Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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From the Hieroglyphics on stone of the ancient Egyptians to the illustrations on today's printed pages, engraving has taken many forms. It is familiar not only as a means of reproducing pictures, but also as surface decoration on wood or stone, glass, silver, and other materials. As an embellishment for porcelain, however, it is extremely unusual.

Apparently the first European to practice engraving on porcelain, and almost the only one, was August Otto Ernst von dem Busch, canon of the Holy Cross Seminary in Hildesheim, Germany. He was born in Hildesheim, the son of a court councilor to the prince, on April 7, 1704, and died in his native city on February 4, 1779. It may have been that as a boy he was torn between the inclination to be an artist, for which he had evident talents, and the call of the Church. He chose to devote himself to the ecclesiastical life, and, so far as we know, it was not until he had reached the age of forty and had become a canon that he began to exercise his artistic talents, not for gain but for pleasure. Adapting the glass engraver's technique to the new and wonderful material which, as far as Europe was concerned, had been discovered and perfected during his lifetime, for the next thirty years he spent the hours he could spare from his ecclesiastical duties in engraving white porcelain with a diamond point and coloring the engraved lines black, probably with lampblack, unfired. Perhaps prior to, and certainly continuing along with, this porcelain ornamentation, Busch also similarly decorated glass. However, his decided preference for porcelain is indicated by the fact that, despite his difficulty in obtaining suitable ware on which to work, most of his decorative efforts surviving today are on that material.

The majority of his work appears on Meissen pieces, but examples on the ware of Furstenberg are also known. Like many of the other ‘hausmalers’ (artists who obtained undecorated porcelain and decorated it in their own workshops), Busch had no ready source of supply from which to acquire porcelain in the white. Most of the pieces he decorated are obviously factory discards, and only rarely did he manage to obtain truly flawless ware. For example, Gustav Pazaurek in his ‘Deutsche Fayence- und Porzellan-Hausmaler’ speaks of a plate in the Kunstgewerblichen Museum in Prague with a particularly disfiguring discard-crack down the middle which the decoration in vain attempts to conceal. Other pieces have evident flaws, and frequently Busch made use of dishes which were badly distorted and bent in the ovens. But if porcelain making in the eighteenth century had not been so hazardous, we should not have now so many delightful examples of ‘hausmalerei’ to complement the factory-decorated pieces of the period.

Busch's favorite subjects were landscapes with monuments and ruins, trees which often appear to have been struck by lightning but from whose shattered boles new and delicate branches have grown, graceful vines, birds, animals, flowers, butterflies, and the like. It may well be that the good canon chose his subjects from personal preference; he may have found crumbling ruins more artistic than buildings in sound condition, and preferred butterflies and animals to human figures as a means of introducing movement into his compositions. However, engraving on porcelain was arduous and painstaking. He developed a technique using innumerable tiny lines rather than the free sweep of line that could be obtained in painting, and the subjects he chose most frequently lent themselves to the limitations imposed by the technique. While he occasionally depicted undamaged buildings and human figures, they are few and far between.

The only other porcelain decorator that is known to have done similar work was an associate and pupil of Canon Busch and likewise a canon of Hildesheim, Jo'hann Gottfried Rratzberg. W. B. Honey in his ‘European Ceramic Art’ speaks of three Furstenberg vases with designs like those by Busch, diamond-engraved and blackened in the same manner, signed by Kratzberg and dated 1773, 1776, and 1778. Pazaurek mentions that it is reported as early as 1750 that numerous pieces of porcelain diamond-engraved by Busch were to be seen at the Brunswick castle of Saizdahl near Walfenbuttel. These were done for Duke Charles I, who apparently supplied the Meissen porcelain for this purpose, and, along with the famous gallery of paintings in the castle, they were pointed out as a new sight worth seeing. The porcelain was removed from the castle and sold at auction in London in 1767, losing its identity as a collection. A milk jug in a private collection recently displayed at a European Museum, may have come originally from this group since it was acquired indirectly from England, and particularly since it is of early date - 1745.

A somewhat larger pot from the collection of Mrs. Charles B. Stout is also dated 1745, as is a complete traveling service still in its original leather case acquired by the Kunstgewerbe Museum, Hamburg, in 1950. No other pieces are known to be in existence today bearing so early a date. The earliest Busch piece referred to by Pazaurek is dated 1748, the latest 1775. Honey says that Busch worked from about 1748 to about 1775.

One particularly interesting firm is Marblehead (Massachusetts) Pottery, founded in 1904 by Dr. Herbert J. Hall as part of a group of craft ventures for "nervously worn-out patients." Before 1912 mat glazes were commonplace at Marblehead - two fish swimming amidst seaweed are rendered in shades of underwater brown, gray and steel blue, and are reminiscent of forms on a Japanese print - but later, bright, tin-enamel glaze became the order of the day. Another Massachusetts firm, Grueby Faience of Boston, is perhaps best known for creating the market for the popular fired mat glaze. Its tiles seem to have a sturdy Arts and Crafts look. The use of ammonia or strongly alkaline soaps on antique Glass or Crystal should be avoided. Extreme and sudden changes of temperature may also be harmful. Before using ice-cream platters, punch bowls, sherbet glasses or other pieces designed for frozen foods or chilled beverages, the glass should be allowed to stand for a few minutes in a cold place or held under a jet of cold water.

The smallest of three pots in George B. McClellan’s collection, the milk jug, was given by Mrs. McClellan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1941, but is undated. However, the simplicity of its decoration suggests the years from about 1760 to 1765. During this period Busch's designs were usually less elaborate, as is attested by dated pieces described by Pazaurek.

Another piece, a plate from Mrs. Stout's collection, and a similar plate from the collection of C. J. Sebastian, are signed and dated respectively 1765 and 1767. The plates themselves are in one of the more elaborate Meissen patterns, designed by J. F. Eberlein in 1742, known as ‘Bruhlsche-allerlei’ (Bruhl's various). The largest collection of Busch pieces ever assembled, accumulated by a German named Geheimrat Leeser over a thirty-year period, included some thirty or forty plates. It was all destroyed during the war, a misfortune which, of course, increased the rarity of authentic Busch pieces. A tureen from the collection of Dr. Hans Syz is signed and dated 1774, at which time Canon Busch was seventy years of age. It is only a year earlier than the last dated piece mentioned by Pazaurek, and was decorated less than five years prior to the canon's death. As Pazaurek points out, there may well be varying opinions regarding Busch's porcelain engravings, which constitute a unique episode in the history of antique ceramics.

There is no doubt that enamel painting as practiced at the porcelain factories and by the other hausmalers is much more suited to the material. On the engraved pieces the black will wash out, and for that matter will become dim just by handling. It can be restored, however, by applying soft charcoal with cotton or a soft cloth. Some critics will find the designs repetitive and amateurish - but after all the good canon was an amateur, doing his delicate landscapes with a painstaking care and no thought of monetary gain. Moreover, while his designs may have been unprofessional, they were his own. Much of the inspiration for factory and hausmaler decoration on porcelain may be traced to etchings, engravings, paintings, or other works. According to most experts, no porcelain engraving by Busch owes its design to any work of art by another hand. His work is exceedingly attractive and a welcome contrast to the richer colored-enamel professional decoration of the period. A Busch-decorated piece gives the feeling that here is the work of a man who loved what he was doing and did it with an enthusiasm which did not dim over a period of thirty years.