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the duke of buckingham's treasure

updated wed 21 apr 10


Frances Howard on tue 20 apr 10

An exhibition at Burghley House, England, entitled "Art in Miniature" featu=
res three little vases, all under 3 inches high which have been in the Burg=
hley House collection since 1683 and catalogued regularly since then. One =
had a piece of paper inside saying "Lord Buckingham's china", another note =
has gone missing. The second duke of Buckingham, (1628-87), one of England=
's richest men, was also a keen amateur chemist and had a large glassworks =
at Vauxhall outside London. It was always supposed that these vases were o=
f glass, painted with cherubs and gold and so on.

However a Sotheby's examination in 1991 and recently by a young American, M=
organ Wesley, written up in "Transactions", the bible of the English Cerami=
c Circle which specialises in porcelain, concludes otherwise. Their messag=
e is clear, the pots are hard paste, a porcelain, a European first and pred=
ating the Meissen porcelain by at least 25 years.

Two more examples have been found, one at Dunham Massey and another at Wind=
sor castle in the royal collection, which has since been lost. The recipe =
for this hard paste porcelain is different from the Meissen recipe and they=
are both different from the Chinese. John Mallet, sometimes called the po=
pe of porcelain, claims that these are Europe's earliest hard paste porcela=

We have always been taught that the discovery of porcelain in Europe was ma=
de by Johann Friedrich Bottger working (not always willingly) at the Dresde=
n court of Augustus the Strong, who set up the factory at Meissen to produc=
e hard paste porcelain, the "white gold" of Europe. It seems this is not s=
o. There are still many unanswered questions, who made them, where, in Eng=
land, in Europe, if so how did they arrive where they are now. If they wer=
e made in Vauxhall why didn't the duke continue making them. Many question=

The response to all this from the director of Dresden's famous porcelain co=
llection, Ulrich Pietsch is to reaffirm Bottger's discovery as "the hour o=
f birth of European hard paste". This is not a first that Meissen and Dres=
den want to lose. Someone has likened it to saying Russian astronauts land=
ed on the moon 25 years before the Americans.

You can google all this up and see pictures of the three vases which are ex=
quisite even if our present tastes don't run to cherubs and gold. They loo=
k more 18th or 19th century pieces and it is extraordinary to think they su=
ddenly jumped, fully formed, out of a pottery tradition.

Frances Howard.