Saturday 12 July 2008

Lithophanes: magic in a cup

Lurking on one of my shelves are a huddle of old china cups. None of them match each other, and I never actually drink from them. To be honest, some of them don't look very interesting. Yet they all share a secret...

In the bottom of each cup is a picture. In fact, the bottom of each cup is a picture. When you first look inside, it just appears to be a bumpy surface, but the moment you hold the cup to the light, an image appears. The different thicknesses of porcelain provide the light and shade. These porcelain pictures are known as lithophanes.

The picture would first be carved in a sheet of wax on plate glass, which was translucent enough for the artist to see the effect. Creating the picture was skilled work because the contours of the lithophane don't relate to the contours of the object being pictured, but rather to its light and shade: the thicker the porcelain, the deeper the shadow. It was then cast in plaster of paris; porcelain would be pressed into the plaster mould and left to dry. Removing the fragile porcelain from the mould without damage and firing it without warping or cracking were also skilled processes, and only about 40% of pieces survived the process.

Lithophanes were invented in Europe in 1827, by Baron Paul de Bourgignon, and were popular in the nineteenth century. They had already been used in China to decorate vases with flower images, but the creation of elaborate scenes and portraits was a European innovation. Many of the European pieces are French or German; although mine are all cups, you can also find beer tankards, lampshades, and decorative panels. Coronation mugs were produced for Edward VII and George V, before the manufacture of these pieces declined in Europe. Japanese pieces were made in the twentieth century, and became popular souvenirs for servicemen after World War II; they are usually teacups and often feature portraits of geishas. Today, several porcelain companies in Europe are again making lithophanes, usually as candle holders. However, my favourites continue to be those Edwardian cups-with-a secret.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post on lithophanes. I didn't know what they were until I researched my post on a Bavarian beer stein. The level of detail they produced is quite amazing!