In December, Bonhams will auction a set of five Meissen vases once owned by the legendary Saxon statesman and collector, Count Heinrich von Brühl (1700-63) and which were in the possession of his descendants until 1926. Brühl was a cabinet minister when he was named director of the Meissen porcelain manufactory in 1732 and, as a perk, was able to order and receive porcelain at no cost. He enjoyed this entitlement for the rest of his life and employed it with particular gusto after assuming the position of prime minister of Saxony in 1738.
The inventory made at Brühl's death reveals a kingly amount of Meissen porcelain, including 13 table services, quantities of figures, hundreds of snuff boxes, a toilette service, clocks, and several kaminaufsätzen or garnitures of vases for display on mantelpieces and tabletops. Each set consisted of seven vases. The two end vases belonging to the set on offer were apparently separated from the central five between 1763 and 1926 (one of which is now in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague). The sets were marked in underglaze blue with the 'AR' cypher (Augustus Rex) of the two Saxon electors, August II (1670-1733) and his son August III (1696-1763), who were elected kings of Poland. It is likely that the Brühl garniture started life as a royal commission for August II's Japanese Palace, coming into the count's possession after the king's death, as a royal gift.
August II, often called Augustus the Strong, is well remembered as the Catholic king with a maladie de porcelaine – an obsession with porcelain that amounted to a sickness – who amassed a collection of more than 20,000 pieces of Asian ceramics while engaged in the founding of his own porcelain industry at Meissen.
Fuelled by Grand Tour memories of the magnificence of Louis XIV's Versailles, he worked with great ambition, if insufficient funds, to modernise his capital on the Elbe and elevate the status of his court. New palaces were envisioned for sites in and around Dresden, and the king spent lavishly on artworks, goldsmiths' work and ceremonial equipment, besides poaching fresh talent from other European courts.
One of the few building projects to be realised by the king was the purchase of his 'porcelain palace' (the so-called Japanese Palace), where his unparalleled collection of Japanese and Chinese ceramics was exhibited from around 1717. Ten years later, the palace was expanded and reconstructed in order to showcase the products of the Meissen manufactory and serve as a monument to the king. A pleasure palace, its design mimicked a modern royal residence, with state apartments arranged en enfilade around a central courtyard. Thousands of pieces of Meissen porcelain were ordered to furnish the rooms, including garnitures of vases, table services and tea wares, which were not meant for use, but for display on the walls in symmetrical arrangements, like porcelain tapestries. Plans indicate that each room would have featured Meissen porcelain of a different colour or decorative style, with pieces in the 'indianische', or Asian, style designated for the Long Gallery ending in the Throne Room. The true Asian originals, and the by now old-fashioned chinoiserie wall-coverings and furnishings from the original porcelain pavilion, would have been reinstalled in the ground floor rooms, so visitors could witness the contrast between East and West, old and new, as they progressed to the state apartments.
The building was a shell, its porcelains and furnishings in storage, when the king died suddenly in February 1733. His son, August III, continued the project until 1738, out of respect rather than interest. Any Japanese Palace pieces completed during this time were delivered but went into storage in the cellar, together with the Asian porcelains, until the late 19th century. Rather quickly, however, several Meissen garnitures were reconsidered and redeployed as diplomatic gifts and, perhaps, as gifts for the new prime minister.
Brühl acquired a taste for porcelain and fine art in service to Augustus III. Representing the monarch in matters of state, he entertained (and dressed) royally, in residences furnished with art and Meissen porcelain. Best remembered as the man behind the famous 'Swan Service' (which eventually numbered more than two thousand pieces), he was, in essence, the Meissen manufactory's most influential and acquisitive client, accepting porcelain worth more than 100,000 thalers at no cost between 1732 and his death in 1763. The art and ministerial trappings did not come free, however, and his extravagant expenditures led to debts that forced his heirs to sell everything of value, except the porcelain. The great paintings and the print collection went to Catherine the Great, the French silver went back to France, and the library was acquired by the state. It could be that the porcelain tablewares and vases, with family history but no intrinsic value, were exempted from the sale. And so this set of vases remained in the family's possession until 1926, with its royal pedigree unrecognised until now.
Maureen Cassidy-Geiger is editor and co-author of Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts, c.1710-63.
To hear the author discuss the vases on film please visit www.bonhams.com/europeanporcelain.
Sale: Fine European Ceramics
New Bond Street
Wednesday 7 December at 10.30am
Enquiries: Sebastian Kuhn
+44 (0) 20 7468 8384