A woman’s take on Meissen men

Maureen Cassidy-Geiger’s research of the Arnhold Collection was helped by the fall of the Iron Curtain

Studies of Meissen porcelain have made huge strides in the last ten years owing to the research of Maureen Cassidy-Geiger. Using access to the Dresden State archives, presumably greatly facilitated by political changes since 1989, she has made the subject very much her own in the English-speaking world, using her knowledge of the factory records to give a precise overview of the subject, with specific dates and attributions for the creation of certain models and styles. This has opened our eyes to the importance of royal connections and commissions in the factory, as well as expanding our knowledge of its day-to-day production of more routine output sold throughout Europe. It is noteworthy that this collection of Meissen porcelain is currently on display at the Frick Collection in New York (until 29 June), possibly the most princely and discerning of collections of fine art in the western hemisphere.

The importance of Meissen porcelain lies in the fact that it was the first factory to produce true “hard-paste” porcelain in Europe, financed by the Elector of Saxony, who was also King of Poland, and his court in nearby Dresden. Its products have been collector’s items since the 18th century. This book is a catalogue of the Arnhold Collection of New York, a comprehensive collection of Meissen wares formed mostly over the last ten or 15 years, but based on a German family collection of the 1930s. It is an almost complete survey of Meissen wares of the first half of the 18th century. The origins in fact lie in a collection formed in Dresden before World War II, by the banking Arnhold family, who were interested in all forms of art, old and new, and gives a particular period flavour to its character.

The book is introduced by three prefatory chapters: on the collection itself by Henry Arnhold, the present day collector; on “the taste for 18th-century German porcelain” by Sebastian Kuhn; and on the historic Arnhold Collection in Dresden by Heike Biedermann. The collection itself dates back to 1926, though much of this earlier collection has been dispersed and is described in a useful appendix at the end. Sebastian Kuhn contributes a long and detailed paper on Meissen collectors in Germany and elsewhere, fleshing out personalities which were formerly names in sale catalogues or provenance lists. It is wonderfully illustrated with contemporary photographs of the collections, and the displays themselves, in situ. It seems strange to learn that Meissen porcelain of the 18th century was artistically appreciated in Germany itself only in the later 19th century, some years after the Wagnerian obsession with medieval and Renaissance culture and history, culminating in a grand exhibition of European porcelain in Berlin in 1904. This must be the cultural origins of the “naughty but nice” conception of 18th-century Germany court life that lies at the heart of Richard Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier”, first performed in Dresden in 1911. The many fakes and imitations of “Dresden” porcelain of the 19th century apparently relate more to the English taste for elaborate Rococo display pieces, which are somewhat lacking in this collection. Heike Biedermann’s essay deals with the cultural activities of the Arnhold family in Dresden before World War II, when they bought and exhibited a wide range of modern French and German art (and supported the purchase of Gauguin’s Parau Api by the Dresden Picture Gallery in 1926), an episode that was cut all too short by the emergence of Hitler. There is some valuable material here on the sculptor Ernst Barlach and his work in porcelain, as the Arnhold family had a financial interest in the Schwarzburger porcelain factory for which he worked at their suggestion.

The catalogue itself comprises 387 entries divided into seven sections, dealing with display pieces, figures, teawares, tablewares, “the private apartment” (essentially wares for one person) and independent or “outside” decorators wares, and Eastern porcelain, which includes many pieces from the historic Dresden Collections. Virtually every piece is illustrated front and back in colour, with details of marks, and the print source of the decoration where it can be identified. There are short notes at the beginning of each section which represent the most up-to-date knowledge in each of these fields. It would occasionally have been nice to have had further discussion of the catalogue entries themselves (for instance, the comment on the modern decoration of the garniture of yellow ground vases (no.32) is that “scientific analysis confirmed this”; I assume chrome (or chromium), first identified in the 1790s,

has been identified in the yellow). However, the beautifully full and clear colour plates always enable the reader to make up his or her own mind. This reviewer especially enjoyed the last section, an important group of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, much of which was in the royal collection in Dresden in the 18th century, where it would have rubbed shoulders (or “rims”?) in the Japanese Palace in rooms of porcelain arranged according to colour, with the newer Meissen imitations intermixed. This is altogether a magnificent contribution to Meissen studies and the wider field of German art and collecting in the 20th century.

Howard Coutts

Keeper of Ceramics, The Bowes

Museum, Barnard Castle

o Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, Sebastian Kuhn and Heike Biedermann, The Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain, 1710-70 (The Frick Collection in association with D. Giles Ltd), 800 pp, £140 (hb) ISBN 9781904832447

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