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Books: Bring on the porcelain dragoons

THE ARCANUM: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain by Janet Gleeson, Bantam pounds 12.99
AUGUSTUS THE Strong was huge and handsome. He collected beautiful women and was given to crushing horseshoes to impress them; like a prize stallion he fathered offspring, one for every day of the year; like Croesus he loved gold. He was King of Poland and Elector of Saxony and when he eventually crashed down on to his deathbed, vast and bloated after a lifetime of loathsome excesses, he admitted that "all my life has been one ceaseless sin".

Yet Augustus was the means by which a near-miracle occurred. He came across a conjuror called Bottger, little more than a boy, who had fooled a small audience into believing that he had achieved the alchemist's dream and discovered the arcanum, the philosopher's stone which turned base metal into gold. Bottger's fame spread and Augustus - like Rumpelstiltskin - imprisoned him in a fortress and ordered him to get on with it and, literally, make him a fortune. This Bottger could not manage, but after lengthy experiments he did, at last, discover another arcanum which was almost as priceless: the recipe for making porcelain. The whole story, the subject of Janet Gleeson's extraordinary book, sounds mediaeval, but it happened at the beginning of the 18th century in Heissen, a few miles outside Augustus's capital, Dresden.

These days, we sip tea from porcelain without a second thought. It is hard to imagine how precious it was to our ancestors. Yet Gleeson's research points us to paintings by Bellini and Mantegna in which the priceless gifts of the Magi are encased in porcelain. Thomas Browne, that most inquisitive author, speculated in 1646 about its ingredients: eggshells, maybe? Or specially aged gypsum? The playwright William Wycherley even used porcelain as a euphemism for sex: in The Country Wife, the libertine Horner promises Lady Fiddler a "roll-wagon", which was a priceless, phallically-shaped Chinese vase - an arcane and smutty joke, readily understood by his audience.

All that people knew of its manufacture was that in China a fine, white, glossy, translucent pottery could be made, whose provenance was a closely- guarded secret. So precious did they consider it that Augustus once exchanged 600 of his crack troops, the "porcelain dragoons", for a consignment of china from the East.

The book covers the 30-years of the reign of china Augustus, and concerns, primarily, three men who established the supremacy of Meissen and did indeed make a fortune for their king. Bottger himself died young. He had a weakness for drink, but he was probably poisoned by fumes from blazing kilns and boiling chemicals in the hellish, fortress factory to which he was confined. As he was dying, a rogue called Herold stole his secret and embellished the product with glowing colours and brilliant enamelling. Finally, Kaendler, a gifted sculptor, was employed to fashion animals, birds and the characters we now know as Dresden shepherdesses from the fine clay.

It is a remarkably exciting story, told with suitable panache and a sprinkling of enjoyable archaisms. The German states were almost continuously at war; the factory was twice sacked and, such was the intensity of industrial espionage, the secrecy of the arcanum was only maintained at the cost of many lives. Eventually, of course, details of the formula leaked out. Rival factories sprang up in England, France and Austria. Dresden and Meissen lost their supremacy and European porcelain gradually became almost commonplace.

Yet to us, in the very late 20th century, the name Dresden has more sombre associations, after the appalling firebombing that virtually destroyed the town in February 1945. At the end of her book, Janet Gleeson adds a post-script about the fate of the china commissioned by Augustus. Much of it was squirrelled away in eastern Europe and eventually returned to Dresden in 1958. There, in the great collections of the Zwinger and the Albertinium can be seen many of the extravagant, exuberant creations of the three great masters. And Kaendler's glockenspiel, a dual-keyboard instrument in a carved limewood case, which plays rows of unglazed white porcelain bells, is on show in the city's porcelain museum. Readers of this book will want to be on the next plane to see it.