The Flora Danica Dinner Service

The Flora Danica dinner service

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Royal residences in Copenhagen (Christiansborg, Amalienborg and Rosenborg).

Description: According to (disputed) tradition, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark commissioned the 1895-piece Flora Danica dinner service in 1790 as a gift for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.  Frederik, the son of Christian VII of Denmark and Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, had ruled Denmark as regent since 1784, following the collapse of his father’s mental health; his mother – ‘poor Matilda’, as Wollstonecraft called her in her Letters written during a Short Residence (1796) – had been divorced and exiled from Denmark in 1772 when her affair with Johann Friedrich Struensee, the king’s physician, was exposed.  In 1790, Danish-Russian relations were reeling from the Russo-Swedish War (1788-90), during which Denmark-Norway declared its neutrality despite having committed to a defensive alliance with Russia under the Treaty of Tsarskoye Selo (1773). (1) Frederik’s extravagant gift, so the story goes, was intended to help patch the rift – and no doubt also to eclipse the 980-piece creamware ‘Frog Service’, which had been presented to Catherine the Great in 1774 by the Staffordshire-based Wedgwood Company.

The Flora Danica service was produced by the Royal Porcelain Factory [Den Kongelige Porcelænsfabrik] which had been founded at Copenhagen on 1 May 1775, under the management of the German mineralogist Frantz Heinrich Müller, at the height of the vogue in Europe for Chinese-style blue and white porcelain ware (the company still trades today as Royal Copenhagen).  Every single piece of the service was (apparently) hand-painted by the German-born botanical artist Johann Christoph Bayer, who had moved to Denmark in 1768 and who had joined the Royal Porcelain Factory in 1776.  The Factory’s trademark ‘Musselmalet’ [‘musell-painted’] blue-and-white style derived its mussel-blue colour from cobalt mined in Norway, under Müller’s direction.  For the Flora Danica service, however, Bayer used illustrations from the eponymous compendium of native Danish flora which had been started in 1753 by Georg Christian Edler von Oldenburg Oeder, professor of botany at Copenhagen University.

The Flora Danica compendium, which took over a century to complete and which involved multiple editors and artists, was very much the product of the taxonomic practice of natural history (as opposed to the more speculative discourse of natural philosophy) which had been initiated in Scandinavia by the Philosophia Botanica (1751) and Species Plantarum (1753) of Linnaeus. (2) But the Flora Danica volumes also came increasingly to reflect a nascent ‘Romantic’ interest in national flora as objects of both aesthetic and cultural value closely linked to national identity – and hence, no doubt, the decision to incorporate the illustrations from the volumes into a dinner service to be given by the Danish royal household to the empress of Russia, with each piece of porcelain featuring a different Danish plant. (3)

The Flora Danica compendium frequently caught the attention of travellers to Copenhagen.  When the widely-read English travel-writer William Coxe visited Copenhagen in the early 1780s, for example, he praised the five volumes which had been completed as ‘magnificent and accurate’, noting, with approval, that the project was ‘carried on at the king’s expence’ – but also, in a more patriotic vein, that he thought ‘the execution of it is still inferior’ to the Flora Londinensis (‘a performance of the same kind’) being compiled by William Curtis. (4)  Once work on the Flora Danica dinner service had begun, it, too, attracted the attention of foreign visitors.  The French writer Pierre-Marie-Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu, a lieutenant in the prestigious Regiment du Roi, saw the first pieces at the Royal Porcelain Factory when he visited the Danish capital in 1792.  He praises ‘the Porcelain Manufactory’ itself as ‘very fine’ and concludes his ‘particular description’ of it with the prediction that:

The most beautiful porcelain likely to be sent for a long time from this manufacture will be a complete service, upon which is to be represented, in natural colours, all the plants of the Flora Danica, with one upon each piece, large or small, according to the dimensions of the piece.  The name of the plant will be marked under the plate, and the whole is to be classed according to the Linnean system. (5)

By the time that Catherine the Great died in November 1796, however, only around 1400 of the projected 1895 pieces of the Flora Danica service had been completed – and so the empress never received her gift.  Crown Prince Frederik ordered work on the service to continue, though, and instructed that it be expanded from eighty to one hundred place settings.  Six years later, in 1802, when exactly 1802 pieces had been completed, the project was finally stopped.  The Flora Danica service was first used for the birthday of Christian VI of Denmark, Frederik’s ailing father, in January 1803.  When the popular travel-writer John Carr visited Copenhagen the following year, he saw the service exhibited at Rosenborg castle, recording in his Northern Summer (1805) that he ‘was most gratified by a beautiful service of Danish porcelain, which was made in the new manufactory of China, on which was exquisitely painted the Flora Danica, or the indigenous botanical productions of Denmark and Norway’. (6) More than two decades later, Richard Jones, editor of the tourist guidebook Copenhagen and its Environs (1826), was still recommending that visitors to the Danish capital should see, at Rosenborg, the ‘superb table-service, on which is painted a magnificent description of Flora Danica’. (7) 1530 pieces of the original service are extant today and are exhibited at various Royal residences around Copenhagen, including Amalienborg, Christiansborg and Rosenborg.  A second service, of sixty place settings, was produced in 1863 for the wedding of Princess Alexandra of Denmark to Edward Prince of Wales.  Royal Copenhagen still carries a Flora Danica range today.

Footnotes

  1. The brief involvement of Danish-Norwegian troops (in practice, mostly Norwegians), during which eight soldiers were killed, is known as The Lingonberry War.
  2. For the distinction between natural history and natural philosophy in the eighteenth century, see Noah Heringman (ed.), Romantic Science (New York: SUNY Press, 2003), pp. 3, 4, 6-7.For a detailed study of the cultural history of botany in the eighteenth-century and Romantic period, see Theresa Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012).
  3. For a detailed study of the cultural history of botany in the eighteenth-century and Romantic period, see Theresa Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012).
  4. William Coxe, Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, second edition, 2 vols. (London, 1785), vol. 2, p. 565.
  5. Pierre Marie Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu, Travels Through Denmark and Sweden, 2 vols. (London, 1810), vol. 1, pp. 66, 67, 72.
  6. John Carr, A Northern Summer; or Travels Round the Baltic…in the Year 1804 (London, 1805), p. 74.
  7. Richard Jones, Copenhagen and its Environs (Copenhagen, 1829), p. 137.

Date: 1790-1802

Creator: Johann Christoph Bayer, Danish Royal Porcelain Factory

Media: Items from the Flora Danica Service on display at Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen

Media rights: Image courtesy of Royal Copenhagen, Kongernes Samling, Rosenborg.

Object type: Porcelain dinner service (originally 1802 pieces; 1530 survive)

Related objects: The Frog Service

References

‘The Stories of Flora Danica’, at https://floradanica.royalcopenhagen.com/

‘Flora Danica Porcelain’, at https://www.kongernessamling.dk/en/rosenborg/object/flora-danica-porcelain/

John Carr, A Northern Summer; or Travels Round the Baltic…in the Year 1804 (London, 1805).

William Coxe, Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, second edition, 2 vols. (London, 1785).

Noah Heringman (ed.), Romantic Science (New York: SUNY Press, 2003).

Richard Jones, Copenhagen and its Environs (Copenhagen, 1829).

Theresa Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012).

Pierre Marie Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu, Travels Through Denmark and Sweden, 2 vols. (London, 1810).