Imperial Porcelain – A Very St. Petersburg Souvenir
If you’ve been strolling along Nevsky Prospekt, you’ve undoubtedly seen an Imperial Porcelain Factory store. But did you know that you can not only buy your own Imperial Porcelain in the store but also visit the factory complex and its museum—which is owned by the Hermitage? Even if you’ve visited the store, you’ll be amazed by the range of porcelain objects, large and small, represented in the museum.
A National Treasure
Porcelain was first invented in China, but Russia has been perfecting it since Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (daughter of Peter the Great) established the Nevsky Porcelain Manufactory in St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great later renamed it the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Naturally, the Soviets removed “Imperial” from the name, renaming it in honor of famous Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov. For this reason, you’ll need to get off at the Lomonosovskaya metro station on the green line to get to the museum. In the post-Soviet period, the factory has been reassigned Catherine’s preferred name, and it is even privately owned today. It is both a national treasure and a private enterprise.
Making Dishes and Decorations
About 1,000 people work in the Imperial Porcelain Factory near Lomonosovskaya Station, making about 5 million objects every year. Although there are shops around St. Petersburg and Moscow (ten in each city), this is the only factory and museum. The artists start with liquid porcelain, which they pour into gypsum molds. A good mold takes about a month for one artist to make, and it can be reused about 50 times before it deteriorates and needs to be replaced. The new forms can be glazed or left unglazed, and then they go into the kiln for one or two days. Unfired porcelain can be reused if it breaks, but once it goes into the kiln, it turns into a very fragile object. Once the figurine, teacup, plate, or other object takes its form, painters either hand paint it or apply a decal with a popular pattern. Decals are especially common on tea sets and dinner sets, such as the popular cobalt tea service created in 1944 based on a mid-18th century design.
There’s a good chance that you will find a porcelain piece depicting a subject that interests you in the museum. You’ll see the Olympic rings depicted on several pieces, along with the Russian ballet, Soviet-era avant-garde geometric shapes, sailors, polar exploration, whaling, animals, characters from famous Russian novels, and much more. There is a beautiful, almost epic porcelain plate called “Arctic Fantasy,” created in 1936. The museum also features a series called “Thank You, Comrade Stalin, For Our Happy Childhood,” made from 1949 to 1950, a few years before the Soviet leader’s death.
Peoples of Russia Series, 1907-1917
At the very end of the imperial period, just before the Soviets took over St. Petersburg, the Imperial Porcelain Factory developed a series of large figurines called the Peoples of Russia. The series of more than seventy figures is on display in the museum. This includes Aleuts, native people of both Alaska and the Russian Far East.
Tips for Visiting
The museum is open and easily accessible to tourists. At the Hermitage (Winter Palace), you can buy a ticket that includes the Imperial Porcelain Factory Museum. You can arrange a tour of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, a porcelain-painting master class, and a Hermitage tour with SAFS.