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Love story told in old porcelain.

THE first time it happened was when a picture specialist at a leading auction house stood me in front of a Victorian narrative painting and explained the story depicted on its canvas.

I was both inspired and dumbstruck in equal measure by the specialist's knowledge. Here was a charming enough painting of a family sitting around a cottage table, the mother reading a letter to her children and parents.

When the scene was explained by an expert, the picture took on a whole new meaning: the letter is bad news, the wife wears black and clearly the children have been orphaned by war or other mishap.

The father is an old soldier himself - there is a group of medals hanging above the fireplace, which is why he seems less distraught than his wife. And so on.

Narrative paintings has fascinated me ever since. But I thought that was the end of it. Not a bit.

I attended the International Ceramic Fair in London last month, where I met someone who has forgotten more about pottery and porcelain than I'll never know. He explained to me the significance of the object illustrated here.

It was made by the German manufacturer Meissen in 1745 and is correctly termed a chafing dish, cover and stand.

Interestingly, it came from the collection of the Dukes of Westminster and might once have stood on display in William Porden's Eaton Hall, Chester.

My expert guide to this ceramic conundrum was Paul Crane of London ceramics dealer Brian Haughton. Mr Crane had spent months cracking the various codes displayed on the piece - so simple to spot so long as you have eyes to see them.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is the armorials painted on the piece. They are those of Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, King Augustus III of Poland and his wife Queen Maria-Josepha.

The second thing is the obvious domestic nature of the object. Why would such an dish, more usually found in kitchen or on a dining table, be so profusely decorated?

Simple. Research has proved that the dish, commissioned personally from Meissen by the Queen, was intended as her gift to her husband to mark their 25th - or silver - wedding anniversary.

The fact that its design was based on something more often found in silver eludes, therefore, to a strong and successful marriage which had enjoyed 25 years of domestic bliss and harmony This then is an important piece of Meissen, not only as an emblem of unchanging love in a royal marriage, but also a tour de force of ceramic art.

Meissen's chief modeller JJ Kaendler (1706-1775) and his decorators were commissioned personally by the queen and between them, they produced a ceramic tour de force.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was gripped by a fascination with the secret Turkish language of flowers, introduced to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of the ambassador from the Court of St James to Constantinople.

Flowers had long been the sign of romance but adopting the secret language meant lovers were then able to send messages to each other and proclaim their love using specific flowers.

In simple terms, this might just mean sending a posy carefully chosen for the moment. More complex was to appear in a portrait holding certain flowers or by commissioning special objects illustrating their private thoughts.

So it is with the chafing dish. On the cover of the dish alongside the arms of the Elector and his wife appear the heartsease or wild pansy which show the twin faces of togetherness and thoughtfulness.

The iron red genista or broom on the right means a union which would refer to the happy couple, while the panel showing a stag hunt, a pursuit reserved for royal rank is linked to Venus and symbolic of love and fertility.

In this scene the stag has been chased and caught, alluding to a chase which culminates in the personal union of two lovers and the triumph of love Other scenes are filled with vignettes of court life, each showing a courtly man kissing of the hand of a lady.

The flowers immediately flanking the armorial on the dish itself are the auricula and the pink carnation placed together with the speedwell.

Auriculas symbolise a union of primal or first love, presumably an allusion to the often prearranged marriages of the time. The pink carnation translates as woman's love and the speedwell represents fidelity or truth.

Finally the single white bell of the campanula flower appears to the right of the auriculas, meaning gratitude and constancy.

The side of the chafing dish shows a view of courtiers walking in pairs in various parts of a formal garden, complete with a tunnel of love.

Historically such pleasure gardens found in many European countries at the time were a place of royal and aristocratic intrigue where courtiers expressed some of their most intimate desires. The stand to the dish itself provides the most dramatic symbols of an obviously strong union between a husband and wife.

The central armorial is surrounded by further symbols of the heart's desire: below it and to the right is an open purple cabbage rose, the ambassador of all love, beside a spray of speedwell representing the strongest symbol of true love.

To the left, the pink-tinged dianthus not only denotes faithful love but also alludes to a belief in Christ as Saviour and is therefore a symbol of deep religious significance This alludes to the God-given right to rule and the divine significance of the couple's place in society.

Another scene supports the allusion. It shows a falconry hunt in progress, traditionally associated with royalty and regarded as the sport of kings.

There was a clear hierarchical use of birds of prey at this time that had its roots in the Middle Ages.

Rank decreed that a vulture or a merlin could be used in a hunt only by an emperor, while a king was entitled to a gyrfalcon, a peregrine falcon was used by a prince or a duke, a goshawk by a yeoman and a kestrel for a knave


The dish cover has a gold coloured artichoke finial and the Royal arms are flanked by heartsease, a sprig of iron-red flowering sweet pea and speedwell, and three painted panels, one of which, far right, shows the pleasure gardens of a huge royal palace with courtiers walking in pairs and a with a tunnel of love in the background; The highly important royal armorial presentation chafing dish and stand made at Meissen in 1745. The dish was commissioned personally by Queen Maria-Josepha to give to her husband Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, King Augustus III of Poland to mark their 25th wedding anniversary
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 30, 2005
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