Human Flower Project
Eating Off Flora Danica
Royal botanical porcelain would make a nice gift—for somebody else. (Just don’t put it through the dishwasher.)
Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis Arvensis) teacup
Flora Danica porcelain
Photo: Flora Danica Online
The best gifts are free or longed for – that’s our view, anyway – so please to take us off your to-do list this season.
In the “longed for” category, along with the Arabian horse we craved from ages 8 to 11, we now include eight place settings of Flora Danica porcelain. Better to want than to have.
The first Flora Danica china was to be a gift from Christian VII, King of Denmark, to Empress Catherine of Russia (“the Great” describing, among other attributes, her appetite for porcelain). If only Catherine had known this gift was in the works, she might have hung on a few more years, but in fact she died before the set had been completed.
Flora Danica porcelain (1790-1803) made at the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory, and still used by Denmark’s Royal Family.
Photo: Rosenborg Castle, Royal Danish collections
This was a decorative arts elaboration of Denmark’s major horticultural undertaking of the same name and era. The Flora Danica, as proposed by G.C. Oeder in 1753, was to be a folio sized publication with engravings of all the wild plants of Denmark. Oeder was among the first scholars to study plants in their own right, rather than for their medicial uses alone.
Likewise, Flora Danica porcelain was intended to be botanically informative as well as beautiful and useful. Imagery on the original set included not just flowers but roots and seed pods.
“The painting of flowers on porcelain was common enough at end of the 18th century but the ornamentation conformed to aesthetic criteria. The decorations on Flora Danica were not chosen from aesthetic criteria. In tune with the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment it was decided to make exact ‘scientific’ copies of the plates of the highly praised book Flora Danica. It was not easy, however, to transfer the pictures from the square (engraved) plates to the round or oval shape of the set, and sometimes compromises had to be made.” Euonymus might lie down well on a platter, but getting Veronica montana around a vessel required visual winding.
Oeder called in china painter Johann Christoph Bayer to execute the flowers in 1763, and “The Flora Danica set became his life-work.”
Dedication to native, botanical accuracy meant that for the most part homely flowers (i.e. weeds) were committed to porcelain, an achievement both refined and refreshing. There’s something impossibly marvelous about a gilded soup bowl decorated with creeping jenny.
Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia L.), Flora Danica porcelain
Photo: Flora Danica Online
The set was first used January 29, 1804, for the Danish king’s birthday banquet. This is not your everyday crockery. It’s still used only for ceremonial occasions and spends most days under careful watch at the Rosenborg Castle, Royal Danish collections.
A second Flora Danica set, with a wider array of plants, was commissioned 60 years later, as a wedding gift from the Danish people to their Princess Alexandra upon her wedding to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII of England. QE2 keeps this set at Windsor Castle. We’re not sure when it was last trotted out for a party.
Non-royals can have a set of Flora Danica also, if we want to buy one from Royal Copenhagan. But as with the Arabian horse, longing is finer than owning. Descendants don’t squabble over longing, and it never chips.