With its simple, clean outlines and elegant neo classical decoration, Biedermeier porcelain graced the homes of the prosperous middle classes.
The term Biedermeier comes from a fictional character called Gottlieb Biedermeiey, who featured in a popular journal of the time. He personified the solid, unpretentious tastes of the middle classes in the early 19th century. Biedermejer cups, saucers and plates, with their lavish use of gilt and finely worked decoration, are ideal items for display.
From the early 19th century, porcelain factories in Germany and Austria began producing a range of wares that were considerably plainer than the grand services ordered by royalty but more sumptuous than the everyday tableware used in the ordinary home. The new styles took a limited yet elegant array of shapes, and were decorated in a fresh and distinctive manner.
This was Biedermeier porcelain, and, as the century progressed, it was to be seen increasingly frequently in the homes of the comfortable middle classes. Porcelain of the Biedermeier period represents a simplified version of the neo-classical style, which had dominated European art for half a century. It is characterised by plain outlines, flat surfaces, restrained gilding and elegant decoration, often enclosed in a border or band of colour.
The finest Biedermeier porcelain was made in Vienna by the Royal Imperial Porcelain Factory and in Berlin by the Konigliche Porzellan Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain factory) or KPM. Taking the lead from these two great factories, lesser porcelain-making concerns imitated their wares. These smaller factories include those at Furstenberg, Ludwigsburg and Nymphenburg in Bavaria, and Ilmenau and Gera in Thuringia.
As the century progressed, Biedermeier porcelain, on account of its fine decoration, was increasingly likely to be made for display rather than for use. Items manufactured include campana vases, decorated plaques, medallions and sets of plates. The cabaret set - a small, richly decorated service on a matching tray - came into its own; it took the form of the solitaire (a tea or coffee service for one, with cup and saucer, coffee pot, milk jug and sugar bowl), or a dejeuner or tete-a-tete set (with two cups and saucers). Finely painted and gilded inkstands were also made.
While all these items were not new, the decoration which they bore was an innovation. With the Biedermeier period, the art of the
porcelain painter reached new heights. A wide range of colours was used for naturalistic flower paintings, portraits, landscapes, bird and animal paintings, and scenic views. Abstract patterns and a repertoire of ornate borders, often with tooled gilding, complemented the range. At its simplest, floral painting consisted of a spray of flowers on the naturally white background of the porcelain; at its richest, it ran to an abundant bouquet of blooms covering an entire surface.
Among other types of decoration, landscapes and townscapes are particularly associated with Biedermeier porcelain. Vistas, squares, opera houses, cathedrals and gardens in Vienna, Berlin and other cities were exactingly reproduced on cups and saucers, sugar bowls, coffee pots, urns and vases. A cabaret set, for instance, might be decorated with a series of connected scenes or historical personages. Whereas painters on porcelain had once remained anonymous, artists of the Biedermeier period enjoyed rising status.
BIEDERMEIER PORCELAIN COLLECTOR'S NOTES
A collection of Biedermeier porcelain is most effectively built up on the basis of decoration rather than the type of object. The decorative field, ranging from flowers to silhouettes, is certainly wide, but it is perhaps the panoramic views and townscapes that are of greatest interest to collectors. They are highly typical of Biedermeier porcelain and also encapsulate the age, with their almost photographic record of buildings, gardens and thoroughfares.
Cups and saucers, many of them made for the display cabinet, were produced in the greatest numbers and decorated with the fullest range of Biedermeier motifs. Large vases, plaques and cabaret, breakfast and other sets are more costly and will appeal to the more ambitious collector.
Most pieces bear a factory mark, the only sure means of identification. The Berlin mark is simply the initials KPM, occasionally accompanied by an orb, a sceptre or an eagle. The Vienna factory's mark is a shield with two horizontal bars drawn across it - painted, incised or impressed into the porcelain. The mark is sometimes accompanied by a workman's number or code referring to the year of manufacture, though pieces may have been decorated 10 to 15 years later.
On Vienna porcelain, the signature of an individual artist - Joseph Nigg or Eduard Pollack on a floral piece, perhaps - will sometimes be found. Although the signature of a renowned artist adds value, pieces should always be judged on their own merit. Remember, too, that the Vienna factory's fame led others to use the shield mark.
Regular dusting with a soft cloth, or, at most, washing in warm water with mild detergent, is all that display porcelain should need to keep it free of dust and dirt.
Good buys are often pieces made by lesser known factories, or single pieces from an incomplete set. Gilding and painting should be clear and bright. When handling pieces, try to keep your fingers off the gilded areas.
Read articles and references:
Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William