In Pursuit of Porcelain: An 18th Century European Obsession


A delicately wrought teacup, a dinner plate, a porcelain figurine: common household objects that most of us take for granted, however much we may value them. But until the beginning of the 18th century, no one in Europe knew exactly how--or of what--the exquisite porcelain from China and Japan was actually made. Europeans knew how to fashion a heavier, more porous earthenware from clay, to glaze and paint it, but this was a far cry from the brilliantly white, translucent, graceful china from the Far East that European royalty and other connoisseurs were eagerly collecting. Although travelers from the time of Marco Polo tried to find out how the Chinese made these beautiful objects, the formula and the process were closely guarded secrets.

In her highly informative and immensely readable “The Arcanum,” Janet Gleeson tells the fascinating story of how a young German alchemist named Johann Bottger discovered the secret of making porcelain. Like others of his vocation, Bottger was part charlatan, part scientist: obsessed with finding the philosopher’s stone, or arcanum, that was believed to enable one to transmute base metals to gold. Bottger’s dubious claims brought him to the attention of the womanizing, pleasure-loving, spendthrift Saxon king, Augustus the Strong, who, like most rulers of the time, was always looking for money to finance his appetite for conquest and display.

The unfortunate alchemist found himself in a predicament similar to that of the miller’s daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin” who, as a result of her father’s boast that she could spin straw into gold, was locked in a royal dungeon and forced to make good on the promise. Not surprisingly, Bottger was unable to turn lead into gold. But fortunately, the king also had a mania for collecting porcelain and was desperately anxious to find the mysterious formula for producing the precious substance.

After years of trial and error, Bottger finally came up with a process that did the trick. Unusually high temperatures were necessary to fire the china. It was not only difficult, but dangerous: “Pungent gray smoke belched out of the inadequately ventilated kiln. The whole smoldering building looked as if it might break into flames at any moment. City officials became increasingly concerned at the threat to nearby buildings.” But a teapot was produced.

Bottger’s discovery, alas, only made the king more anxious to keep him captive. The formula for producing porcelain was guarded almost as closely as the Manhattan Project. Poor Bottger eventually won his release, but his health was broken and he died soon after in 1719, still in his 30s. The story does not end there, and Gleeson goes on to tell us about the men who perfected the art of enameling, painting and designing increasingly sophisticated and elaborate works. She focuses primarily on two craftsman: Herold, the gifted painter who charmed his superiors but treated his apprentices with contempt; and Kaendler, the wonderfully inventive sculptor, who encouraged his helpers and treated them fairly.


Quite a lot of European history comes into the story as well, climaxing in the grimly ironic moment when Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded the Saxon city of Meissen hoping to get his hands on the famous porcelain factory. Some of the soldiers under his command were a regiment of Saxon dragoons that the china-mad Augustus the Strong had traded to Prussia years before--in exchange for some rare Japanese porcelain!

Gleeson, a London-based writer who has worked for Sotheby’s auction house, has fashioned a riveting narrative, richly detailed and vividly descriptive. Although her book is an exemplary piece of storytelling, it is not a novel but a work of popular history. No invented dialogue has been put into the mouths of the characters; there are notes to each chapter and an index at the end. But thanks to Gleeson’s skillful, lucid narration, the story she tells in “The Arcanum” is as enthralling as any historical fiction.