Science on the Table: A Botanical Approach to Floral Decoration on Porcelain in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century




O'Keefe, Sara

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Following a period of excess and frivolity in the Decorative Arts with the Rococo, the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on science, along with discoveries through global exploration, catalyzed an interest in nature which came to the forefront in the decorative arts, specifically porcelain, created in the second half of 18th century. This fascination encouraged the creation of porcelain items, which replicated natural discoveries, and, communicated, not just the wealth of the owner, but their intellectual eminence in the scrutiny of the natural world. In a period when floral decoration on porcelain is formally divided between styles inspired by the Far East or Germany, there is, in fact, another approach to floral decoration, initiated by science, which reflects a third distinct fashion at the time. The Enlightenment with its emphasis on science and reason found inspiration in nature. Free from subjugation to King and Church, people were able to use their minds to embrace the splendor and order found in the natural world and to use the scholarly knowledge to explain and control their existence. Scientific advances, exploration and political philosophy empowered humanity to pursue and attain, through their newfound awareness, happiness and insight through the physical world. On the dining table, porcelain objects were created to reinforce this appreciation of scholarship. The Chelsea “Hans Sloane” pattern and “Flora Danica” of the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory, painted with the most accurate and scientific botanical imagery, were created, replicating studied illustrations by Oeder, Ehret, and others for the intellectual consumer. This scientific approach to decoration was novel, in that it was inspired by and created for an intellectual thinker. Overall, much literary work has covered the intent of Enlightenment thinkers. Likewise, there is ample documentation of the botanical catalogues made by voyagers, scientists and artists of the time. In the Arts, much has been written about porcelain decoration in the late 18th century and there is a plethora of resources from which to draw on for research on the objects. However, this thesis will study a distinct style in the portrayal of botanicals at the time, which was inspired by science and the Enlightenment. There is little research on the genre of science on the table: scientific floral decoration on porcelain in the second half of the 18th century. This document will delve into 18th century exploration, enlightened philosophy and scientific study, which converged to make science a fashionable decoration on porcelain made in the second half of the 18th century. Through extensive research of the “Flora Danica” collection of porcelain, along with Chelsea and other English porcelain, this examination will analyze the influence of the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Sir Hans Sloane and G.C. Oeder, their journals, books, and, illustrations, on the decoration of porcelain for the dining table, which allowed for the actualization of a distinct third way, the scientific style, in portraying floral decoration. It is this crossroad of liberated mind, with art, which made methodical decoration, in the precise depiction of flora, a prominent style for the elite intellectual and a vehicle for them to communicate their new aspirations



Botanical, Eighteenth century, Porcelain, Enlightenment