Rozenburg flask

As thin as eggshell

Spring, 1900. In Paris, the huge tide of visitors for the newly opened World Expo rolls in. All the latest products and inventions from all over the world were there to be admired. One of the Dutch pavilions was remarkably busy. The Haagsche Plateelfabriek Rozenburg was presenting its latest creation: a collection of vases, tankards and crockery in wafer-thin and finely painted porcelain. The public loved it and the press overflowed with praise. The first stock sold out within a week. The new product, soon known as ‘eggshell porcelain’, became an international success.

At that time, the renowned Rozenburg earthenware factory had been operating for about seventeen years. As early as 1883 to 1889, the factory managed to attract attention with innovative pottery under the directorship of Wilhelm Wolff Freiherr von Gudenberg. The flamboyant shapes and colourful decorations designed by Theodoor Colenbrander generated widespread excitement and also marked a turning point in the Dutch ceramics industry, which until then had focused on the tried and trusted traditional Delft Blue. After both Von Gudenberg and Colenbrander left in 1889, the company lost direction for a while, until 1894 when architect Jurriaan Kok was appointed aesthetic consultant and promoted to director a year later. With him came unbridled enthusiasm.

It was Kok who came up with the idea of making porcelain. The experiments took two years. After countless setbacks, in June 1899 the factory was finally able to preview the first successful results for a select group. The reviewer from the newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad couldn’t stop gushing about it: ‘We saw a collection of objects (...) of the purest, flawless milky white, decorated with stylised chrysanthemums, tulips and other flowers. Enthralled and transported by delight, we took a closer look and were convinced that the pâte by itself can rival its famous predecessors from Japan, Saxony and France in translucency and lightness. What a richness of colour coupled with such a tasteful decoration!’

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. In the typically Dutch ‘acting-normal-is-already-mad-enough’ circles, the decorations were compared to ‘Toorop’s crazy hairstyles’, the plume-shaped covers with ‘flakes of shaving foam’.

However, the eggshell porcelain’s enormous success at the World Exhibition in Paris turned out to be short lived. Nevertheless, Rozenburg would supply the delicate product until the company was liquidated in 1914. Due to the high breakage rate during firing, the objects are very expensive and only the wealthy can afford them.

Flask with a decoration of a turtle-like animal, 1901, Haagsche Plateelfabriek Rozenburg, The Hague, eggshell porcelain, h. 20,5 cm, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Foundation.
Flask with a decoration of a turtle-like animal, 1901, Haagsche Plateelfabriek Rozenburg, The Hague, eggshell porcelain, h. 20,5 cm, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Foundation.

Flask with a decoration of a turtle-like animal, 1901, Haagsche Plateelfabriek Rozenburg, The Hague, eggshell porcelain, h. 20,5 cm, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Foundation.
Click on the image for an enlargement.

A lot of eggshell porcelain is in museum collections; the Princessehof has about 30 objects. This square flask with its characteristic plume-shaped and a painting of a turtle-like animal is a favourite among our visitors. The base of the vial is marked with the year 1901, the work order number 412, and the signature ‘RS’. Based on this information we could find out more about this object in Rozenburg’s surviving work order books. The flask has the model number 96 and was designed in 1899, the year that the first 108 out of a total of 315 eggshell porcelain models were created. Apparently this model was only produced for six years; after 1904 it was probably removed from the assortment due to too few orders. In total 107 flasks were produced.*

The initials ‘RS’ are those of painter Roelof Sterken, who joined Rozenburg in 1894 at the age of seventeen. He was a promising talent: while other boys were apprenticed for two years, Sterken was promoted to journeyman after just one year. In 1898 he acquired the status of painter. In 1902 he became a master painter and stayed with Rozenburg for another two years, subsequently moving from one ceramics factory to another. Because he always signed his work with his initials ‘RS’, we can trace his entire career. Nowhere else did he ever match his extremely refined painting on the eggshell porcelain at Rozenburg.

* With thanks to Gerrit de Jager

Not real porcelain

Jurriaan Kok marketed his new product as ‘porcelain’. But is eggshell porcelain really porcelain? The term ‘eggshell porcelain’ rapidly gained currency after newspapers compared it to ancient Chinese eggshell porcelain. In fact, Rozenburg’s product is neither porcelain nor eggshell porcelain. Chinese eggshell porcelain was turned on a wheel and then planed{sanded?} to the desired thinness. The Rozenburg product was cast in a mould. Porcelain consists of kaolin, quartz and feldspar, while almost half of the ingredients of Rozenburg eggshell porcelain consists of bone ash, the remainder being kaolin and feldspar. So it is actually Bone China. In any case, Rozenburg porcelain is as thin, translucent and fragile as an eggshell!

Karin Gaillard, curator of European ceramics at the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics


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