Prestige. Refinement. Royal Provenance. A true product of its age, the origin of Royal Copenhagen’s legendary Flora Danica porcelain is an intriguing tale entwined in scientific exploration and international diplomacy. Though it’s been over two centuries since its creation, Flora Danica’s reputation remains steadfast as the pinnacle of porcelain artistry.
Quest for Enlightenment
The story of Flora Danica begins during the great Age of Enlightenment that fostered reasoned thinking in all areas of society, including the sciences. In 1752, King Frederik V of Denmark appointed a professor of botany at Copenhagen’s Botanic Gardens, Georg Christian Oeder (1728-1791) to create a definitive catalog of all plants native to Denmark and all lands under the King’s rule.
Though incomplete, Oeder first published his work entitled Flora Danica in 1771. It comprised 10 installments with approximately 600 original copper engraved plates which reproduced in extraordinary detail the native flora, including mosses, fungi, flowers and ferns. For the next 122 years, other Danish botanists, naturalists, and even zoologists, would be tasked to add to the treatise to include 54 volumes and approximately 3,240 botanical specimens.
In 1788, Denmark’s ally Russia had become entrenched in the Russo-Swedish War, which lasted from June of 1788 to August of 1790. In accordance with its own treaty obligations to Russia, Denmark entered the conflict in August of 1788, delivering a crushing defeat to Sweden at the Battle of Kvistrum Bridge. To the disappointment of Russia and Queen Catherine II, then-Crown Prince Regent King Frederik VI signed a peace treaty with Sweden on July 9, 1789 and vowed to remain neutral for the remainder of the war.
Knowing this greatly displeased Catherine II, Frederik VI sought a way to make amends for the perceived slight and solidify the relationship between the two countries. A lover of all areas of science, the King had the idea to create a magnificent gift that had never been seen that incorporated his passion. As porcelain was the customary royal gift at this time, and knowing Catherine’s love for the medium, he commissions his Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory to create what would become the very first Flora Danica service.
Its creation became the life's work of Royal Copenhagen porcelain artist Johann Christoph Bayer, one of the most gifted artists of the late 18th century. Consisting of 1,802 pieces, it took 12 years complete, though the Empress died in 1796 before the great work was completed. It therefore remained in the Royal Danish family and was first used on January 29, 1803 for a banquet celebrating King Christian VII birthday. Today, it remains in the Danish royal collection and is exhibited at Christiansborg Castle, Rosenborg Castle and Amalienborg Palace.
More than 225 years later, the brilliance of Flora Danica is alive and well within the hands of the immensely gifted craftsmen at Royal Copenhagen. The process of its creation is much the same now as it was in 1790, requiring numerous potters, sculptors, painters and more to continue the time-honored tradition that is Flora Danica.
From raw clay to finished piece, each step in the creation process of every article of Flora Danica is diligently executed entirely by hand. Royal Copenhagen estimates that every work, large or small, passes through the hands of at least 30 gifted artisans that have trained their entire lives specifically in the craftsmanship of Flora Danica.
Step 1: Taking Shape
Once the clay has been worked into the desired shape by the potter, a porcelain carver utilizes specialized tools to form Flora Danica’s signature scalloped and pierced borders. This process is said to require the concentration, steady hand and sharp eye of a surgeon since even the tiniest of mistakes requires that piece to be thrown away and formed again.
You’ll notice that many Flora Danica serving pieces feature the most exquisite sculpted flowers to ever take shape in porcelain. Every individual petal, stem, leaf, bud and the like is modeled by hand. The sculptor utilizes pure olive oil to keep the porcelain smooth and workable during this process as they rely upon the 200+ years’ worth of knowledge that has been passed to them to make the most lifelike botanicals.
Step 2: Firing and Glazing
When the piece has taken shape, it is then allowed to dry in preparation for firing and glazing. The first firing is done at approximately 950 degrees and creates what is known as biscuit, or bisque porcelain. This type of porcelain is porous and easily breakable. It is then brought to the glazing area where it will be either dipped or airbrushed with a thin porcelain glaze. The glaze reacts with the porcelain, filling in those pores to help achieve a lustrous surface.
The glazed piece is then brought back to the kilns where it will be fired at nearly 1375 degrees. As the remaining moisture within the clay evaporates, the finished piece loses up to 14% of its original size. This process of intense firing, however, creates a smooth, glass-like finish while also hardening the porcelain and creating tremendous strength. Sometimes, imperfections are caused by the firing process, and if so, the piece must be disposed of. It is estimated that only one out of every five pieces makes it past this part of the crafting process, meaning that when you hold Flora Danica in your hand, you are holding a work of perfection.
Step 3: Painting and Gilding
The botanicals featured on Flora Danica are still based upon the original 18th-century drawings. Again, as with the other artisans involved, these painters have spent their entire lives learning and perfecting their craft, which has been passed from one generation to the next. Incredibly, there exist only 20 Flora Danica painters in the entire world!
The painter does have artistic freedom in this arena while staying true to the intricacies and elegance that Flora Danica embodies. With the original flower motif at hand as a reference, the artist uses a pencil to sketch the flower he or she wishes to create on the surface of the piece. Once the artist is happy with the result, they will then go over that drawing with a specialized pen to create an outline. When that dries, the artist will begin painting in the various colors, starting with the lightest shades. As each color layer is applied, the piece is fired to cement those colors to the surface. This process of painting and firing is done three times, or until the artist is satisfied with the finished work.
When the botanical is complete, the piece is ready for gilding. This process is done in two steps. Liquid 24K gold is delicately painted as to accentuate the scalloped and pierced elements. The piece is then fired, and another layer of 24K gold is applied and fired once more to set. When all is said and done, each finished piece of Flora Danica has been fired at least eight times!
Step 4: Final Details
In homage to its scientific origins, the Latin name of the botanical painted upon the particular piece is hand-written in script on the reverse. At this point, the flower and gilt painters add their initials, in purple and green respectively, beside the Royal Copenhagen marks.
The immortal pattern is a study in the glory of nature, and each hand-colored illustration is a unique work of scientific examination as well as artistic mastery. Adored by royalty since its inception, Flora Danica is perhaps the world's most celebrated dinner service still in production, continuing to entrance connoisseurs around the world with its undeniable superiority and spellbinding beauty.