This March, the Rienzi and Bayou Bend Book Club is reading The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story by Janet Gleeson. Focusing on the development of Meissen porcelain in the 18th-century, Gleeson tells the tale of three Johanns, all instrumental in the process of creating “white gold”: Johann Frederick Böttger, Johann Gregor Herold, and Johann Joachim Kändler. Meissen, founded in 1710, was the first European porcelain manufactory to develop hard-paste porcelain similar to Asian exports.
The text was selected because Rienzi’s collection contains several Meissen objects: Figure of a Swan and The Möllendorf Dinner Service. Towards the end of Gleeson’s book, in the chapter “The Last Journey,” there is a direct link to Rienzi’s Collection: the mention of the Swan Service. Rienzi is home to a Plate from the Swan Service, dating to 1737. A white dinner plate with a swan relief and a gilded rim with a few floral elements painted on the border, it graces a table beneath the portrait of Esmé Stuart.
In Gleeson’s text she details how the Swan Service was designed by Johann Joachim Kändler, Meissen’s most gifted modeler, for Count Brühl, Director of the Meissen Factory and important Saxon political figure. Gleeson also notes that the service “took nearly four years to complete and one of the largest ever made,” at nearly 2200 pieces. Comprised of plates, tureens, sauceboats, trays, spice bowls, fruit stands, candlesticks, and other accouterments, it is said that Brühl’s French pastry chef may have advised Kändler’s design. Additionally, items in the Electoral Collections, including a drawing by Francis Barlow, designs by Juse Aurèle Meissonier and the painting Galatea in a Shell Wagon by Francesco Albani, served as inspiration for the service. It remained in the Brühl family through World War II.
The creation of the service fueled the rivalry between Kändler and Johann Gregor Herold, the factory’s lead painter. The entire service was to be white, and only have color within the Brühl’s coat-of-arms, emphasizing the molded reliefs. Herold felt the modeling components of the pieces, and subsequently Kändler, were being favored over his decorative painted designs. Herold was allegedly so jealous that he tried to purposely ruin parts of the Swan Service by telling “his workers to run a sponge over the plates…so as to blur their crisply defined details.” This purposeful destruction of a coworker’s craft highlights the competition and jealously that were major parts of Meissen’s development of “white gold.”
To learn more about Meissen’s fascinating development join us on March 14th for discussions on Janet Gleeson’s book or visit Rienzi on a porcelain tour to see the Swan Service in person!