hands.
The Marouf collection is focused on the most telling speciality of early Meissen porcelain – Chinoiserie. This 18th century passion for all things Chinese, with a bit of Japanese thrown in, was a Europe-wide affliction that took many forms. In English furniture making, it resulted in some of Thomas Chippendale's most delicate effects.
In porcelain its presence was particularly strong, because Augustus' obsession with cracking the secret of Chinese porcelain had started the Meissen story. Meissen Chinoiserie has a dreamy presence to it because it is, at heart, the realization of a dream. The Orient that we see fidgeting and flickering before us so delightfully in these atmospheric pleasure-pots has never existed outside a kiln. It's a fantasy, a wonderland, somewhere far away and perfect, created from a beautiful Meissen recipe in which tiny fragments of knowledge have been stirred into big dollops of imagination.
The most amusing object in the Marouf sale, the bourdaloue from 1724, sports a parade of giggly imagery around its perimeter that is as authentically Chinese as I am. A bourdaloue is a port-a-loo, a potty – named apparently after a French priest who preached at the court of Louis XIV, and whose sermons were so long and riveting that the ladies of the court could not tear themselves away from their pews for long enough to relieve themselves. So they had their maids bring in a chamber pot that was inserted under the dress. In this posture the ladies of Louis' court combined bodily relief with ecstasy of mind.
The Marouf bourdaloue has a sexy presence. On one of its sides, an old Chinese gentleman with whiskers gropes a dark-haired beauty in an off-the-shoulder slip as she dangles her bare legs in the water. On the other side, a turbaned caliph in a tent forces himself upon a reluctant harem girl, while two boxer dogs prowl the balustrade outside, chewing a meaningful bone. Meanwhile, in the center of the bourdaloue, a particularly unconvincing Chinese Venus admires herself in a mirror, while a monkey washes her feet.
This wonderful watery potty, like all the best work here, was presumed to have been painted by Johann Gregorius Höroldt, the near-legendary Meissen master brought to Dresden from Vienna in 1720. The simple shapes preferred by Meissen in the first Chinoiserie were borrowed from a common Chinese pattern book, and produced uncomplicated surfaces to paint on. I mean no disrespect when I write that there is a cartoonish aspect to the resulting imagery. On the side of a tea-bowl, a clever monkey massages his mistress's neck. On the saucer, a gang of such monkeys splash about in what looks like an ancient Chinese inflatable garden swimming pool.
With their cheeky flicks and dartings, Höroldt's fabulous Chinese imaginings flit from image to image as nimbly as one of his painted dragonflies. This is art which needs to say its piece quickly and lightly. Using this rare and exquisite Meissen porcelain, the European mind is trying to imagine a paradise so ephemeral that any decent gust of wind would blow it away.
Always a delightful Meissen presence, Höroldt is particularly so in the set of eight pieces of teaware from the Half-Figure Service, the rarest and most sought-after decoration in Meissen porcelain, which the Maroufs have somehow managed to gather up. All nine pieces are presented here in one astonishingly tempting lot. With Höroldt's Chinese imaginings, you must always lean in and inspect the details.
What a funny camel. What strange architecture. What enchanting prancing. What mysterious comedy. In authentic Chinese art, you would never see figures presented from the knees up as they appear here, in Höroldt's signature style. The half figure is a borrowing from the European portrait tradition. It has the effect of bringing the figure closer to the front of the image, where you can see it more clearly. Thus, enacted before you, is a magnificent Meissen paradox: as the facts diminish, the clarity increases.
Waldemar Januszczak writes about art for The Sunday Times.
Sale: The Marouf Collection, Part I:
Highly Important 18th century Meissen Porcelain
New Bond Street
Wednesday 5 December at 1.30pm
Enquiries: Sebastian Kuhn +44 (0) 20 7468 8384