This extraordinary porcelain King Vulture was made for one of the wealthiest monarchs and important patrons of the arts of his time – Augustus the Strong (1670 – 1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
Part of a large group of animals ordered from the Meissen factory (the first European factory to succeed in the manufacture of 'true', or hard-paste Chinese type porcelain) in 1730, the sculptures were commissioned by Augustus the Strong to form a porcelain menagerie on the upper floor of the Japanese Palace in Dresden, Germany. It was created to complement his existing menagerie of live animals at Moritzburg Castle and his collection of stuffed animals at the Zwinger Palace complex. The three collections were intended to demonstrate his culture and taste (porcelain sculptures), his power (live animals), and his scientific knowledge (taxidermic collections). Our vulture is one of three similar porcelain vultures made for the Palace – they may have been based on a print or specimen in one of these collections, as the king vulture, Sarcoramphus papa is found in South and Central America rather than Europe.
Still unparalleled in the history of ceramics, Augustus' project was incredibly ambitious – the order for these large beasts came only 20 years after the foundation of the Meissen factory. Meissen's discovery of the means of making porcelain was the direct result of Augustus the Strong's passion for imported East Asian wares, which led him to amass a collection of over 20,000 pieces (among them 151 Chinese vases exchanged for 600 cavalrymen), and to employ, and briefly imprison, the alchemist J. F. Böttger to discover the formula for this 'white gold'.
When the project was conceived, Meissen had made few large wares and had very little experience of sculptural production. At this time, no porcelain sculptures on the same scale as the largest of these Japanese Palace animals (our vulture measures 57.5 cm x 23 cm), had been attempted anywhere in the world.
The size of the project is also extraordinary. According to a list from 1734, as many as 597 animals were set to be produced for the palace. These are now held in museum collections across the world, including the V&A, the Getty, National Museums Scotland and Longleat House, Wiltshire. Most were to have been manufactured in editions of eight, using moulds made from original models provided by sculptors. Although production ceased before all of the figures were complete, an inventory lists as many as 458 examples at Dresden in 1736 (many were much smaller animals than the King Vultures). Their production became such a drain on the factory's output and resources that work on the scheme was abandoned sometime before 1739.
Making the sculpture
The factory's arcanists – those who prepared the porcelain formula and glaze – had to develop new porcelain body (or 'paste') for the production of these large animals, so that the material could bear the weight of the sculptures during the second, high temperature glaze firing, when the material softened in the kiln.
The factory experimented considerably with this formula (which accounts for the variations in surface finish and colour), and marked numbers on some examples to indicate the variant used. Despite these efforts, most of the animals show fire-cracks, particularly at the base, where the greatest stresses occurred during the firing.
All the Japanese Palace animals were formed in sections, within hollow plaster piece moulds. Interestingly, these moulded components were used in a number of different configurations for the production of the king vultures, far more than on other animals. This resulted in three variants: one bolt upright, another crouching, and a third leaning forward but with lower legs extended. The V&A's vulture is the only example of the crouching pose.
The 'X' mark incised on the base of our sculpture is attributed to Andreas Shiefer, the factory craftsman who worked the clay in the piece-moulds and assembled the component parts prior to firing.
Meissen's factory modeller Johann Gottlieb Kirchner had been put to work on the Japanese Palace project in 1730, and in the following year Johann Joachim Kaendler was taken on as Kirchner's assistant, specifically to provide models for the life-size animals. Kaendler – one of the most important figures in 18th-century ceramics, and arguably the greatest porcelain modeller of his era – later modelled many of the finest Meissen figures and wares, establishing the conventions that defined the porcelain figure as a sculptural genre. The majority of the models for the Japanese Palace animals were by Kaendler, as Kirchner was dismissed from Meissen in 1733. Some of Kaendler's earliest models for the commission were based on prints, but he made increasing use of the live animals in Augustus the Strong's collection. As a result, many of these later models are extraordinarily lifelike, as seen with this vulture, or 'Kropf Vogel' (meaning 'crop bird').
Augustus the Strong had specified that all the animals were to be in natural colours, although it was deemed too risky to put the large models through the kilns for an enamel firing. Therefore these larger sculptures were painted in unfired pigments by the court lacquerer, Christian Reinow. We know from Reinow's invoices that bright colours were used, but these have very rarely survived as the pigments have discoloured over time and been removed on the majority of examples. This makes the survival of the bright green areas and red traces on the head, neck and wings of the V&A's vulture exceptional. Some of the later Japanese Palace birds with fired decoration have large areas of plumage left undecorated, so it is possible that much of the vulture may have originally been left unpainted to match the colouring of a real king vulture.
In the 1850s, this striking vulture was presented to the 4th Marquess of Bath (1831 – 1896) at Longleat, Wiltshire, where it resided for many years alongside nine other porcelain animals.
Explore Meissen objects at the V&A.
The acquisition of this piece was only possible through the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and V&A Membership.