The Magnificent Swan Service

It is unlikely that any set of dishes today would be described as "magnificent," but the grand Swan Service certainly merits that adjective. Though it was not the first porcelain service ever produced in Europe, when it was created, it held the record for being the largest and most lavish dinner service ever manufactured on the Continent. Despite the fact that the Swan Service was commissioned and created several decades before the Regency began in England, it was still in existence at that time, and remained in the hands of the family of the man for whom it had originally been made. That service, or a fictional one similar to it, might make a uniquely luxurious prop for a Regency novel.

A brief history of the magnificent Swan Service . . .

The delicate white porcelain vessels made in China were known in Europe from the late Middle Ages, though only a very few pieces were imported until the seventeenth century. Once regular trade was established with China, porcelain became one of the most valuable commodities imported from the Orient. Despite its fragility and exorbitant price, it was in high demand across Europe among the upper classes as a symbol of wealth, luxury and refined taste. So much money was spent on these exquisitely delicate ceramics that porcelain soon became known in Europe as "white gold." Therefore, it can come as no surprise that many in Europe were determined to discover the means by which to produce porcelain outside of China.

Perhaps the one man in all of Europe most determined to find the secret of making porcelain was Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. He had developed a passion for the beauty and delicacy of fine porcelain to the point of obsession. Augustus was not the only person to suffer from this particular mania, and in the German states, it was given a name, Porzellankrankheit, meaning "porcelain sickness." However, as a European monarch, Augustus was in a better position to gratify his obsession than most. In the first years of the eighteenth century, a fugitive alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger, came into his custody. Böttger had been trying to discover Goldmachertinktur, that which is sometimes known today as the philosopher’s stone. The King of Prussia learned of his efforts and imprisoned the young alchemist, intending to take possession of the stone when Böttger produced it. The young man escaped and fled to Saxony, where he was again captured. Always short of funds, Augustus II refused to return the fugitive alchemist to Prussia and demanded that Böttger make the philosopher’s stone for him. When no philosopher’s stone was forthcoming, Augustus then ordered Böttger to turn his attention to the secret of making porcelain. With the help of other scientists working for Augustus, a formula for the first hard-paste porcelain in Europe was developed within a few years.

In 1710, Augustus the Strong founded a porcelain manufactory in his royal summer castle of Albrechtsburg, in Meissen. Böttger was very disappointed to learn that freedom was not to be his reward for his important discovery. Instead, he was held prisoner in the castle, along with all of the other artisans, by order of Augustus, in order to protect the secret of making porcelain. The first porcelain made at Meissen was actually closer to red stoneware, but it was very fine, hard and durable. However, within three years, a creamy white porcelain was developed and it was soon in high demand across the Continent. A number of glazes in rich deep colors were also developed which were used to decorate the surface of the creamy white porcelain pieces. Despite its high cost, this new European porcelain sold very well and the proceeds helped to repair Augustus the Strong’s sagging finances.

In 1733, Augustus II died and was succeeded by his son, Augustus III. The only legitimate son of Augustus the Strong, Augustus III inherited the Meissen porcelain manufactory, along with most of his father’s other properties and responsibilities. However, Augustus III had little interest in the affairs of state. He was an ardent patron of the arts and much preferred to indulge himself in pleasure and amusement rather than take up his governmental obligations. Therefore, he was very pleased to allow his chief advisor, Graf (Count) Heinrich von Brühl, to deal with the less amusing aspects of royal responsibility. That included supervising the porcelain works at Meissen. One of the perquisites of the job was that von Brühl had the right to commission as many pieces of porcelain from the factory as he pleased, all at no cost to himself. In 1739, Augustus III, probably at von Brühl’s request, officially appointed his most powerful advisor Director of the Meissen porcelain manufactory.

Probably some time in 1736, a new dinner service was commissioned from the Meissen porcelain works. There is some suggestion that it may have been commissioned by Augustus III, as a wedding gift for Graf von Brühl, in part because the coat of arms which is painted on nearly every piece in the set is actually the alliance coat of arms of von Brühl and that of his wife, Franziska von Kolowrat-Krakowska, whom he married in 1734. Other scholars believe von Brühl commissioned the service himself, to serve as a physical demonstration of his power and prestige. As such, this would not be just any dinner service. It was von Brühl’s intention that it would be the most magnificent dinner service ever created, for which no expense was to be spared. The artisans and craftsmen at Meissen were to succeed beyond even his wildest dreams. The chief designer and modeller at Meissen who took on the challenge of this new dinner service was Johann Joachim Kändler. He was ably assisted by Johann Friedrich Eberlein and Johann Gottlieb Ehder.

Before these talented porcelain artists could begin producing the many pieces planned for this new service, a theme had to be chosen for the overall design. It decided that it was to be based on the Count’s family name, von Brühl, which meant "marshy ground," what we would consider a wetland today. The commission document for this service stated that it would include " . . . all the flora and fauna of the water." The artistic style of the Rococo was just beginning to emerge at that time, and its organic, flowing lines would ideally serve the representation of wetlands and creatures of the world of water which would grace this new dinner service. Another new feature of porcelain manufacture would be introduced in the production of von Brühl’s dinner service. Instead of the traditional smooth, flat surfaces for plates, chargers, bowls and similar pieces, they would be adorned with a raised design in low relief. The unique and distinctive pattern of that low relief depicted a pair of swans riding gentle waves, amidst reeds and other marsh plants. It is known that Kändler produced several possible principal motifs, and von Brühl settled on the pair of swans. This selection may yet again affirm that this was a wedding gift, as swans had long been associated with love. However, from the seventeenth century though the mid-eighteenth century, they were also seen as an aggressive symbol of the power of nature. Regardless of the reasons for which the swans were chosen, it was from this principal design that the service took its name, becoming known as the Schwanenservice, or Swan Service.

Kändler spent several months researching and studying as many aspects of aquatic environments and the plants and animals which inhabited them as possible, in preparation for his designs of the individual pieces of the Swan Service. He wanted to give the ornamentation the most natural appearance he could. He spent some time examining and drawing a selection of items in the royal collection of natural history at Dresden, paying close attention to shells and specimens of marine creatures which could be incorporated into his designs. Some of the flora and fauna were set in relief, like the swans, while others were modelled fully in the round. Joining the swans, other real marine life appeared on pieces of the Swan Service, including dolphins, cranes, fish, herons, snails, storks, reeds, bulrushes and a wide variety of shells. In addition, various mythic creatures of the sea also found their way on to pieces of the Swan Service, including Triton, Galatea, Venus and Acis, along with a plethora of putti, sea nymphs and merfolk.

Research into real and mythic marine life was not the only preparation in which Kändler engaged before he began his final designs for the Swan Service. He also spent time with Graf von Brühl’s senior chef. The Count was famous throughout Europe for his extensive and lavish state dinners. As was the fashion at the time, the Count’s dinners were served à la française. This style of dinner required that all the dishes for the meal would be put on the table at the same time, rather than being served in multiple courses. Thus, it was not possible to wash and reuse any table ware during the course of the meal. Kändler not only wanted to get a idea of how many pieces would be needed for individual place settings, he also wanted to learn about all of the special serving pieces which would be required for the service of such grand meals. In addition to a large selection of plates, bowls, cups and saucers, this new service would also include a host of platters, soup tureens, serving bowls, teapots, coffee pots, sugar bowls, cake stands, slop basins, fruit baskets, sweetmeat stands, salt cellars, wine coolers, domed warming bells, serving spoons and even porcelain handles for the cutlery sets. But the Swan Service would include more than just the dishes from which food would be served and eaten.

Prior to finalizing his designs, Kändler also spent a great deal of time with von Brühl’s principal pastry cook. In addition to making or supervising the desserts and assorted sweetmeats which would be served at the Count’s lavish state dinners, the chief pastry cook also crafted the many ornate sugar sculptures which would decorate the separate dessert table to which diners removed after the main meal. Rather than have to continue sculpting these figures for each meal, they would now be made in porcelain so they could be re-used as needed. In fact, it is generally believed that the chief pastry cook actually sculpted models for some of the porcelain figures himself, based on the sculptures he had made in the past. The Meissen works turned out a host of human and animal figures for use in decorating the dessert table. They also made several model buildings to accompany all these fanciful figures, in order to create a whimsical village down the center of the table. These small buildings, which ranged from cottages to castles, were hollow inside, with many tiny windows and it had become the fashion to illuminate the dessert table by placing lights inside these porcelain structures. A elaborate centerpiece or Plat de Ménage was also made to adorn the main dinner table. In addition, a number of candelabra and even several wall sconces were also designed and made as part of the Swan Service.

Based on his research and extensive collection of sketches, Kändler began to model the first pieces intended for the Swan Service in 1736. Once all of the prototypes had been approved by Graf von Brühl, full production on the Swan Service began in 1737. This service was a triumph in porcelain modelling and firing, including many three-dimensional pieces which pushed the art of fine detail in porcelain to its limits. The reliefs and fully sculpted pieces were not the only decoration to be found on the Swan Service pieces. Many of the surfaces were enhanced with gold as well as colored glazes. The fully modeled figures were painted with colored glazes to give them a realistic appearance, while most of the flat service pieces were decorated with tiny, stylized colored flowers, then known as indianische Blumen, or "Indian flowers." In particular, the joint von Brühl/von Kolowrat-Krakowska coat of arms was painted in colored glaze on nearly every piece of the Swan Service made for Graf von Brühl, with the exception of the figurines and some of the other dessert table decorations.

From 1737, work on the Swan Service continued almost full time at the Meissen porcelain works until 1742. That may seem like a long time to complete any dinner service, even one which is to this day considered a masterpiece in porcelain. But when one realizes that the complete Swan Service consisted of over 2,200 individual pieces, it is more of a surprise that it was completed in such a short time. Some scholars believe that the complete Swan Service may have comprised over 3,600 pieces, though there is no way to know for sure, since von Brühl is known to have ordered extra pieces for several years after the main part of the service was completed.

When the Swan Service was delivered to Graf von Brühl, it was stored at his family’s palace in Pförten, now known as Brody, in Poland. Though the palace was ordered sacked by King Frederick II of Hohenzollern during the Seven Years War, somehow, the Swan Service survived. Graf von Brühl died in 1763, but the Swan Service was left to his family. It continued to be stored, and occassionally used for important dinners, at the von Brühl palace in Pförten. The Swan Service remained in the palace through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The family sent a number of the larger pieces to museums during the late nineteenth century, otherwise the service was relatively intact until World War II. During that time, the family was forced to leave their home and it became a base of operations for the Soviet Red Army. Sadly, the Soviet soldiers vandalized the house, and, even worse, completely ignorant of the value of the fine porcelain they found there, used it for target practice. It is said that even today, shards of the Swan Service can still be found on the grounds of the palace. The pieces of the service which escaped Soviet bullets have since been scattered around the world and can be found in various museums and in private collections. [Author’s Note:   Some of those pieces have been photographed and the photos are available online. The results of a Google Image search on "kandlers meissen swan service" can be found here.]

There are those who believe that Napoleon Bonaparte wanted the Swan Service for himself, and that some of his agents had orders to seek it out after he invaded Poland. But somehow, it managed to elude his long reach and remained in the possession of the von Brühl family for nearly two centuries. Though the Swan Service was probably well hidden during the early years of the English Regency, once Napoleon had been defeated and sent into his final exile on St. Helena, it is almost certain that the service was once again used from time to time by the von Brühl family. Even more than a half century after its creation, it would have been a very impressive sight when used to serve a sumptuous dinner. The gold accents on all of the pieces would have glittered in the candlelight. The real and mythical flora and fauna which decorated many of the main pieces would have given diners a sense that they had entered a fanciful, watery world well beyond their ordinary lives. And when the dinner guests removed to the dessert table, that impression would only have deepened, when they looked upon the exquisite porcelain figures which populated the miniature porcelain world which graced the center of the table. Despite the best efforts of the chef and the pastry cook, their delectable edibles would almost certainly have been overshadowed by the elegant and dazzling vessels in which the meal was served.

Dear Regency Authors, might the real Swan Service, or a similarly magnificent, but fictional, dinner service, set a scene or two in an upcoming romance? Perhaps some of your characters might be in Poland after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and are invited to the von Brühl palace for an important dinner, for which the Swan Service is used? Of course, if your story is set in Poland before the Regency, in particular, in 1807, when Bonaparte seized a large chunk of Poland for himself, some of your characters might be engaged in hiding the glorious Swan Service in order to keep it out of the hands of Napoleon and the French. On the other hand, might an arrogant, slightly deranged character, having learned of the Swan Service, be determined to have something even better made for themselves? Will such unbridled extravagance bankrupt that person’s family? Then again, perhaps some fabulously wealthy nabob has recently returned from making his fortune in India, and does order a grandiose dinner service for his new manor house in the country. Could it be that the heroine is the designer for the porcelain manufactory from which he intends to commission his new dinner service? Will she divine that his intent in commissioning such an ostentatious dinner service is his sense of inferiority, having left England for India as a nobody? Can the heroine help him to overcome that sense of inferiority, and in the process, might she steer his choice to a more subtle, but still elegant dinner service, while convincing him to use some of his great wealth to help others? Some dinner services are just a set of dishes, but some, like the Swan Service, were so much more. How might the Swan Service, or a fictional version of it, serve up an elegant and glamorous story of love and adventure?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to The Magnificent Swan Service

  1. I confess if I’d seen any of the plates out of context I’d have thought them to be Art Nouveau! a magnificent service indeed,

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I just wish that photos could do it justice. I was fortunate to be able to work with a couple of pieces of the Swan Service while setting up a museum exhibition when I was in graduate school. When one realizes that each piece was modeled by hand, like a diminutive sculpture, which then had to be fired in a kiln, with the attendant risk of shrinkage, then carefully hand-painted and fired again, one can only stand in awe at the quality and beauty of the finished product.

      I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for just one of those grand state dinners at Graf von Brühl’s palace when the Swan Service was used. It must have been quite a sight!



  2. elfahearn says:

    What an extraordinary story about an extraordinary artistic achievement! It makes me sick to my stomach to think men shattered the collection with bullets. Ugh!

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