Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Royal Botanicals

QUESTION: A dealer at a high-end antique show had several unique pieces of porcelain dinnerware which he called Royal Copenhagen. According to him, the pattern is Flora Danica. These beautiful dishes had the most delicate and detailed floral decoration I’ve ever seen. What can you tell me about this dinnerware?

ANSWER: Royal Copenhagen's Flora Danica is one of the most prestigious dinner services still in production today. It is also one of the oldest. The first piece emerged from the kiln in 1790.

Since Meissen's rediscovery of porcelain in the 18th century, people judged the progress of a nation by its porcelain production, and most European rulers quickly founded their own porcelain workshops.

In Denmark, chemist Frantz Henrich' Muller received the backing of the royal family and spent years attempting to make hard paste porcelain. In 1775, he succeeded. Soon after, the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory began production. The royal family financially supported the operation, and Queen Julianne Marie took special interest in its production. It was her idea to have three blue wavy lines, symbolizing the three Danish waterways, as the company's trademark.

In 1761 George Christian Oeder, the director of the botanical gardens in Copenhagen, published an encyclopedia of the national flora of Denmark. He got the support of the royal family and engaged engraver Michael Rossler and his son, Martin, to undertake the huge project. He called his encyclopedia Flora Danica, and it took more than 100 years to complete. It included 3,000 hand-colored copperplate prints depicting every wild plant in Denmark, including flowers, fungi, mosses, and ferns. Crown Prince Frederick, later King Frederick VI, liked the progress of this new folio and decided to commission a dinner service decorated with flora from the new publication. He needed a gift for Czarina Catherine II of Russia and thought a beautiful dinner set depicting the nation's flora would be a worthy gift for a member of royalty.

The King commissioned Johann Christoph Boyer, one of the most talented artists of the late 18th century, to transfer the flora from the folio onto a dinner service.

The Flora Danica dinner service turned out to be Boyer's life work. It ultimately deprived him of all his strength and destroyed his eyesight, as he had to work in poor light during the long dark winter months in Denmark. He did almost all the hand-painted floral decoration on the 1,802 individual pieces himself. When his eyesight became very poor in 1799, Christian Nicolai Faxic painted, gilded and ornamented 158 pieces. Soren Preus modeled the applied flowers from 1784 to 1801.The project came to an end in 1802 when Boyer could no longer work. By this time Catherine hurriedly carried over the service, which had been stored with the silver in a special room adjacent to the royal chapel. Servants transported the rest of the service to the Chinese Room in the Rosenberg Castle, where it’s safely guarded to this day.

Of the 1,802 pieces of the original Flora Danica service delivered in 1803, 1,530 have survived. Selected ones are still used on the royal table of Queen Margrethe II on state occasions at Amalienborg Palace, the residence of the Danish royal family.

When Flora Danica appeared in 1790, workmanship was a high priority. Skilled artisans executed serrated edges and carvings by hand on the soft wet porcelain body. Other artisans hand-modeled flower bouquets on lids, covers and handles leaf by leaf, petal by petal, and stamen by stamen. The stamens are so small they had to be added to the flowers with the point of a needle.

It took artistic skill to paint the flora as it wasn’t easy to “translate” the plant drawings to the curved surfaces of the porcelain. It took painters over12,000 individual brush strokes to complete one dinner plate. When possible, they painted the flowers the same size as the illustrations in the Flora Danica work.

The outstanding modeling of the pieces and the power of the painting amazes collectors. Prices are high for Flora Danica pieces, and the market is brisk. Recently on an Internet auction a Flora Danica platter sold for $1,500 and a wine cooler went for $2,600. Dinner plates sell from $700 to $900. A cup and saucer can sell for as much as $500 to $600.

Royal Copenhagen’s Flora Danica is still made today. And while few people can afford to collect an entire dinner set, most collectors have a few select pieces in their porcelain collections.

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