Fragile identities: eighteenth-century British portraits in porcelain


The European mastery of a true hard-paste porcelain technology in Dresden in 1708 was a major scientific, technical and cultural achievement.1For an account of the origins of porcelain technology in Saxony, see Christina Nelson & Letitia Roberts, A History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain: The Warda Stevens Stout Collection, Hudson Hills Press, Manchester VT, 2013, pp. 117–83. The new material possessed enormous symbolic significance and assumed a vital representational role, first at the Saxon court, and soon at the many other princely courts whose rulers sponsored porcelain factories.2On the major role porcelain played in the diplomacy of the Saxon court, see Maureen Cassidy-Geiger (ed.), Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts c. 1710–63, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007. From the outset, some of the finest artists of the day turned their attention to this new material and explored its sculptural potential. Porcelain figures, with their origins in the tradition of Baroque cabinet sculpture, quickly became an important part of the culture of theatrical display by which eighteenth-century princes enhanced their glory and projected their authority. The subjects of porcelain sculpture encompassed every aspect of court culture, from representations of the various echelons of the absolutist social order to theatrical characters, allegories, mythological figures, political memorials and religious subjects. But by the mid eighteenth century in England, porcelain factories had been established on a purely commercial basis, without the support of princely subventions. The repertoire of sculptural subjects explored by these factories was distinguished by the wholly new genre of portrait figures of personalities from the public sphere, including politicians and stage actors. These portrait figures highlight the beginning of a shift in the signification of the porcelain medium, away from the representational role it enjoyed in the context of Baroque court culture – where its alchemical associations enabled it to function as a metaphor for princely power – to its commodification and de-enchantment in the pre-industrial capitalist marketplace.

Official portraiture was an important part of the production of court porcelain manufactories from very early in their existence. The Meissen factory, Europe’s first hard-paste porcelain manufactory, produced a number of portraits of the factory’s founder Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and of his successor Augustus III. Meissen porcelain was a Saxon triumph and therefore the perfect medium in which to execute official images that proclaimed the glory of the Saxon Electors and their reigns. Indeed, a small-scale portrait figure of Augustus the Strong dressed in classicising armour resembling the coronation regalia of a King of Poland was modelled by court sculptor Johann Joachim Kretzschmar, a student of Balthasar Permoser, perhaps as early as 1713. It is not only the first portrait to be produced in European porcelain, but is also the first independent European sculptural invention executed in the new porcelain medium.3Ernst Zimmermann, Die Erfindung und Frühzeit des Meissner Porzellans; ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Keramik, Georg Reimer, Berlin, 1908, p. 236; Ingelore Menzhausen, Meißen, Frühzeit und Gegenwart. Johann Friedrich Böttger zu Ehren, VEB Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen, Meissen, 1981, p. 110. A further image of the king, around 24 cm in height, was modelled by Johann Christoph Ludwig Lücke, of the noted dynasty of ivory carvers, in 1728.4Ingelore Menzhausen, In Porzellan verzaubert: die Figuren Johann Joachim Kändlers in Meißen aus der Sammlung Pauls-Eisenbeiss, Basel, Wiese Verlag, Basel, 1993, p. 84. A 1737 depiction of Augustus III in classical armour, standing nearly 45 cm in height, is the first of a series of increasingly monumental portraits of the Saxon ruler that includes a 1741 depiction of the King-Elector in Polish costume, almost a metre in height, after the 1737 portrait by Louis de Silvestre.5Portrait figure of Augustus III in Polish costume, modelled by Johann Joachim Kändler, Johann Friedrich Eberlein and Johann Gottlieb Ehder, 1741–2, Porzellansammlung Dresden, PE 470. A further example is to be found in the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, see Saint Louis Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 2004, p. 171. The series culminates in the imposing equestrian portrait of Augustus III of 1753 – itself a preliminary study for an unrealised life-sized porcelain sculpture by Johann Joachim Kändler – preserved today in the Porzellansammlung in Dresden.6Equestrian portrait of Augustus III by Kändler, 1753, Porzellansammlung Dresden, PE 2528. Only the head of the life-size sculptural project was finished before the outbreak of the Seven Years War: Peter Braun, Form Vollendet: Johann Joachim Kaendler als Modellmeister der Meissener Porzellan-Manufaktur, Meissen Manuscript 18, Meissen, Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, 2006 (cited in Cassidy Geiger, 2007, p. 23, n. 62). On this series of portraits of Augustus III, see Ulrich Pietsch, Die figürliche Meißner Porzellanplastik von Gottlieb Kirchner und Johann Joachim Kaendler, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2006, pp. 10, 14–16. Between 1744 and 1746 Meissen also produced an important series of large-scale portrait busts of the Hapsburg rulers modelled by Kändler and Reinicke. These were ordered by Maria Josepha, wife of Augustus III and eldest daughter of the Emperor Joseph I, and served to underline the dynastic ties between the houses of Wettin and Hapsburg.7See Ulrich Pietsch and Claudia Banz, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie 1710–1815, Seemann Verlag, Leipzig, 2010, pp. 337–8.

Other European state factories imitated this practice initiated at Meissen, producing portrait images which exploited porcelain’s symbolic associations to project the power and dignity of the sitters, both rulers themselves and high-ranking members of their courts. In the founding decree of the Ludwigsburg factory, Herzog Carl Eugen von Württemberg, of whom the factory produced at least two porcelain portrait busts, famously declared that command of a porcelain factory was, for a prince of his rank, a ‘notwendiges Attribut des Glanzes und der Würde’ – an essential attribute of splendour and dignity.8Quoted in Philip Rawson, Ceramics, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1989, p. 64. For portraits of Carl Eugen, see Hans Dieter Flach, Ludwigsburger Porzellan. Fayence, Steingut, Kacheln, Fliesen: Ein Handbuch, Arnoldsche Verlag, Stuttgart, 1997, pp. 541–2. Of the German factories, Fürstenberg, founded in 1747 by Herzog Karl I von Braunschweig, produced perhaps the most impressive series of portrait images – around 140 busts in various sizes – including portraits of the reigning dukes and their families, as well as leading figures of German and European letters.9Beatrix Freifrau von Wolff Metternich & Manfred Mainz, Die Porzellanmanufaktur Fürstenberg, vols. 1 & 2, Prestel, Munich, Berlin, London and New York, 2004. The production of state portraiture continued among German court manufactories into the latter decades of the eighteenth century. An accomplished example of this is to be seen in a c. 1765–70 portrait plaque of Prince Johann Friedrich von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt after a painting by the Thuringian artist Johann Ernst Heinsius, who was founder of the Volkstedt porcelain factory. It is part of a series of dynastic portraits in porcelain by an unknown modeller produced by the factory.10Volkstedter Porzellan 1760-1800, Beiträge zur schwarzburgischen Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte, Band 8, Thüringer Landesmuseum Heidecksburg Rudolstadt, 1999, pp. 88–91. In France too, the Manufacture Royale de Sèvres and its predecessor, the Vincennes factory, both manufactories intimately associated with the French crown, produced portrait images of Louis XV, Louis XVI and other members of the French court, as well images of other crowned heads of Europe.11Aileen Dawson, ‘Les portraits’, in La Manufacture des Lumières. La Sculpture à Sèvres de Louis XV à la révolution, Editions Faton, Dijon, 2015, pp. 225–49.

The world of the theatre was reflected in European porcelain sculpture from the outset, and theatre portraits were produced in porcelain along with those of the rulers and courts. Baroque court culture was itself a sophisticated form of theatre and theatrical entertainment was a vital part of court life.12See Andrea Sommer-Mathis, Daniela Franke & Rudi Risatti, Spettacolo Barocco: Triumph des Theaters, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2016. Amongst the earliest sculptural production at the Meissen factory are images of characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, an art form that was enormously popular at the Saxon court, both as entertainment and as a source of costumes for the masquerades which were a common feature of Saxon court life.13See Claudia Schnitzer & Petra Hölscher, Eine gute Figur machen: Kostüm und Fest am Dresdner Hof, Kupferstich-Kabinett Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Verlag der Kunst, Dresden, 2000. An important early large-scale sculptural work by the Meissen factory, commissioned for the Japanese Palace in Dresden, is a 1739 portrait bust by Kändler of Johann Gottfried Tuscheer, otherwise known as Baron Schmiedel, court jester to Augustus III; this forms one of a series of portrait sculptures of Schmiedel executed in Meissen during the 1730s.14An example of the 1739 Schmiedel bust is to be found in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, H5127. On the Schmiedel portraits, see Pietsch, Meißner Porzellanplastik, pp. 11–13. Portraiture reflecting the world of the contemporary stage was also produced at Meissen. A pair of opera singers modelled by Johann Joachim Kändler in 1750 are in all probability portraits of prima donna Faustina Hasse Bordoni in the role of ‘Attilia’, and castrato Domenico Annibali as ‘Attilio Regolo’ in the eponymous opera by court composer, and husband of Faustina, Johann Adolph Hasse.15Ingelore Menzhausen, In Porzellan verzaubert: die Figuren Johann Joachim Kändlers in Meißen aus der Sammlung Pauls-Eisenbeiss, Basel, Wiese Verlag, Basel, 1993, p. 121. Under the opera-loving Augustus III (Augustus the Strong’s heir) Dresden became a major European centre for opera with Hasse as one of its leading lights. Attilio Regolo premiered in Dresden on 12 January 1750 and costume designs by Francesco Ponte, now in the Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden, include two designs which most likely are the models for the porcelain figures – the sketch for the male figure’s costume, annotated ‘Regolo Annibali’ on the sheet, is especially close to the porcelain figure.16Huub van der Linden, who displays admirable caution about accepting a number of common identifications of the subjects of Meissen porcelain theatre figures, is perhaps too cautious in his reluctance to ascribe specific identities to the performers represented in this particular pair of figures. Interestingly he does not make reference to the design drawings by Ponte which seem to link the figures to the production of this Hasse opera in Dresden. See Huub van der Linden, ‘Opera and porcelain in eighteenth-century Germany: Hasse, Bordoni, and some Meissen figure groups’, Imago Musicae, vol. 27 (2014/2015), pp. 7–28.

English porcelain sculpture

The porcelain images we have considered to this point are courtly images. Indeed, the majority of sculpture executed in eighteenth-century Meissen porcelain relates, in some fashion, directly to the life of the Saxon court, which is appropriate for a medium which served to symbolise the King-Electors of the Wettin dynasty and their achievements. The production of other court manufactories reflects similar subject matter. It is interesting then to contrast the repertoire of porcelain sculpture produced by these court manufactories with the products of the English porcelain factories of the latter half of the eighteenth century. Although English factories initially copied many of the subjects found in the sculptural productions of the German and French factories which preceded them, a phenomenon particular to English porcelain sculpture in the mid eighteenth century was the production of portrait figures of contemporary personalities. These subjects were more readily associated with the public sphere rather than the world of the court and included popular actors from the London stage in roles for which they were famous at the time, and public figures associated with the politics of the Enlightenment.

Producing porcelain and retaining skilled porcelain artists was costly; most Continental porcelain factories were unable to sustain themselves through commercial operations alone and relied on princely financial patronage to function. Effectively they were court institutions whose output served the interests of the state. The context for the production of porcelain sculpture in England, however, was different. English porcelain factories were entrepreneurial commercial concerns, dependent upon market success for their survival. No English factory of the eighteenth century received court sponsorship and direct aristocratic patronage was also quite limited.17In the early years of the Chelsea factory there was some financial support for the enterprise provided by Sir Everard Fawkener, secretary to William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland. Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, former English ambassador to Saxony, placed a Meissen service gifted to him by Augustus III at the Chelsea factory’s disposal for copying. See Elizabeth Adams, Chelsea Porcelain, British Museum Press, London, 2001, pp. 64–73. The court did commission works of English porcelain, e.g. Queen Charlotte’s commissioning of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz service from the Chelsea factory as a gift for her brother Adolphus Frederick IV, Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but such commissions appear to have been rare and are not the same as direct ongoing financial support of the manufactory’s operations. This reflects the very different political settlement in eighteenth-century Britain, where the powers of the monarchy were constitutionally constrained, and the royal prerogative could only be exercised through laws enacted in parliament. It is telling that only around half a dozen of the twenty-nine or so porcelain factories founded in England in the second half of the eighteenth century survived into the nineteenth century, such were the commercial challenges of porcelain production.18Hilary Young, English Porcelain 1745–1795: Its Makers, Design, Marketing and Consumption, V&A Publications, London, 1999, pp. 197–202. In addition, with a few notable exceptions, the English factories were rarely able to retain sculptors of the calibre working at the best Continental factories.19Exceptions to this rule are figures like the Flemish-trained Joseph Willems at Chelsea and the academicians Agostino Carlini and John Bacon, who all appear to have supplied models to the Derby factory. See Matthew Martin, ‘Joseph Willems’s Chelsea Pietà and eighteenth-century sculptural aesthetics’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. 51, 2013, pp. 21–32; John Mallet, ‘Agostino Carlini, modeller of dry-edge Derby figures?’, in Tom Wolford & Hilary Young (eds), British Ceramic Design 1600–2002, English Ceramic Circle, London, 2003, pp. 42–57. The need to appeal to a broader consumer base than an elite centred around the ruling court meant that a number of English factories moved beyond imitating German and French models – an important part of the early output of many factories who produced allegorical images, Commedia dell’ Arte figures and mythological subjects typical of the Continental manufactories – to explore new, often topical, subject matter possessed of a decidedly English national character in their sculptural production. The Derby Factory, for example, produced – in addition to sculptures depicting the pantheon of English letters, including figures of Shakespeare, Milton,20Peter Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures 1750–1848, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1990, p. 67 Pope and Addison21Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 277–9 – a series of portrait images of sometimes controversial British political figures, including John Wilkes,22Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 271–2 William Pitt the Elder, Charles Pratt23Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 109–10 and the historian and staunch republican Catherine Macaulay.24Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 239–41. On these figures, see Timothy Clifford, ‘Derby porcelain and the British monumental sculpture tradition 1760–1775, Part One’, Derby Porcelain International Society Journal, vol. 5, 2004, pp. 118–32. Images were also produced of contemporary military heroes like Field Marshal Sir Henry Seymour Conway, a supporter of the reformer John Wilkes,25Tony Heathcote, The British Field Marshals 1736–1997: A Biographical Dictionary, Pen & Sword Ltd, Barnsley, 1999, p. 93. Admiral Sir Adam Duncan, Admiral Lord Hood and John Drinkwater.26Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 135–8. These porcelain sculptures stand in marked contrast to many of the courtly subjects that were of paramount interest to the great Continental manufactories, instead reflecting interests and concerns associated with the public sphere. Jürgen Habermas argued that the eighteenth century in Europe saw a shift from a ‘representational’ culture, where one party sought to ‘represent’ itself on its audience by overwhelming its subjects, to a culture characterised by Öffentlichkeit, or the public sphere.27Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger & Frederick Lawrence, Polity, Cambridge, 1989. Habermas suggested that Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles was a prime example of ‘representational’ culture where the power of the king and French State were demonstrated to the spectator through a carefully orchestrated overwhelming of all of the senses. The public sphere, by contrast, was a realm beyond the individual and outside of the control of the state where a free exchange of knowledge and ideas could take place. Newspapers, pamphlets and spaces like the salon, the coffeehouse and the theatre, each in different ways, contributed to the gradual replacement of representational culture by the public sphere. Where representational culture involved an imposition of one party upon a passive other, the public sphere was a critical space, where dialogue dominated and debate about public matters could take place.

The Derby portraits of political personalities are of especial interest in this regard. As Philip Kelleway has suggested, the subjects of these figures were all associated with republican, anti-absolutist political sentiment and critiques of the nature of constitutional monarchy in England of the 1760s and 1770s. Details of the iconography of these figures, including inscriptional references to documents like the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights, emphasise their function as statements of political sentiment, beyond any role they had as likenesses. These political sentiments almost certainly reflected the opinions of William Duesbury I, the proprietor of the Derby factory. Duesbury was a member of the Derby Philosophical Society, an offshoot of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group whose liberal Whig politics reflected a humanitarianism and rationalism associated with the Enlightenment.28Philip Kelleway, ‘Figures of the Enlightenment: Derby porcelain portrait statuettes and republican politics in the 1760’s and 1770’s’, Derby Porcelain International Society Journal, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 135–53. Interestingly, in 1773, Duesbury’s Derby factory produced a series of figure groups in biscuit porcelain depicting George III, Queen Charlotte and their children, probably modelled by John Bacon after Zoffany’s portrait of the royal family in Van Dyck costume of c. 1770.29Jane Roberts (ed), George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, Royal Collection, London, 2004, pp. 30–1, 305–6. The production of such images serves to qualify Duesbury’s political views: not anti-monarchical republicanism as would triumph in Britain’s American colonies, but anti-absolutist republicanism that advocated constitutional monarchy with strictly defined limits on the royal prerogative. And whilst portraits of the monarch were a typical part of the repertory of court-sponsored porcelain factories, the Derby example was a speculative commercial production on Duesbury’s part, not a commission by the ruler himself or his court.30The same is true of the famous large-scale soft-paste porcelain portrait busts of George II modelled by John Cheere and variously attributed to the Bow, Liverpool and Vauxhall factories. These imposing images were not produced at the command of the monarch but rather reflect the political loyalties of the individuals who would have acquired such objects. These images were very much of the public sphere in the context of a constitutional monarchy where the legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession was not undisputed, as the 1745 Jacobite rising by Stuart loyalists demonstrates. On the porcelain busts see J. V. G. Mallet, ‘Some Baroque sources of English ornamental porcelains’, in Fire and Form – The Baroque and its influence on English Ceramics, c. 1660–1760, English Ceramics Circle, London, 2013, pp. 123–46 where the objects are attributed to Vauxhall. For an attribution to Bow see Pat Daniels, The Origin and Development of Bow Porcelain 1730–1747, Resurgat Publishers, Oxon, 2007, pp. 271–8. The political portraits in porcelain executed by Derby can be understood as characteristic of a liberal constitutional order associated with the public sphere, where debate about, and critique of, the political settlement was central. The production of these images as consumer objects and artefacts which could be acquired and displayed by private individuals places them firmly in the realm of a new phenomenon generated by rational-critical political debate: public opinion, something which had no place in the absolutist, representational order.

London theatre portraits

Alongside political portraits, some of the most intriguing of the earliest sculptural subjects executed in porcelain by English factories was a range of portrait figures depicting celebrity actors from the contemporary London stage. A pair of portrait figures, c. 1750, by the Bow factory in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria show the actors Kitty Clive and Henry Woodward in the roles of the Fine Lady and the Fine Gentleman from the 1749 Drury Lane production of David Garrick’s satirical play Lethe. The figure of Clive is based on a 1750 engraving by Charles Mosley after a watercolour by Worlidge, while Woodward is based upon a mezzotint by James MacArdell after a drawing by Francis Hayman.31Raymond Yarbrough, Bow Porcelain and the London Theatre: Vivitur Ingenio, Hancock, MI, Front and Center Publications, 1996, pp. 20–21, 28–31. These figures are the earliest known full-length portrait figures in English porcelain and are exceptionally accomplished essays in soft-paste modelling, establishing a standard which, in fact, the Bow factory itself would rarely ever meet again. Another rare early Bow figure, dating to 1748–50 and inspired by Hayman’s c. 1742 painting of Falstaff’s Cowardice Detected, for the Vauxhall Gardens in London, shows the actor James Quin in the role of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, a part which Quin played from 1721 to 1750.32Yarbrough, Bow Porcelain, pp. 41–4. Another figure, this time by the Derby factory around 1765, shows David Garrick, the most famous English stage actor of the mid eighteenth century, in the role of Tancred from James Thomson’s Tancred and Sigismunda (1745).33Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 84, 95.

Heather McPherson has argued that these and similar works provide insight into a symbiotic relationship that developed between porcelain, theatrical display and celebrity culture in eighteenth-century England.34 Heather McPherson, ‘Marketing celebrity: porcelain and theatrical display’, in Alden Cavanaugh and Michael Yonan (eds), The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2010, pp. 87–105. The eighteenth century saw English stage actors experience rising social and professional status, and the image of the actor assumed an unprecedented cultural significance in the public sphere. McPherson suggests that porcelain manufacturers sought to harness the burgeoning culture of consumer demand for luxury commodities as well as the nascent cult of celebrity surrounding successful London stage actors for commercial ends. In the process, actors were transformed into consumable porcelain ‘collectibles’ – the desirable porcelain medium forged a link between the consumer and the world of theatrical representation.35Shearer West, The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of Garrick and Kemble, Frances Pinter, London, 1993.

Successful actors such as Garrick and Clive well understood the importance of self-representation and encouraged the dissemination of their painted and printed portraits.36Berta Joncus, ‘“A likeness where none was to be found”: imagining Kitty Clive (1711–1785)’, Music in Art, vol. 34, 2009, pp. 89–106. The close relationship between the extant porcelain portrait figures and print sources certainly suggests that these porcelain sculptures are related to this phenomenon. Berta Joncus has traced the manner in which Clive promoted a personal iconography which reflected her on-stage personality. Some of the earliest circulated portraits supposedly of Clive were not in fact images of her at all. They were, however, images carefully selected to cultivate a particular public persona – a singer who performed shepherdess roles in ballad operas employing a performance style highly regarded for its unaffected naturalness, which was in turn associated with a sense of Englishness, something to be contrasted with the overwrought manner of Italian opera singers. As Clive’s career progressed and her repertoire expanded, so too her iconography changed, from shepherdesses to sentimental heroines and burlesque fine ladies, often with an emphasis upon her musical abilities, something which distinguished her from other leading women actors. A 1740 painting by William Verelst presents a portrait likeness of Clive – the sitter’s rich dress indicating her wealth and her setting indicating her social and musical rank – sitting holding sheet music by Handel, whose works she sang regularly on stage. The aria depicted in the painting, however, is ‘Sweet Bird’ from L’Allegro ed il penseroso and was not a work that Clive ever sang: instead Clive was the ‘sweet bird’ of the English stage, renowned for her performances of both Handel and Milton.37Richard Leppert, ‘Music, sexism and female domesticity’, in Music and Image: Domesticity, Ideology and Socio-Cultural Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 31–2. These images project Clive’s developing stage personality and demonstrate the importance of such imagery in a developing notion of celebrity. In the form of mezzotints, many of these images circulated widely among the public – for one shilling, a follower could acquire a likeness that simulated physical proximity to, and knowledge of, a favourite player. By contrast, the more prestigious painted portrait reflects Clive’s increased social and material standing.

The symbolism of the porcelain medium

The porcelain figures, with their clear attempts to present differentiated physiognomies of actors like Clive, Woodward and Garrick, should be understood as examples of portraiture which share characteristics with other images like prints and paintings, deployed in the creation and management of a public image. But why portraiture in porcelain? What does the porcelain medium contribute to the signification of these images, and in what way did they differ from a print or a painting?

Porcelain figures were costly.38On the availability and expense of ornamental porcelains in the English context, see Young, English Porcelain, pp. 178–96. So while, for example, Thomas Frye, portraitist, engraver and principal of the Bow factory, may have been seeking to exploit the popularity of images of admired actors for commercial advantage, the figures he produced, although multiples, were not accessible to the same audience that might acquire a mezzotint portrait of a favourite stage personality; instead, the porcelain sculptures were aimed at an elite audience with considerably greater financial resources at their disposal. And while the ubiquity of porcelain today – in dining wares, machine parts, dental fillings – leads us perhaps to see it as a utilitarian substance, for much of the eighteenth century, porcelain was, as we have suggested, a highly symbolically charged material. All of the great, early Continental porcelain factories were court institutions and their products served to amplify the glory of the ruler. Porcelain’s symbolism was not the same in the English context where manufactories operated on a commercial, not court-sponsored, basis. But the material bore a representative function nonetheless: in the mid eighteenth century, English porcelain factories were negotiating market identities for themselves that were in direct competition with imports from both the leading Continental factories and the Asian porcelain industries, but at the same time copying the products of both of these. The Bow factory even labelled itself ‘New Canton’, making clear its market aspirations. The English factories touted the equivalency, even superiority of their products to imported porcelains. To buy English porcelain was framed as an act of national loyalty, supporting English ingenuity and artistry. An article published in the Public Advertiser on 14 June 1753 arguing for the imposition of tariffs on imported porcelains claimed, ‘At present … Manufacturers are solely enabled to pursue the Art [of porcelain production], through the Public Spirit and Generosity of those who think no Price too great for English Ingenuity’.39Quoted in Nancy Valpy, ‘Extracts from eighteenth century London newspapers’, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, vol. 11, no. 2, 1982, p. 125. Porcelain, it is implied, represents English technical and artistic achievement.40See Matthew Martin, ‘Continental porcelain made in England: the case of the Chelsea porcelain factory’, in Jennifer Milam (ed.), Making Ideas Visible in the Eighteenth Century, University of Delaware Press, Newark, forthcoming 2019. It is in this context that the porcelain theatre portraits, as well as the depictions of political figures like those produced at Derby, must be understood. Specifically English subject matter, developed independently of significant precedents by Continental porcelain manufactories, served to imbue porcelain with an even greater Englishness.

But the porcelain medium could possess an even more profound symbolism, and this changed the way in which nationalist associations ascribed to the material were understood. The process of porcelain production was, certainly in the first half of the eighteenth century and arguably for much of the rest of the century, closely associated with the field of alchemy, that field of natural philosophy that concerned itself with revealing the nature of matter, and with discovering the means to manipulate and transform it.41On the history of alchemy in European thought, see Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy, Chicago University Press, Chicago and London, 2013. Alchemy encompassed a broad range of laboratory-based procedures but is best known for its pursuit of chrysopoeia, the transmutation of base metals into gold. This alchemical idea of perfecting baser matter informed the pursuit of the secret of porcelain from its beginnings in Europe. Johann Friedrich Böttger, the man who eventually perfected a formula for hard-paste porcelain while being held under house arrest in Dresden, was a professional alchemist who first came to the attention of the Saxon elector for his purported success in transforming base metals into gold.42For an overview of the discovery of the Arcanum in Dresden, see Nelson and Roberts, History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain, pp. 117–83. Many of the leading technicians associated with the most important porcelain factories in Europe were practitioners of alchemy: Jean Hellot, chemist, Académicien and Fellow of the Royal Society was from 1751 until his death in 1766 the chief chemist at first the Vincennes and then the royal porcelain factory at Sèvres, formulating glazes, enamel colours and porcelain pastes. But in addition to these activities, Hellot, the so-called father of French industrial chemistry, actively pursued alchemical, in particular chrysopoeiac, experiments throughout his career.43Hellot’s library contained a large number of important sixteenth- and seventeenth-century alchemical treatises – and we know this through the records of his estate sale where, interestingly enough, Antoine Lavoisier purchased a number of these alchemical texts. Lawrence M. Principe, ‘The end of alchemy? The repudiation and persistence of chrysopoeia at the Académie Royale des Sciences in the eighteenth century’, Osiris, vol. 29, no. 1, 2014; Marco Beretta, ‘Transmutations and frauds in enlightened Paris: Lavoisier and alchemy’, in Marco Beretta & Maria Conforti (eds), Fakes!? Hoaxes, Counterfeits and Deception in Early Modern Science, Science History Publications, Sagamore Beach, 2014. In eighteenth-century ceramic literature the material formula and procedures for porcelain production, often a closely guarded state secret, were regularly referred to as the arcanum, a technical term from the lexicon of alchemy. The iconography of porcelain continued to exploit alchemical imagery well into the second half of the eighteenth century, even up to the creation of depictions of alchemical laboratory practice in porcelain itself, as is illustrated in the central figure group of the great table centrepiece, the Zwettler Tafelaufsatz produced by the Vienna factory in 1763, where putti are shown amid laboratory equipment manufacturing porcelain figures.44Waltraud Neuwirth, ‘Zur Geschichte des “Zwettler Tafelaufsatzes”’, Alte und Moderne Kunst XXV, No. 170, 1980, pp. 2–7. The transmutation of raw earth into hard, shining, translucent, white porcelain – white gold as it was known – could be understood as a resounding affirmation of the transmutational goals pursued by alchemy. As Michael Yonan has suggested, porcelain exemplified the manner in which a natural material could be transformed into art through human-induced changes which, nevertheless, because of the involvement of fire (a major force in eighteenth-century Plutonic cosmology), resembled natural processes. Porcelain was neither purely nature, nor purely art, but art and nature fused.45Michael Yonan, ‘Igneous architecture: porcelain, natural philosophy and the rococo cabinet chinois’, in Alden Cavanaugh and Michael Yonan (eds), The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2010, pp. 65–85. And most importantly, it functioned as a metaphor of power. Alchemical learning was deeply embedded in a theocentric (god-centred) view of creation; successful alchemical transmutation was predicated upon the discovery of absolute and divine truths, knowledge that was comprehensible only to a rarefied elite and their patrons. The secret of porcelain production, for an anointed prince, was a demonstration of their inherent right to rule and their God-given power to command the very matter of the created universe.46Pamela H. Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 182.

English porcelain’s transmutation

The alchemical origins of porcelain and its corresponding associations with absolutist power locate the material in the representational world of the absolutist court. Porcelain’s sacral character made a factory that produced it an expression of princely power. But what of the English factories established on entrepreneurial commercial footings, without close connections to the court? What did the porcelain medium mean in mid eighteenth-century England? The association of porcelain with alchemy and artful nature seems to have been carried into the English context. Thomas Frye’s 1750 patent for a porcelain formula is, as Glenn Adamson has shown, couched in the language of alchemy and transformation, extending to the general air of vagueness and secrecy which permeates the document, a characteristic of the alchemical literary tradition.47Glenn Adamson, ‘Rethinking the arcanum: porcelain, secrecy and the eighteenth-century culture of invention’, in Alden Cavanaugh & Michael Yonan (eds), The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2010, pp. 26–7. The founders of the Worcester factory could also speak of porcelain as ‘the real true and full art mystery and secret’.48damson, Rethinking the Arcanum, p. 26. The goldsmith Nicholas Sprimont, founder of the Chelsea factory – Chelsea’s earliest products were marked with a triangle, the alchemical symbol for fire, scratched into the body of the object – acquired his recipe for a soft-paste porcelain from a mysterious German ‘chymist’ (a term frequently applied to alchemical practitioners).49Young, English Porcelain, p. 36. In the artistic realm porcelain could be deemed a direct equivalent for natural materials. The sculptor Roubiliac considered using Chelsea porcelain in 1745 for the bas relief on his monument to Bishop John Hough in Worcester Cathedral, but it was eventually executed in carved marble.50David Bindman and Malcolm Baker, Roubiliac and the Eighteenth-Century Monument: Sculpture as Theatre, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 279–85.

Porcelain’s alchemical character did not translate into a demonstration of autocratic power in the English context. Certainly, the material’s associations with transformation made it an especially appropriate medium for the depiction of an actor playing a dramatic role. The stage, where actors brought ephemeral life to a character only to move on to another role, was the essential realm of the artful body transformed from one character to another, echoing the alchemical transformation of clay into porcelain forms. But as a form of mass entertainment, the Georgian theatre was a phenomenon of the public sphere and functioned as a cultural and political sounding board. The rise of the actor and the emergence of celebrity culture in mid eighteenth-century England were coeval with shifts in the consumption of luxury goods, including porcelain, and a developing sense of national identity. Art was at the centre of efforts to define a distinctively British identity.51See Robin Simon, Hogarth, France and British Art: The rise of the Arts in 18th-Century Britain, Hogarth Arts, London, 2007. Painting, sculpture, music, literature, the built environment as realised through architecture and garden design – all of these were deployed rhetorically to forge a British national culture distinct from the princely culture on view, especially, in France, a culture that was associated with political absolutism yet was avidly consumed by large parts of the British ruling class.

The meaning of the porcelain medium in England during the latter half of the eighteenth century is revealed to be itself in a process of transformation. Just as figures like Garrick and Clive were involved in the development of what was deemed a distinctively English theatre – worlds away from what was seen as the mannered realm of foreign opera – producers of a luxury commodity like porcelain sculpture were negotiating an English identity for a material which was initially foreign in inspiration and signification. Native imagery, like Kitty Clive and Henry Woodward playing comic roles on the London stage, or figures proclaiming anti-absolutist ideals from the public realm of politics, helped claim porcelain as an English material, associated with an English stage art or English political freedoms. Conversely, European porcelain’s associations with material transformation, and hence learning and authority, served to enhance the public image among an elite audience of those whose portraits were executed in the medium. In porcelain, a material where the very earth of England was transformed into one of the miracle substances of the eighteenth century, the notion of a distinct, native English identity, an identity negotiated in the public sphere, was reified. In these English porcelain portrait sculptures, we find a fascinating confluence of a burgeoning sense of national identity and cosmopolitan courtly medium. No longer a manifestation of a prince’s power, but the expression of a corporate, national identity, the de-enchantment of porcelain – the stripping of its sacral character and its transformation into the mundane utilitarian material we know today – began in mid eighteenth-century England.

Matthew Martin, Curator, International Decorative Arts and Antiquities, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)

Notes

1

For an account of the origins of porcelain technology in Saxony, see Christina Nelson & Letitia Roberts, A History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain: The Warda Stevens Stout Collection, Hudson Hills Press, Manchester VT, 2013, pp. 117–83.

2

On the major role porcelain played in the diplomacy of the Saxon court, see Maureen Cassidy-Geiger (ed.), Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts c. 1710–63, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007.

3

Ernst Zimmermann, Die Erfindung und Frühzeit des Meissner Porzellans; ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Keramik, Georg Reimer, Berlin, 1908, p. 236; Ingelore Menzhausen, Meißen, Frühzeit und Gegenwart. Johann Friedrich Böttger zu Ehren, VEB Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen, Meissen, 1981, p. 110.

4

Ingelore Menzhausen, In Porzellan verzaubert: die Figuren Johann Joachim Kändlers in Meißen aus der Sammlung Pauls-Eisenbeiss, Basel, Wiese Verlag, Basel, 1993, p. 84.

5

Portrait figure of Augustus III in Polish costume, modelled by Johann Joachim Kändler, Johann Friedrich Eberlein and Johann Gottlieb Ehder, 1741–2, Porzellansammlung Dresden, PE 470. A further example is to be found in the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, see Saint Louis Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 2004, p. 171.

6

Equestrian portrait of Augustus III by Kändler, 1753, Porzellansammlung Dresden, PE 2528. Only the head of the life-size sculptural project was finished before the outbreak of the Seven Years War: Peter Braun, Form Vollendet: Johann Joachim Kaendler als Modellmeister der Meissener Porzellan-Manufaktur, Meissen Manuscript 18, Meissen, Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, 2006 (cited in Cassidy Geiger, 2007, p. 23, n. 62). On this series of portraits of Augustus III, see Ulrich Pietsch, Die figürliche Meißner Porzellanplastik von Gottlieb Kirchner und Johann Joachim Kaendler, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2006, pp. 10, 14–16.

7

See Ulrich Pietsch and Claudia Banz, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie 1710–1815, Seemann Verlag, Leipzig, 2010, pp. 337–8.

8

Quoted in Philip Rawson, Ceramics, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1989, p. 64. For portraits of Carl Eugen, see Hans Dieter Flach, Ludwigsburger Porzellan. Fayence, Steingut, Kacheln, Fliesen: Ein Handbuch, Arnoldsche Verlag, Stuttgart, 1997, pp. 541–2.

9

Beatrix Freifrau von Wolff Metternich & Manfred Mainz, Die Porzellanmanufaktur Fürstenberg, vols. 1 & 2, Prestel, Munich, Berlin, London and New York, 2004.

10

Volkstedter Porzellan 1760-1800, Beiträge zur schwarzburgischen Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte, Band 8, Thüringer Landesmuseum Heidecksburg Rudolstadt, 1999, pp. 88–91.

11

Aileen Dawson, ‘Les portraits’, in La Manufacture des Lumières. La Sculpture à Sèvres de Louis XV à la révolution, Editions Faton, Dijon, 2015, pp. 225–49.

12

See Andrea Sommer-Mathis, Daniela Franke & Rudi Risatti, Spettacolo Barocco: Triumph des Theaters, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2016.

13

See Claudia Schnitzer & Petra Hölscher, Eine gute Figur machen: Kostüm und Fest am Dresdner Hof, Kupferstich-Kabinett Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Verlag der Kunst, Dresden, 2000.

14

An example of the 1739 Schmiedel bust is to be found in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, H5127. On the Schmiedel portraits, see Pietsch, Meißner Porzellanplastik, pp. 11–13.

15

Ingelore Menzhausen, In Porzellan verzaubert: die Figuren Johann Joachim Kändlers in Meißen aus der Sammlung Pauls-Eisenbeiss, Basel, Wiese Verlag, Basel, 1993, p. 121.

16

Huub van der Linden, who displays admirable caution about accepting a number of common identifications of the subjects of Meissen porcelain theatre figures, is perhaps too cautious in his reluctance to ascribe specific identities to the performers represented in this particular pair of figures. Interestingly he does not make reference to the design drawings by Ponte which seem to link the figures to the production of this Hasse opera in Dresden. See Huub van der Linden, ‘Opera and porcelain in eighteenth-century Germany: Hasse, Bordoni, and some Meissen figure groups’, Imago Musicae, vol. 27 (2014/2015), pp. 7–28.

17

In the early years of the Chelsea factory there was some financial support for the enterprise provided by Sir Everard Fawkener, secretary to William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland. Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, former English ambassador to Saxony, placed a Meissen service gifted to him by Augustus III at the Chelsea factory’s disposal for copying. See Elizabeth Adams, Chelsea Porcelain, British Museum Press, London, 2001, pp. 64–73. The court did commission works of English porcelain, e.g. Queen Charlotte’s commissioning of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz service from the Chelsea factory as a gift for her brother Adolphus Frederick IV, Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but such commissions appear to have been rare and are not the same as direct ongoing financial support of the manufactory’s operations.

18

Hilary Young, English Porcelain 1745–1795: Its Makers, Design, Marketing and Consumption, V&A Publications, London, 1999, pp. 197–202.

19

Exceptions to this rule are figures like the Flemish-trained Joseph Willems at Chelsea and the academicians Agostino Carlini and John Bacon, who all appear to have supplied models to the Derby factory. See Matthew Martin, ‘Joseph Willems’s Chelsea Pietà and eighteenth-century sculptural aesthetics’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. 51, 2013, pp. 21–32; John Mallet, ‘Agostino Carlini, modeller of dry-edge Derby figures?’, in Tom Wolford & Hilary Young (eds), British Ceramic Design 1600–2002, English Ceramic Circle, London, 2003, pp. 42–57.

20

Peter Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures 1750–1848, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1990, p. 67

21

Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 277–9.

22

Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 271–2.

23

Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 109–10.

24

Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 239–41. On these figures, see Timothy Clifford, ‘Derby porcelain and the British monumental sculpture tradition 1760–1775, Part One’, Derby Porcelain International Society Journal, vol. 5, 2004, pp. 118–32.

25

Tony Heathcote, The British Field Marshals 1736–1997: A Biographical Dictionary, Pen & Sword Ltd, Barnsley, 1999, p. 93.

26

Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 135–8.

27

Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger & Frederick Lawrence, Polity, Cambridge, 1989.

28

Philip Kelleway, ‘Figures of the Enlightenment: Derby porcelain portrait statuettes and republican politics in the 1760’s and 1770’s’, Derby Porcelain International Society Journal, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 135–53.

29

Jane Roberts (ed), George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, Royal Collection, London, 2004, pp. 30–1, 305–6.

30

The same is true of the famous large-scale soft-paste porcelain portrait busts of George II modelled by John Cheere and variously attributed to the Bow, Liverpool and Vauxhall factories. These imposing images were not produced at the command of the monarch but rather reflect the political loyalties of the individuals who would have acquired such objects. These images were very much of the public sphere in the context of a constitutional monarchy where the legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession was not undisputed, as the 1745 Jacobite rising by Stuart loyalists demonstrates. On the porcelain busts see J. V. G. Mallet, ‘Some Baroque sources of English ornamental porcelains’, in Fire and Form – The Baroque and its influence on English Ceramics, c. 1660–1760, English Ceramics Circle, London, 2013, pp. 123–46 where the objects are attributed to Vauxhall. For an attribution to Bow see Pat Daniels, The Origin and Development of Bow Porcelain 1730–1747, Resurgat Publishers, Oxon, 2007, pp. 271–8.

31

Raymond Yarbrough, Bow Porcelain and the London Theatre: Vivitur Ingenio, Hancock, MI, Front and Center Publications, 1996, pp. 20–21, 28–31.

32

Yarbrough, Bow Porcelain, pp. 41–4.

33

Bradshaw, Derby Porcelain Figures, pp. 84, 95.

34

Heather McPherson, ‘Marketing celebrity: porcelain and theatrical display’, in Alden Cavanaugh and Michael Yonan (eds), The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2010, pp. 87–105.

35

Shearer West, The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of Garrick and Kemble, Frances Pinter, London, 1993.

36

Berta Joncus, ‘“A likeness where none was to be found”: imagining Kitty Clive (1711­–1785)’, Music in Art, vol. 34, 2009, pp. 89–106.

37

Richard Leppert, ‘Music, sexism and female domesticity’, in Music and Image: Domesticity, Ideology and Socio-Cultural Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 31–2.

38

On the availability and expense of ornamental porcelains in the English context, see Young, English Porcelain, pp. 178–96.

39

Quoted in Nancy Valpy, ‘Extracts from eighteenth century London newspapers’, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, vol. 11, no. 2, 1982, p. 125.

40

See Matthew Martin, ‘Continental porcelain made in England: the case of the Chelsea porcelain factory’, in Jennifer Milam (ed.), Making Ideas Visible in the Eighteenth Century, University of Delaware Press, Newark, forthcoming 2019.

41

On the history of alchemy in European thought, see Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy, Chicago University Press, Chicago and London, 2013.

42

For an overview of the discovery of the Arcanum in Dresden, see Nelson and Roberts, History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain, pp. 117–83.

43

Hellot’s library contained a large number of important sixteenth- and seventeenth-century alchemical treatises – and we know this through the records of his estate sale where, interestingly enough, Antoine Lavoisier purchased a number of these alchemical texts. Lawrence M. Principe, ‘The end of alchemy? The repudiation and persistence of chrysopoeia at the Académie Royale des Sciences in the eighteenth century’, Osiris, vol. 29, no. 1, 2014; Marco Beretta, ‘Transmutations and frauds in enlightened Paris: Lavoisier and alchemy’, in Marco Beretta & Maria Conforti (eds), Fakes!? Hoaxes, Counterfeits and Deception in Early Modern Science, Science History Publications, Sagamore Beach, 2014.

44

Waltraud Neuwirth, ‘Zur Geschichte des “Zwettler Tafelaufsatzes”’, Alte und Moderne Kunst XXV, No. 170, 1980, pp. 2–7.

45

Michael Yonan, ‘Igneous architecture: porcelain, natural philosophy and the rococo cabinet chinois’, in Alden Cavanaugh and Michael Yonan (eds), The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2010, pp. 65–85.

46

Pamela H. Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 182.

47

Glenn Adamson, ‘Rethinking the arcanum: porcelain, secrecy and the eighteenth-century culture of invention’, in Alden Cavanaugh & Michael Yonan (eds), The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2010, pp. 26–7.

48

Adamson, Rethinking the Arcanum, p. 26.

49

Young, English Porcelain, p. 36.

50

David Bindman and Malcolm Baker, Roubiliac and the Eighteenth-Century Monument: Sculpture as Theatre, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 279–85.

51

See Robin Simon, Hogarth, France and British Art: The rise of the Arts in 18th-Century Britain, Hogarth Arts, London, 2007.