For decades, the bulk of the 150 fragments that form an 18th-century Meissen table fountain languished in cupboards in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Now, thanks to a mix of cutting-edge science and old-fashioned detective work, the white porcelain ensemble—one of the finest Meissen groups in existence—is being reconstructed, in time to go on display in December in the museum’s new Europe 1600-1800 galleries. This will be the first time that the object has been presented in its entirety since it was bought by the museum, in pieces, in 1870.
The table fountain, which is almost four metres long, was commissioned in 1745 by Heinrich, Count von Brühl (1700-63), the German statesman and director of the Meissen factory, as a replica of a life-size fountain at his summer palace in Dresden. The fountain features the god Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite. Rosewater would have flowed through the replica, which Brühl unveiled during the dessert course at state events and dinner parties.
“It must have been spectacular,” says Reino Liefkes, the head of the museum’s ceramics and glass collection. “I would imagine it was Brühl’s favourite toy for quite a while.”
The work has been on Liefkes’s wish list to investigate for some time. For years, many believed that Brühl’s table fountain was lost and that the V&A’s object was a later version, but research has shown that the museum’s fountain is the original created between 1745 and 1747. It contains a mix of original elements and replacement parts, some of which date to the 18th century; several parts are missing.
The reconstruction is being guided by a 19th-century table fountain made from the original mould; Liefkes found the copy in a Dresden museum’s storeroom. It was a lucky find as it contains many of the parts missing from the V&A’s object. These pieces are being scanned so that 3D models can be made, to create new moulds.
The ceramic artist Steve Brown, who teaches at the Royal College of Art in London, is using these moulds to create porcelain replacements for the missing pieces. Several glazes were tested to ensure the closest match to the original.
The conservator Hanneke Ramakers points out that visitors will be able to tell the old from the new. “We’ve taken special care to indicate which sections are new,” she says. The new pieces will be marked, to make any future reinstallation easier. Ramakers also says that the museum has opted for mounts rather than mortar to hold the fountain in place when it goes on display. A video about the reconstruction will accompany the installation.
Ramakers says that one of the more difficult aspects of the project involved cleaning the fragments. “It was a challenge to distinguish between historic and modern dirt,” she says, adding that she and Liefkes agreed that it would be wrong to erase all evidence of use by removing old encrustations or water stains.
“This project has been a true collaboration [between the curatorial and conservation departments],” Liefkes says. “We keep each other in check.”