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Limoges Porcelain 250 years and still going strong Judith Dunn If you are in Limoges, visit the Musée National Adrien Dubouché, named for the businessman and philanthropist who, in 1868, founded an influential school of decorative arts for porcelain artists and artisans in Limoges. The porcelain is displayed in cabinets resembling opened molds. © RMN (Limoges, Cité de la céramique)/René-Gabriel Ojéda. T he Chinese have been producing porcelain from at least the seventh century. Chinese porcelain’s jewel-like beauty and translucence made it highly prized in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when merchants brought back quantities packed as ballast among the tea, cotton, silks and other commodities they were importing. Europeans soon learned about the production process, thanks to reports coming back from the Far East with traders and explorers. The correspondence of a French Jesuit missionary, Father François-Xavier d’Entrecolles, contains an early and highly detailed account. Born in 1664 (in Lyon according to some sources, in Limoges according to others), he went to China in 1698 and rapidly became versed in Chinese language and culture. From Yangzi he went to Jingdezhen, the center of porcelain production. Nearby Gaoling (Chinese for “high hills”) gave its name to “kaolin” (china clay), the essential ingredient that was quarried there. In two letters, dated 1712 and 1722, d’Entrecolles describes methods of extracting kaolin and the subsequent forming, decorating, glazing and firing processes. But knowing how to produce porcelain was very different from being able to. The expense and desirability of Chinese porcelain led many Europeans to attempt to emulate it. Early efforts produced “soft-paste” porcelain, an unstable and artificial mix of sand, soda, saltpetre, alum, gypsum and soft soap. Centers such as Vincennes (later Sèvres) produced some spectacular pieces, but they were fragile. Hard-paste or “true” porcelain is a compound of entirely natural elements. Its key ingredients are kaolin and pegmatite (china stone, Page 34 ◆ Antiques Journal ◆ July 2014 petuntse to the Chinese). Kaolin is white clay, very pure, which melts only at a very high temperature. Pegmatite is a rock made up of feldspar and quartz. When ground and mixed with kaolin and fired at high temperature, it forms a glassy cement. The resultant porcelain is translucent white, hard and impermeable – and rings when struck. Limoges begins production The first deposits of kaolin were discovered in Saxony in 1709, giving the manufacture at Meissen a head start. Sixty years later, extensive, high-quality deposits were found at St-Yrieix-la-Perche, near Limoges. The area also had plentiful supplies of wood for the kilns and water to drive paste-mills, as well as mineral deposits of gold, copper, iron and manganese, whose oxides provided color and glaze. The city, administrative center for the Department of Haute-Vienne in west central France, is still the capital of French porcelain production, but the appellation “Limoges” includes the surrounding area. In 1769, two years after the Limoges deposits of kaolin were found, King Louis XV acquired the land and made porcelain production a royal privilege. The first manufactory was opened in 1771 by the Grellet brothers in association with Joseph Massié and Nicolas Fournérat and came under the patronage of the Comte d’Artois, grandson of Louis XV and the future Charles X. Production was uneven in the early years, largely owing to technical problems. Hard-paste porcelain needs to be fired at 1400º C. rather than the 900º required for soft-paste – and the kilns were by no means always up to the task. In 1784, the enterprise was linked with Sèvres www.antiquesjournal.com