This soup plate is one of my favorite designs of all times. Its wonderful, overlapping, radiating arcs create a design for any era. On this plate the design is moulded and sculpted in relief suggesting an openwork basketweave, with hand-painted highlights in gold set with pink-painted flowerheads where the weave crosses. Perhaps the pink of the flowers and the scalloped border are a nod to the femininity of the patron for whom it was created, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna of Russia (reigned 1741-61). The daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth was a great patron of art and design, with a distinct taste for rococo design and French style in general. Yet, perhaps because France did not yet have a royal porcelain manufactory and had not been able to emulate the secret formula for hard paste closely guarded by the German Meissen Factory in Saxony, it was not the source of inspiration for this design.
The service from which this plate came first appeared during Elizabeth’s reign shortly after the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s 1744 founding. The soup plate, a piece from the service known as Elizabeth’s personal service, is a very rare survivor dating from the earliest period of Russian porcelain. However, this form owes its existence to the creation, in 1756, of a kiln large enough to make plates and tureens, which enabled the production of matching dinner services. Originally designed for twenty five people, an intimate group by Imperial standards, the service, including this plate, belongs to that first era.
It is fitting that Elizabeth’s own service was made of porcelain rather than silver or gold, as the creation of true hard paste porcelain in Russia, using Russian materials, well before that of most European countries, gained for its porcelain creations an esteem at least equal to that of silver. For that, Elizabeth owed thanks to Dimitri Vinogradov, a scientist whose German studies and discovery of the needed materials in Russia enabled Russia to produce porcelain.
Being the man behind the chemistry of porcelain, Dimitri Vinogradov would have had others create designs, or relied on printed sources or actual objects as inspiration in front of the modellers. The aim to look like German porcelain, to show that Russia could produce objects that vied with the Meissen factory’s, made me look at Meissen for design sources. But, while there are openwork baskets made of porcelain from Meissen, with similar trellis-like raised decoration, I found no plates that used this almost op-art arrangement of overlapping arcs as their design. Well suited to plates, the pattern appears in a few sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Venetian glass plates in which concentric latticinio spirals work around a center whorl. This would not be an unlikely source; French-born Italian architect Francesco Bartolommeo Rastrelli accompanied his sculptor father, Carlo, to Russia in 1716. Rastrelli provided Elizabeth with the Peterhof Palace among numerous other palaces in St Petersburg. He led the way for a series of Italians to follow suit, some of whom were trained in Venice. This plate defies finding an exact predecessor, so one wonders if the Empress herself indicated her preferences in this combination of designs.