Flora Danica porcelain is certainly beautiful, with its exquisite molding, delicate hand-painted flowers, and tasteful gilding. However, it is much more than just that. Flora Danica porcelain has a story as exciting as the porcelain is beautiful, including the cutting edge of Enlightenment botanical science, kings and empresses, war, intrigue, and, tying it all together, the meticulous dedication of thousands of artists and craftspeople.
In 1752, G.C. Oeder (1728-1791), a medical doctor and scientist, was appointed head of the newly created Royal Botanical Institution in Copenhagen. One of his first actions was to propose an ambitious project: a thorough catalog of the flora in Denmark and surrounding areas, profusely illustrated and with characteristic and taxonomic details in order to help the plants be financially useful to the nation. Oeder and a team of botanists spent years observing and illustrating plants in the field, and in 1861 the first volume of the Flora Danica was published. In 1772, Oeder was removed from the project following a coup against the king, during which Oeder’s academic enemies came out on top. The project, however, continued, and twelve other editors presided over the project until the final volume’s publication in 1883.
Flora Danica began to have a cultural and scientific impact as soon as the first few volumes were published. The thorough catalog of wild plants and their uses proved to be tremendously useful to botanists and other scientists. It was also part of an initiative to spread knowledge about native plants throughout the kingdom. For this reason, the books were published in Danish and German as well as in Latin, making the information accessible to a wider group of people. In addition, the funding from the crown allowed the books to be sold for a very reasonable price. There was also a more concerted effort by publishers to spread this knowledge: multiple copies of Flora Danica were sent to each diocese in the kingdom, where the clergy and their congregations to read the books and also send back any botanical observations and information they may have access to in their parts of the kingdom.
Europe in the 18th century was in the midst of a porcelain craze. Since the introduction of the art form from China by the infamous Marco Polo, porcelain had been steadily growing in popularity. By the 17th century, porcelain was an important status symbol for wealthy and powerful Europeans. However, all porcelain had to be imported from China, because European manufacturers had not figured out how to make porcelain themselves. Eventually, the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), well known for his obsession with porcelain, came up with a foolproof plan to figure out how porcelain was made: he locked an alchemist and a physicist up in a tower and waited. Shockingly, this worked, and in 1710, the Meissen Porcelain factory, the first European hard paste porcelain manufacturer, was founded.
The knowledge of how to make hard paste porcelain quickly spread through Europe, and various workshops and factories cropped up throughout the continent, many with royal patronage. Royal Copenhagen was one of these, founded as the Royal Danish Porcelain Manufactory in 1775. Frantz Heinrich Müller, a chemist, was given a 50 year monopoly on porcelain production in Copenhagen. The factory was built in a repurposed post office; despite these less-than-noble environs, the first set of porcelain the manufactory produced was a dinner service for the royal family, and the manufactory was granted official royal patronage in 1779. Royal Copenhagen soon became well known for the quality of their porcelain wares, particularly their services using intense cobalt mined in Norway, then part of the Danish Empire.
The First Flora Danica Service
Denmark had been a Russian ally in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790. However, the Danish succumbed to pressure from Great Britain and Prussia and declared neutrality early in the conflict, failing to perform their duty as allies. Following this, King Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808) needed a way to make amends with Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796). He decided to give her a fabulous gift. Since Catherine was known for collecting porcelain, he decided upon a luxurious dinner service the likes of which the world had never seen. And what better subject for the decoration of this porcelain service than the illustrations from the Flora Danica, a scientific triumph and celebration of Denmark’s natural richness?
In 1790, the king commissioned Royal Copenhagen to create a 100 setting dinner service decorated after the illustrations in the Flora Danica. Johann Christoph Bayer (1738-1812), an artist who had worked on the illustrations for the books, was hired to paint the porcelain pieces. He single handedly painted an incredible 1,802 pieces of porcelain before production was completed in 1802. However, by the time the service was ready, Catherine the Great had died. The service stayed in Denmark, where it became a national treasure, used by the royal family on important state occasions and displayed in Denmark’s palaces and museums.
The Revival & Craftsmanship
In 1863, Royal Copenhagen decided to revive the pattern. In keeping with the original Flora Danica service, each piece of porcelain was painstakingly hand molded and decorated. The pattern has continued to be made to order in this way ever since. Each piece has been hand carved, the delicate floral forms molded, glazed, painted, and gilded by a team of Danish artisans. The buyer is able to choose which plants they would like on their service, making each set uniquely personal. Each piece has the Latin name of the plant depicted along the underside of the plate. Each piece, through its craftsmanship and individuality, tells a story of groundbreaking scholarship, royal politics and diplomacy, and the patron of each commissioned set.
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