In early-18th-century Europe porcelain was treasured as a rare luxury item. Many rulers sought to become the owners of a prestigious porcelain factory, that was more over a source of considerable income. Tsar Peter the Great ordered expensive porcelain items for everyday use from abroad. During his own visits to the West he took an interest in porcelain factories and he even tried with the help of foreigners to establish porcelain production in Russia.
Peter’s idea of establishing a court porcelain factory was realized two
decades later, in the reign of his daughter, Empress Elizabeth (1741-1761).
In order to set up production Christoph Conrad Hunger was invited to St
Petersburg from Stockholm. He was given as an assistant a young scientist
named Dmitry Vinogradov, who had studied abroad together with Mikhail
Lomonosov. In late 1744 they began experimenting with Russian clay from
the Gzhel deposits.
The fate of porcelain production was entrusted to Vinogradov. In experiments conducted in 1747-48 Vinogradov managed to obtain a sufficiently white and translucent porcelain with a glaze that did not separate from the body. He managed to set up production with a precisely worked-out cycle of operations and wrote a theoretical work entitled A Description of Pure Porcelain as it is made in Russia at St Petersburg (1752). The Russian porcelain that Vinogradov produced exclusively from Russian raw materials was the equal of Saxon porcelain in quality and close to Chinese in the composition of the paste.
Until the early 1750s only small items were produced - porcelain snuffboxes, cups, buttons, knobs for canes, tobacco pipes, handles for knives and forks. The production of large items became possible in December 1756, when Vinogradov constructed a large furnace and made a successful first firing in it. This period brought Empress Elizabeth’s personal order for the creation of the first table service that became known as "Her Majesty’s Own". The service is covered with a relief net pattern with forget-me-nots painted in gold and purple, and decorated with bright garlands of flowers moulded by hand.
Russian artistic porcelain reached its greatest heights in the "Golden Age" of Catherine II (1762-1796). From the very outset of her reign, Catherine patronized porcelain production. In 1756 the factory was renamed the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Between 1773 and 1792 the enterprise was managed by the procurator general, Prince Alexander Viazemsky, who expanded the factory, invited European craftsmen to work there and increased production and sales. While in Elizabeth’s time announcements of preparedness to accept orders had been published, under Catherine warehouses already appeared and shops selling porcelain.
The artistic direction of the factory’s activities in this period is most fully reflected in the work of the sculptor Jean-Dominic Rachette - an adherent of Classical clarity and austerity. Rachette was invited to the factory in 1779 as chief model-maker and was head of the sculptural section until 1804. He is known to have been the creator of roughly 150 models.
The peak of glory for the Imperial Porcelain Factory were to be the sumptuous
formal table services commissioned by Catherine II. The Arabesque Service,
with 973 pieces, is decorated with arabesques in the style of the ancient
frescoes discovered during excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The
painted decoration of the Yacht Service gave expression to the idea of
the might of the Russian navy and the flourishing of Russian trade. Medallions
on the Cabinet Service
Paul I (1796–1801), Catherine’s son, took a great interest in porcelain production. This Emperor, however, preferred to commission small services for 8 to 20 people which was fully in accordance with his reclusive way of life. At that time too the déjeuner services for two people came into fashion.