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An Imperial Fascination

Military Plates c. 1816

Two Military Plates. Circa 1816. Porcelain, overglaze polychrome decoration, gilding. Diameter 24.2 cm. (9 1/2 in.).

Since we opened our first shop in New York almost sixty years ago, we have had exhibits devoted to Fabergé, gold boxes, antique jewelry, automatons, and Russian icons, all areas of special interest to us. Although we maintained a permanent collection of Russian Porcelain, it was neither large enough nor broad enough to mount an exhibition, even with the inclusion of material available in the West. With the offer of a loan from Peterhof, however, this exhibition detailing the grandeur and beauty of life in the palaces of Imperial Russia was made possible.The making of porcelain in Russia began with Peter the Great (1687-1725), as seen in the tiled walls of Monplaisir . In his quest to unite, educate and develop trade for Russia, he engaged artisans from around the world and invited many different European craftsmen to live and work in Russia. Peter’s desire to establish Russia as a European power, and Elizabeth’s and Catherine’s continuing interest in westernization, required the establishment of an imperial porcelain factory, such as was the fashion in the courts of Europe. In fact, the Russian word for porcelain, “farfor,” derives from the Arabic and Persian “Fakhfur,” meaning “imperial, ” which in turn derives from the name of a Chinese Emperor after whom an area for the manufacture of porcelain was named.

When Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth, became Empress (1741-1762), she continued to search for qualified artisans and eventually hired Chistoph Konrad Hunger to establish a porcelain factory in St. Petersburg. He was, unfortunately, an adventurer who had little success with the factory, and true porcelain in Russia was developed by his assistant, Dmitri Vinogradov.

More than many other European porcelain factories, however, the Russian Imperial Factory was dependent on foreign craftsmen and ideas. The early Germanic influence on production during the Elizabeth period gave way to French influence, which dominated not only the Imperial Factory, but influenced several private factories as well. The overall direction of the Imperial Factory was, however, Russian, and came under the financial and artistic jurisdiction of His Majesty’s Cabinet (the Imperial chancellor), which, after 1802, also ran the imperial glass and tapestry factories.

The private factories of Russia, the most famous of which was that of Francis Gardner of Moscow, which has imperial patronage, benefited greatly when, in 1806, a new law preventing the importation of commercial porcelain was passed to protect the attempted sale of some of the imperial wares. Much of its output equalled that of the Imperial facory in quality, which is why they are represented in this online exhibition.

Paul Schaffer, President
A La Vieille Russie