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Meissen Fountain Remodelled and Restored by RCA Ceramics & Glass Staff

A unique eighteenth-century porcelain table fountain, made by Meissen only around 50 years after they had invented European porcelain, was reassembled at the Victoria and Albert Museum yesterday for the first time in 150 years. The fountain has been reconstructed by RCA ceramicists Dr Steve Brown and Professor Martin Smith, working alongside V&A curatorial and conservation staff.

The fountain, which at 1.5 x 4 metres is the largest original single Meissen porcelain figure group in existence, was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1870 as part of a large acquisition of porcelain objects. The project raised complex questions about the nature of conservation and restoration, both in the context of the age of digital reproduction and in the search for new types of authenticity.

The original fountain was hand-modelled by Johann Joachim Kändler (1706–75), Meissen’s chief modeller and a highly regarded figure in the history of porcelain manufacture in Europe.

On 4 February 1748 Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, British envoy at the court at Dresden, wrote a letter home recounting his impressions of a lavish dinner party, which demonstrates how such fountains were presented:

‘We sat down at one table two hundred and six People (twas at Count Brühl's) … In the middle of the Table was the Fountain… at least eight foot high, which ran all the while with Rose-water…'

Over a century later, the fountain’s undocumented fragments arrived in the V&A’s collection. Among the restoration and conservation challenges has been establishing the fountain’s original size and extent, and trying to restore it as faithfully as possible to the original that Von Brühl commissioned in 1745.

The project was initiated and led by Reino Liefkes, Head of Ceramics and Glass at the V&A. Extensive research uncovered a reference point in a monumental fountain made by the Italian Baroque sculptor Lorenzo Matielli (1688–1748) for Von Bruhl’s pleasure garden, and led senior V&A curator Reino Liefkes to the Porcelain Museum in Dresden, where he uncovered a nineteenth-century polychromed fountain that was an exact copy of the V&A’s original. Despite it being incomplete, this copy provided accurate models for almost all the elements that were missing from the V&A’s fountain.

It is these 22 missing porcelain pieces that Dr Steve Brown, Tutor in Ceramics & Glass, and Professor Martin Smith, Head of Ceramics & Glass (RCA), have recreated using 3D scanning and CNC machining, while members of the V&A conservation team have used conventional methods to restore the fragments.

Brown and Smith used 3D scanning and printing technologies to create accurately fitting positive shapes to replace the missing pieces in porcelain. Rigorous trials arrived at a figure of 116% shrinkage for the particular mix, which used New Zealand porcelain with a ‘homeopathic’ amount of blue pigment to match the original blue-white colour. Scaling up the scans allowed them to compensate for the substantial shrinkage of porcelain when fired to a mature state.

The technology took them as far as the models. From there on, the making reverted to technology that Meissen would have recognised. Moulds were made in the traditional way, and slabs of clay were rolled and pressed into moulds by hand, with fists and knuckles. During the conservation process, evidence of hand processes was uncovered on the insides of the fragments, where makers’ marks including hessian impressions and thumbprints were clearly visible.

Professor Martin Smith said, ‘We’d made two of everything, so we had a back-up in place, but even so the moment of opening the kiln was nerve-wracking. It’s the nature of ceramics that you can’t know that your work has been successful until the kiln has cooled, and this firing had the added pressure of years of research and technological investment.’

The deployment of new technologies made the project possible but also raised pressing questions about authenticity, the notion of the original artwork and the values of craft practice in the wider sense.

A traditional conservation approach would employ neutral shape or coloured space in place of absent elements, asking the viewer to complete the exhibit in their mind. The V&A’s staff had decided that porcelain would best acknowledge Kändler’s authorship. In utilising the ‘impartial “truth” of the scanner’, according to Liefkes, the authenticity of the fountain remains with the original ‘hands’ from the eighteenth century, more than had they used a contemporary hand-made approximation.

Dr Steve Brown said: ‘What we are trying to do with the fountain is radical in museum terms and possibly closer to the restoration of historic buildings… where it is standard practice to attempt a full renovation in the materials and spirit of the original… The scans allow us to access the Meissen of 1745 and there, in our opinion, lies the authenticity of this project.’

The reconstructed fountain will be displayed in the V&A’s new ‘Europe 1600–1800’ galleries, opening early in 2015.