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Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg - Expo Paris 1867

Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

Light does not come to us from the north, as Voltaire claimed, but it radiates there and spreads with astonishing ease. The Russians, who in the eyes of many people are considered incorrigible barbarians, are superior to all the peoples of the world in their special ability to appropriate the conquests they have not made. They do not innovate, but they imitate marvellously, and their faculty of assimilation supplements their initiative. Russia had neither Böttcher to discover hard porcelain nor Morin to invent soft porcelain; but as soon as it saw factories established in Meissen and Sèvres, it wanted to have its own, and in 174-4, Peter the Great's daughter, Elisabeth Petrowna, set up the imperial porcelain factory on the banks of the Neva.

Place a stranger unexpectedly in front of the products on display and ask him where they come from. He is almost certain to answer: "from Sèvres. "If he is asked to assign a date, he will hesitate between the Restoration and the reign of Louis-Philippe. Nothing will suggest to him that the models are current, and that they come directly from Saint Petersburg.

In the centre of the sumptuous shelf stands a vase about two metres high, which the catalogue, printed by the Russian commission, refers to as a band vase. It is glittering with gold, the handles curved like a crozier rest on two bull heads; on the band is on one side the portrait of Rubens, on the other his painting of The Abduction of Europa, which is one of the most precious treasures of the Escorial Palace. These copies are largely executed, they have a vigour of tone, which does the greatest honour to the palette of the St Petersburg factory, and to the skill with which it is employed. It was to be feared that such an energetic painting would, so to speak, make a hole in the mass of porcelain; but the artists have succeeded in bringing the surround into harmony with the two paintings. This vase is estimated at six thousand roubles (twenty-four thousand francs).

Another vase, described in the Russian catalogue as a spindle-shaped vase, is decorated with an excellent copy of an interior by Gerard Dow.

The rich palette of St. Petersburg artists is shown in all its brilliance in the copy, on hard porcelain plate, of a Madonna in bust by Murillo. It is a work of powerful colouring, equal to the finest produced by the Sèvres factory during the time it was governed by M. Brongniart, the learned historian of ceramic art.

A soft porcelain cabaret is dedicated to famous lovers: they are gathered, on the plateau, in a garden which must be that of the Champs Elysées dreamed of by paganism. There they meet Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laure, Heloise and Abeilard, Torquato Tasso and Eleanor of Este, Horace and Lydia. We even see the whole novel mingled with history, Saint-Preux and Julie, Desgrieux and Manon Lescaut. Their adventures are reproduced on the vases with a great lightness of touch. Another service is embellished with flowers and garlands, and with small Amours painted in monochrome, which would have been signed by Boucher and Carie Vanloo. The tea and coffee services from the St Petersburg factory take us far away from Russia. On one of them, however, Russian scenes are depicted; but serfs and peasants have received the baptism of emancipation, to the point of having acquired a distinction of bearing, a gentleness of countenance, which they were not supposed to have in the past.

Let us also mention, in painted biscuit, a very curious collection of animals, despite its small size.

Two statuettes, a fruit merchant and a gleaner, have been removed from the shelf of the imperial manufactory, and placed next to the exhibits by Mr. Paul Gardner of Verbilh, Dmitrow district, Moscow government. Did they come from his workshops, or from the imperial workshops? That we cannot decide; but in any case, they are in good taste, and free from the gaudy shades that so often mar the figures.

The imperial factory of St. Petersburg employs two hundred and thirty workers, and produces annually for a sum of one hundred thousand roubles (4 00 000 fr). It draws the raw materials it needs from various parts of Russia. The kaolin is found near the village of Gjel, in the government of Moscow, and at Glukhow, in the government of Chernigow. The Olonetz and Novogorod mines provide fireclay; feldspar and quartz come from Finland.

The State Customs Administration of the Tauride Government, with its headquarters in Simferopol, sent pottery made by the Crimean Tartars to the 1867 Exhibition. Caucasian pottery was collected by the Tiflis Agricultural Society. Both serve to demonstrate that the taste for ceramics is innate, and that it is susceptible of rapid development, even among peoples who have stopped* at a lower degree of civilisation.

The rich candelabra which spreads its branches beside the Russian porcelains is a monolith of rhodonite marble, called in Russian oretza. The branches are made of gilt bronze.

Our readers are familiar with the beautiful Roman mosaics and Florentine furniture, the ebony of which is enriched with inlays representing strawberries, cherries, currants and branches of fruit trees. Russia competes with Rome and Florence. The imperial mosaic establishment in St. Petersburg has executed mosaics of a grandiose character based on the cartoons of Professor Neff. Under the active and enlightened direction of Mr. Jafimowitch, the imperial factory in Péterhof has created cupboards and sideboards that are second only to those of the Italian factories. This is further proof of the ability to assimilate that we mentioned at the beginning of this article.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée