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An “Illuminating” Experience

At the Bronze Door Society’s Annual Garden Party on Sunday I had an interesting conversation with one of the Museum’s members and learned about a collectible I had never heard of before. He even told me we had two examples in our collection!

The object is called a lithophane. Just so you don’t make the same mistake I did, it has nothing to do with paper. A lithophane is a panel or other object made of thin porcelain that has a picture intaglio molded into its surface. The picture only becomes visible when light is transmitted through the object. Different depths of porcelain allow varying intensities of light to pass through the object enables the images to be fairly detailed.

Lithophane, made by the German firm Von Schierholz at the Plaue factory in Branderburg. Accession number: Q225

The process by which lithophanes were made was first patented in Paris in 1827 but it was German companies that became super excited about the process and began producing lithophanes in large quantities—so much so that they are also known as “Berlin transparencies.” While companies in England, Europe and the United States also began making them, Germany was always the chief producer.

Subjects impressed in the surface range from reproductions of old master paintings, to landscapes and seascapes, representations of historical stories and portraiture (i.e. people talking, dancing…or, um…doing other things…keep reading). As you would expect, the truly fantastic lithophane in our collection shows a massive 17th or 18th century naval battle. Unfortunately the battle hasn’t been identified, but it involves a huge number of British and possibly Dutch vessels. If I had to take a guess, I think it might be a scene from one of the Anglo-Dutch wars.

Q 225 illuminated

Luckily, the panel bears a stamp that identifies it as being made by the German firm Von Schierholz at the Plaue factory in Branderburg. It probably dates to the mid-19th century.

We don’t know quite as much about the second lithophane in the collection which is actually disguised as a beer stein. Made for the American market, it features a naval looking cap (as the lid) with an insignia that is an adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States. The body of the stein also features an insignia used by the US Navy starting about 1870. We know it was produced in Germany because of an impressed number in the bottom, a practice characteristic of the German manufactories; the tell-tale thumb hold on the lid; and the lithophane itself which depicts an obviously German scene.

Stein with lithophane. Accession number: FN 16

As extended separations are typical for both naval and military families, the lithophane on our stein depicts the happy reunion of a couple. Every time the lucky owner of this stein drained the mug he received a reminder that a happy homecoming was in his future!

FN16 illuminated
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