Thursday, December 5, 2019

Onions Galore

QUESTION: I have several plates by Meissen with what I believe is called the Blue Onion pattern. Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: The Blue Onion pattern is the Meissen company’s most popular and has been for over 250 years.  Because Meissen never copyrighted it, more companies have copied it than any other ceramic pattern. But the pieces made by Meissen, itself, stand above the others because of the way its workers meticulously hand painted the design on each piece.

After Marco Polo introduced Chinese blue and white porcelains to Europe, the demand rose until by the beginning of the 18th century, Europeans clammered for more and more of the finely painted pieces. To satisfy this demand, the East India Company established trade with China and brought to Europe as much of the blue and white porcelain as it could.

But try as it might, the East India Company couldn’t keep up with the demand, so in 1710 Augustus the Strong formed a new porcelain company to produce blue underglaze decorations like those of the Chinese. Johann Gregor H√∂roldt, a talented porcelain painter who had worked for the Du Paquier Porcelain Company, a competitor of Meissen’s, perfected the blue underglaze paint, which the Meissen Company used to decorate its wares with the Blue Onion pattern, in 1739.

The model for this unique pattern most likely came from a flax bowl from the Chinese K'ang Hsi period, dating from 1662-1722. Originally, Meissen called it the “bulb” pattern. However, since Europeans were unfamiliar with the fruits and flowers shown on the original Chinese pieces, the Meissen artists created hybrids that were more familiar to the company’s customers. The so-called "onions" really aren’t onions at all, but stylized peaches and pomegranates modeled after the original Chinese pattern. They made the flower in the design a cross between a chrysanthemum and a peony and wove the stems of both the fruits and the flower around a stalk of bamboo.

As production continued, Meissen changed the pattern slightly. Originally, the fruits on the border pointed inward with the stem on the edge. But they altered this design by pointing the fruits alternatively inward and outward.

Not only did the Blue Onion pattern become Meissen’s most popular, but it also was its least expensive to produce. The company made money by using lower-paid “blue painters” as well as   apprentices to do the decorating. In addition, the pieces decorated with the pattern didn’t need a third firing which was necessary to fix the enamel decoration on Meissen’s other wares, plus the company decided not to add gilding to the standard pattern.

The Blue Onion pattern achieved popularity again during Victorian times when home furnishings became darker and heavier. It complemented the more elaborate Victorian furniture styles preferred by the new wealthy middle class. Immediately after the Civil War, the pattern took off. Everything from napkins to tablecloths, utensil handles to enameled cooking pots featured it. By the 1870s, the Meissen Company had adapted it to fit nearly every shape of porcelain ware it produced. To distinguish its Blue Onion pattern from those of its competitors, the company put its now famous emblem of Blue Crossed Swords at the foot of the design’s bamboo trunk in 1888.

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