We learn a lot about a nation by examining what they treasure. This thought came to mind when I was listening to Sebastian Kuhn and Nette Megens of the ceramic department give an off-the-cuff talk about Meissen porcelain and why, in the 18th century, this humble substance was regarded as 'white gold'. For Augustus the Strong, the ruler of Saxony, and sufferer of 'la maladie de porcelaine', it was not just a collection – his Palace of Porcelain was tangible proof that his only equal on earth was the Emperor of China, who had a similarly extensive array.
In this issue, to mark the sale of the Marouf Collection of Meissen, Waldemar Januszczak, who was equally enthralled by the ceramic department's lecture, looks at the passion for decorating porcelain in a Chinoiserie style.Emperors, whichever side of the globe they are on, usually exercise their right to obtain the finest. Still, when I read Carol Michaelson's article about jade, I couldn't help being struck that by the time he died, the Qianlong Emperor had 30,000 pieces of jade. It helped no doubt that he demanded for every piece of jade unearthed in the Chinese empire to be presented to him for first refusal. That's an obsession.
The English, as other nations have often observed, are different. While Augustus was collecting his porcelain, the milords on the Grand Tour were flocking to Venice and bringing back vedute – scenic views of La Serenissima – to hang in their damp stately homes. As John Julius Norwich points out, this trade in paintings was one of the ways in which Venice turned itself from 'treasure house to pleasure house'. Perhaps we'll say the same about the rest of Europe in 50 years time?
Enjoy the issue.