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Peter the Great had sent scientific experts on Russian trade caravans to Peking, with strict instructions to find out from the secretive Chinese the exact manner in which they made their porcelain. But his emissaries returned home none the wiser. It was not until 1744 that his exuberant daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, entrusted a vagrant German, C. K. Hunger, then employed in Stockholm, with a written contract to 'found in St. Petersburg a factory for making Dutch plates and pure porcelain, as it is made in Saxony'. Hunger had started life as a goldsmith's apprentice, later sought out Böttger, the famous director of the first hard-paste Meissen factory, and was employed as a gilder there in 1727. He wrote to the Empress Elizabeth that he had been responsible for organizing the Rūrstrand ceramic factory in Sweden [whence he had in fact been summarily dismissed].
He belonged to that familiar class of restless international adventurers, in which even the eighteenth century abounded. Lavish in promises, he knew how to advertise his very scanty talents, and thereby win the confidence of highly placed people. From the start, his behavior in Russia aroused suspicion. His first firing in the kiln was a total failure, but he always found plausible excuses. Eventually he exhausted the patience of the director, Baron Cherkasov, who complained that during three years Hunger had turned out barely a dozen cups, and even they were crooked and discoloured.
A Russian priest's son, Dmitri Vinogradov, who had studied chemistry in Marburg, was then ordered [p. 472] to extract from Hunger all the secrets of porcelain manufacture, to supervise him, and never to leave him alone for a single moment. In 1747 he replaced Hunger, who was dismissed. Undoubtedly Vinogradov gave himself heart and soul to experimental work, and scientific methods of firing in the kiln. He produced some good though limited results, but he suffered from bouts of drunkenness, which made him violent and unreliable. In 1752 Baron Cherkasov, who took porcelain seriously, had Vinogradov fastened to an iron chain, perpetually watched and in his turn forced to write down every technical recipe that he knew. He died in 1758 at the early age of thirty-nine.
After this painful initiation the Imperial Factory came into its own during the reign of Catherine II [1762-96]. She made a thorough personal inspection of the factory in 1763, and at once ordered highly skilled painters, modellers, and craftsmen to be engaged, regardless of expense, from Germany, Austria, and France. Catherine had a passion for building, and for filling whatever she built with beautiful and magnificent objects, without any prejudice about their national origin. For her new Imperial Hermitage and Tsarskoe Selo she collected pictures, sculpture, and porcelain from all over Europe.
Reacting against the lush and gaudy baroque encouraged by her predecessor, she promoted a sterner classical temper in architecture, and admired an architectural dignity in decorative art. Her best and favourite architects were Italians. 'I want Italians,' she told her agent, Grimm, 'because we already have enough Frenchmen who know too much and design ugly buildings.' She bought up all the portfolios of Clérisseau's drawings and aquatints, made during a tour of Italy, minutely depicting Italian ornamental plasterwork, arabesques, vase construction, and Pompeian detail. This decorative Italian strain, often nostalgically reflected by northern temperaments, also found expression in Russian porcelain, where it recurred throughout the following century. At the same time Catherine herself, being a pure German and a usurper, tried hard to personify some more ideal aspects of her adopted country, and was keen on giving scope for native Russian themes in art.
Many West European porcelain factories had begun by working in the manner initiated either by the Chinese or by their immediate predecessors. The first Russian factory was no exception, for it frankly emulated Meissen as the best and leading European exponent of ceramic art. Catherine ordered a well-known dinner service from Meissen ['The Hunter's Service', because it was decorated with diverse hunting scenes]. But characteristically, as soon as some plates and dishes became broken, she insisted that the Imperial Factory should make all replacements. And these turned out hardly inferior to the originals, although the paste was less uniformly white, showed the bluish tint of Russian kaolin, and the painting was recognizably freer and more naïve.
The Chinese Empire, being uncomfortably close, appeared less romantic to Russian than it did to Western Europe at that time. And the Western fashion for fantastic whimsical chinoiseries found less favour there. Moreover, in Russia, any craving for the exotic could be fully gratified at home. A book by the German traveler, J. Georgi [translated into Russian in 1776], called Description of the Races inhabiting the Russian Empire, attracted attention chiefly by its lively coloured illustrations. These formed the starting point for a whole new series of porcelain figures, showing many characteristic types, wearing picturesque national or regional costumes.
Perhaps they were partly inspired by earlier racial figures from the Meissen modeller, Kändler, but [p. 473] they drew upon original and local raw material. Their striking success led to the creation of a further series, illustrating Russian peasants, tradesmen, craftsmen, etc., wearing their professional clothes and carrying the emblems of their work. These provide delightfully idealized genre studies of Russian life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Jean Rachette, son of a French sculptor but born in Copenhagen, came to the Imperial Factory as a modeler in 1779. He took responsibility for launching both these series of porcelain figures, which were often as remarkable for their balanced rhythmical composition as for their pure and sensitive modeling and colourful brilliance. This foreigner's talented interpretation of native Russian themes launched a new tradition, which was drawn and enlarged upon by later Russian porcelain factories throughout the nineteenth century. Rachette remained active until 1804, when he was granted the rank of State Counselor in recognition of his great services to art. Paradoxical though it sounds, foreign artists who came to work in Russia were often more inspired by original Russian subjects and environment than native artists, who went out of their way to imitate the latest Western Fashions, whether they were bad or good.
Another line, developed in the Imperial Factory at this time, glorified Catherine and the achievements of her reign. On many vases her head appears in medallion form with the helmet of Minerva. On another a Cupid crowns with a laurel wreath her interlaced initials, while a double-headed eagle holds out an olive branch of peace. A vase at Gatchina depicts her greeted by a whole group of allegorical female figures, Abundance, Humanity, Science, Justice, and Industry, while Chastity, with modest downcast eyes, holds up a mirror to the Empress. The so-called 'Arabesque Service', though decoratively inspired by frescos excavated at Herculaneum, also served to illustrate Russian naval victories.
But the majestic dinner services and vases, ordered by Catherine, already differed both in colouring and form from the Meissen porcelain of teh period. They were severer, more compact in line, less elaborate and mannered in execution. In the 'Cabinet Service' [first ordered as a present for her favourite, Count Bezborodko] the artistic splendour of luxuriant Italian ornament prevailed over national self-glorification. Together with exquisite detail, similar to that in the Arabesque service, it is distinguished by a broad gold band encircled by garlands of delicate flowers, with oval medallions in the centre, depicting Italian architectural scenes, sometimes with human figures.
Having mastered ceramic technique and form in the eighteenth century, the art of modelling, painting, and gilding porcelain reached its high point and boldest native originality in the first half of the next century under Alexander I and Nicolas I. At the same time preoccupation with new experiments in color contrast was accompanied by a diminishing concern with purity of form. This led to a looser relationship between sculptural design and painted decoration. The latter tended to predominate. Intense malachite and emerald greens, rich lapislazuli blue, delicate mauves and buffs and deep maroon, more and more took the place of pure and dazzling white as favourite colours for the background. But exquisite miniature painting, often framed in white panels, was made to blend effectively with these coloured grounds.
Catherine's son, the Emperor Paul [1796-1801], although he was a certifiable megalomaniac and hated his domineering mother, inherited her passion for good porcelain. He particularly liked medallions with paintings of landscapes and fine buildings, and he started a branch of the Imperial Factory near his own palace at Gatchina. It is recorded that, the day before he was murdered, he received a new dinner service he had ordered, painted with Russian architectural scenes, and, admiring it together with members of his family, pronounced that day to be the happiest in his whole life.
Alexander I [1801-25], despite the Napoleonic Wars which dislocated his reign, did not neglect the factory, which continued to recruit first-class artist-craftsmen, regardless of nationality. As a rule each new foreign craftsman was [very sensibly] put under contract to teach two Russian apprentices. The most important foreign painter, Schwebach, who had worked for twelve years at Sévres, was prominent in launching a new genre of decoration, depicting soldiers in battle scenes, and Asiatic figures seen against Russian landscapes.
In 1806 Alexander was persuaded to issue a decree imposing a prohibitive tariff on the import of foreign porcelain into Russia. By stimulating internal competition, this measure made private porcelain factories start to multiply. Some were straightforward business ventures, run by enterprising merchants. Others, like that run by Prince Yusupov at his palace of Arkhangelskoe, were designed to gratify the taste of wealthy connoisseurs, and to provide unique presents for their personal friends. The Miklashevsky factory, started by a landowner who had found china clay on his estate, and employing his own serfs, won a gold medal at an exhibition in Petersburg in 1849. Its most striking work was a huge porcelain iconostasis with blue and gold columns, made for the owner's village church at Volokhitin. One generous landowner, who detected a natural talent for modelling and carving in a young serf called Kudinov, arranged for him all facilities to start his own porcelain factory in 1818, and later gave him his freedom. This factory was managed by the Kudinov family, whose name it bore, until 1881, lasting longer than many others founded in the same period, which did not survive the Emancipation of 1861.
The main difference between Russian and European porcelain at this time depended less on style [which was everywhere neoclassical] than on choice of themes and mode of artistic interpretation. While the Sèvres factory concentrated on glorifying Napoleon and his deeds, the Imperial factory started to specialize in majestic and graceful vases, with an astonishing variety of shapes and decoration. Events of the patriotic war in 1812 also provoked a vogue for battle scenes with soldiers and officers wearing splendidly gay uniforms.
In 1814 the Russians learned from a French prisoner of war the process of making transfer prints of colour blocks on porcelain. This practice was later adopted by private commercial concerns; but the directors of the Imperial factory rejected it as a semi-mechanical device, good enough for the quick salesmanship required by Western bourgeois mass production, but unworthy of the Russian court and aristocracy, which demanded and appreciated first-class hand painting.
Nicolas I [1825-55] was more exacting than his predecessor. He required splendid and dignified porcelain to decorate the royal palace, examined every piece personally, and gave little encouragement to his director's scheme to make the Imperial factory pay its way by selling surplus products to the public. During his reign the vases were superbly painted, although they began to show too many scenes directly copied from Old Master paintings in the Hermitage. But some of the most lively and exquisite paintings depicted flowers, fruit, or exotic birds, and were made on the flat centres or borders of plates and dishes. One of the Russian painters, Paul Ivanov, excelled in modelling porcelain flowers and foliage in high relief. At the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London the Imperial Factory was awarded a medal for its exhibit.
During the reign of Alexander I [1855-81] orders for the palaces and members of the Imperial family rapidly declined. Emancipation of the serfs in 1861 also led to the closing down of numerous private factories, which had depended on serf craftsmen, formerly trained by their masters and foreign artists. Taste grew more stereotyped and stale, and art began to be overshadowed in importance for its patrons by the fashionable concentration on social reforms.
In 1871 the Empress told the director of the factory that he must fight against academic stagnation, and aim at more vitality, diversity of shapes, painting, and style. She suggested he might start to take some helpful examples from English porcelain. The chief sculptor, Spiess, was thereupon dispatched to England, whence he brought back many specimens from English factories. Despite the decline of interest among its patrons, the Imperial Factory still had superb artists, and the flower painting on some of its vases remained as perfect as in the earlier period, reminiscent of the most luxuriant Dutch seventeenth-century "still life' style.
Alexander III [1881-94] on his accession gave orders for the Imperial Factory to be given the best possible technical and artistic opportunities. A survey taken at this time admitted that a quite disproportionate number of administrative officials demoralized the best craftsmen, and that many incompetent workmen were engaged or retained, merely because they happened to be children or relatives of members of teh staff. Regularly once a year Alexander gave instructions about projects submitted to him. Far from being a stuffy philistine, his own taste was definite. He encouraged a dignified and massive simplicity. Towards the end of his reign, however, he showed a preference for the pale, cold blues and greys of the late Copenhagen style. He ordered one important and elaborately painted diner service for the court. This was described as the 'Raphael Service' because the motifs in it were taken from Raphael's Vatican decorations, which had been copied in the eighteenth century for the Hermitage in Petersburg.
Under Nicholas II [1894-1917], who had inferior personal taste and no love for art, the standard rapidly declined. During his reign little original work was done, except perhaps in Easter eggs, and the best porcelain consisted of replacements or additions to services previously commissioned by his more cultured predecessors.
The first mark of the Imperial Factory in the reigns of Elizabeth and Peter III consisted of a black or impressed double-headed eagle, and, more rarely, an impressed anchor. From the time of Catherine II, and under all subsequent emperors, the mark consisted of the reigning sovereign's initials painted under the glaze, usually in blue, but sometimes in black or green. Except in the reign of Catherine, these initials are surmounted by the Imperial crown. Some pieces, made in the reign of Alexander II, have the Emperor's initial surrounded by a circular wreath. Many pieces are marked, since marking was first made compulsory by Nicolas I.
Though the Imperial factory usually launched the style and themes for other Russian porcelain manufacture, it was followed and frequently surpassed in quality by several private factories. The most notable of these was started about 1756 by an Englishman, [p. 475] Francis Gardner, who appears to have first settled in Russia in 1746. It was successfully carried on by his descendants until 1891, when it was sold to the giant Kuznetsov porcelain and fašence combine. The factory was situated in the Gjelsk region, near Moscow, where local clay, which proved suitable for porcelain, could be used. Gardner started with a German manager called Gattenberg, who later joined the Imperial Factory, and he employed a well-known German painter, Kestner. But these and other foreigners taught many Russian craftsmen, principally serfs, who gradually replaced them, as soon as they had mastered the various techniques; so that the number of foreigners employed in key positions steadily diminished in course of time.
Eighteenth-century Gardner groups and figures of a sentimental pastoral character are still close to Meissen prototypes, and so are its rare figures representing characters from the Italian Commedia del'Arte. The academician, G. Miller, who visited the Gardner factory in 1779, noted that 'its quality is equal to that of any foreign factory'. He found only one defect: 'that its glaze is less white than the Saxon. But they are trying to remedy this, and have gone quite far towards success.' [A. Selivanov: Farfor i Fayons Rossiyskoy Imperii [Vladimer, 1903, p. 22]. Not only did Gardner already compete with the Imperial factory, but he even obtained orders from the court of Catherine II for specially designed services.
Miller remarked with admiration on the beauty of one of these, decorated with architectural scenes and classical ornament. Gardner also produced for the Court four separate diner services decorated with emblems of the Russian orders of knighthood.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the work of the Gardner factory had grown emancipated from imitation of foreign models. In particular, its figures of Russian peasant types and craftsmen reveal a dignified simplicity, remote from the increasing sophistication of Sévres and Meissen figures that were being made at that time. The best of these also show a mastery of sensitive modelling and sculptural poise, accompanied by a bold and brilliant range of colour combinations, and frequently by skillful contrasts between matt and glazed painting used on the same figure. All these innovations and refinements illustrated how Russian modellers and painters were freshly and independently inspired by this new art, and were reaching beyond what they had learned from foreign masters, while introducing native themes and decorative colouring drawn from their traditional Russian background.
The Gardner factory could not escape the general decline in visual art which oppressed the second half of the nineteenth century throughout Europe., But in a number of its individual products it still maintained the exacting standard of an earlier age. Some of its figures of national types, especially Asiatic ones, are modelled with extraordinary finesse, even in the 1880s, though the colouring tended to be cruder than it was in the previous decades. But many of the peasant figures of this late period are mannered and 'literary'. Some are painfully coarse and clumsy, and seem like drunken caricatures of their serene and charming predecessors. In this period Gardner also embarked on mass-produced tea services, gaily painted with roses in white medallions against deep blue, red, or green grounds. Many of them were for export to the Turkish Empire or Central Asia, and carry Arabic lettering under the Gardner factory mark. They are widespread enough to be familiar to many people who have never seen the rarer and finer kinds of Russian porcelain.
Gardner porcelain had a wide variety of marks in the 140 years of its existence. Different shapes of the Latin letter G, painted underglaze in blue or black, were most frequent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Occasionally the mark is similar to the Meissen crossed swords with a star. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century the full name of the factory, impressed either in Cyrillic or Latin characters, becomes more frequent. In the second half of the nineteenth century the mark is usually the Moscow St George and Dragon crest, surrounded by a circle, bearing the full name of the factory, at first impressed, and later painted in green or red. In the last decades of the factory's existence the double-headed eagle was added to the design, and this elaborate mark continued after the Gardner firm had been absorbed by Kuznetsov.
One of the most important factories, stimulated by the protective tariff of 1806, was started in that year in the village of Gorbunov near Moscow, by a certain [p. 476] Karl Milli. It was taken over in 1811 by a Moscow merchant, A. Popov, who gave his name to the factory, which, together with his son, Dmitri, he personally built up and directed until he died in the 1850s. A decade later it was sold by the Popov family, and passed rapidly from one new owner to another. In the 1870s it belonged to an Armenian, and finally to a Russian merchant who liquidated the whole enterprise.
This factory made most money out of porcelain services designed for country inns. But it also specialized in a small output of extremely fine artistic pieces. The Popov porcelain highly valued by collectors consists of figures of Russian types, dancing peasants, and elaborate dishes featuring flowers or fruit in high relief, which in the quality of their modelling and painted designs are equal to the best of the Gardner and Imperial factories. There is a remarkable figure of a negro in the Sèvres museum, illustrating Bernadin de St Pierre's novel, Paul et Virginie. Large-scale ceremonial bread and salt dishes with brilliant floral borders, were another specialty of Popov. The mark of this factory during the whole period of its existence consisted of an impressed or underglaze blue monogram, showing the initials of the founder.
The kornilov factory, started in 1835 by two brothers of a merchant family in Petersburg, engaged skilled artists and crafts men from the Imperial, Gardner, and Popov factories. It quickly acquired a reputation for artistic excellence, and as early as 1839 won a gold medal at the Moscow ceramic exhibition. The owners spared no expense and trouble to bring their products to perfection, and for this purpose commissioned original drawings from leading artists of the day. The gorgeous colouring, rich gilding, and decorative finesse of Kornilov products soon became well known, and they were sought after by collectors. But they remained much more expensive than the corresponding Gardner porcelain.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century this factory started mass production of cheap porcelain wares for export. Connoisseurs can detect the difference at a glance. The distinction is made still easier by the fact that all the Kornikov porcelain after 1861 is marked with the full name of the firm in underglaze blue, whereas prior to that date similar marks had always been in red.
n 1817 there were about forty-five porcelain factories in Russia, many of them very small. In the 1870s the number had risen to seventy, and it fell to fifty towards the end of the century. As time went on the larger factories swallowed up the small ones, or forced them out of business. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the giant M. Kuznetsov combine had eliminated so many competitors that it was responsible for about two-thirds of the total quantity of pottery and porcelain produced throughout the Russian Empire.
Only the Imperial Factory, which remained outside commercial competition, escaped from the degeneration of a period in which cheapness and transient popular novelty were rapidly conquering pure artistic quality. Working solely for the court, it maintained a surprisingly high level of craftsmanship and decorative brilliance up to the very end of the nineteenth century, and even during the uninspiring reign of Nicolas II. [p. 477]
[L. G. G. Ramsey, F.S.A., ed. The Complete Color Encyclopedia of Antiques. Preface by Bevis Hillier, Editor of The Connoisseur. Compiled by The Connoisseur, London. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1962. Revised and Expanded Edition.]
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