The first time it happened was when a picture specialist at a leading auction house stood me in front of a Victorian narrative painting and explained the story depicted on its canvas.
I was both inspired and dumbstruck in equal measure by the specialist’s knowledge. Here was a charming enough painting of a family sitting around a cottage table, the mother reading a letter to her children and parents.
When the scene was explained by an expert, the picture took on a whole new meaning: the letter is bad news, the wife wears black and clearly the children have been orphaned by war or other mishap.
The father is an old soldier himself – there is a group of medals hanging above the fireplace, which is why he seems less distraught than his wife. And so on.
Narrative paintings has fascinated me ever since. But I thought that was the end of it. Not a bit.
I attended the International Ceramic Fair in London last month, where I met someone who has forgotten more about pottery and porcelain than I’ll never know. He explained to me the significance of the object illustrated here.
It was made by the German manufactory Meissen in 1745 and is correctly termed a chafing dish, cover and stand.
Interestingly, it came from the collection of the Dukes of Westminster and might once have stood on display in William Porden’s Eaton Hall, Chester.
My expert guide to this ceramic conundrum was Paul Crane, of London ceramics dealer Brian Haughton. Mr Crane had spent months cracking the various codes displayed on the piece – so simple to spot so long as you have eyes to see them.
The first thing that strikes the viewer is the armorials painted on the piece. They are those of Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, King Augustus III of Poland and his wife Queen Maria-Josepha.
The second thing is the obvious domestic nature of the object. Why would such an dish, more usually found in kitchen or on a dining table, be so profusely decorated?
Simple, Research has proved that the dish, commissioned personally from Meissen by the Queen, was intended as her gift to her husband to mark their 25th – or silver – wedding anniversary.
The fact that its design was based on something more often found in silver eludes, therefore, to a strong and successful marriage which had enjoyed 25 years of domestic bliss and harmony.
This then is an important piece of Meissen, not only as an emblem of unchanging love in a royal marriage, but also a tour de force of ceramic art.
Meissen’s chief modeller J.J.Kaendler (1706-1775) and his decorators were commissioned personally by the queen and between them, they produced a ceramic tour de force.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was gripped by a fascination with the secret Turkish language of flowers, introduced to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of the ambassador from the Court of St. James to Constantinople.
Flowers had long been the sign of romance but adopting the secret language meant lovers were then able to send messages to each other and proclaim their love using specific flowers.
In simple terms, this might just mean sending a posy carefully chosen for the moment. More complex was to appear in a portrait holding certain flowers or by commissioning special objects illustrating their private thoughts.
So it is with the chafing dish. On the cover of the dish alongside the arms of the Elector and his wife appear the heartsease or wild pansy which show the twin faces of togetherness and thoughtfulness.
The iron red genista or broom on the right means a union which would refer to the happy couple, while the panel showing a stag hunt, a pursuit reserved for royal rank is linked to Venus and symbolic of love and fertility.
In this scene the stag has been chased and caught, alluding to a chase which culminates in the personal union of two lovers and the triumph of love
Other scenes are filled with vignettes of court life, each showing a courtly man kissing of the hand of a lady.
The flowers immediately flanking the armorial on the dish itself are the auricula and the pink carnation placed together with the speedwell.
Auriculas symbolise a union of primal or first love, presumably an allusion to the often prearranged marriages of the time. The pink carnation translates as woman’s love and the speedwell represents fidelity or truth.
Finally the single white bell of the campanula flower appears to the right of the auriculas, meaning gratitude and constancy.
The side of the chafing dish shows a view of courtiers walking in pairs in various parts of a formal garden, complete with a tunnel of love.
Historically such pleasure gardens found in many European countries at the time were a place of royal and aristocratic intrigue where courtiers expressed some of their most intimate desires.
The stand to the dish itself provides the most dramatic symbols of an obviously strong union between a husband and wife.
The central armorial is surrounded by further symbols of the heart’s desire: below it and to the right is an open purple cabbage rose, the ambassador of all love, beside a spray of speedwell representing the strongest symbol of true love.
To the left, the pink tinged dianthus not only denotes faithful love but also alludes to a belief in Christ as Saviour and is therefore a symbol of deep religious significance.
This alludes to the God given right to rule and the divine significance of the couple’s place in society.
Another scene supports the allusion. It shows a falconry hunt in progress, traditionally associated with royalty and regarded as the sport of kings.
There was a clear hierarchical use of birds of prey at this time that had its roots in the Middle Ages.
Rank decreed that a vulture or a merlin could be used in a hunt only by an emperor, while a king was entitled to a gyrfalcon, a peregrine falcon was used by a prince or a duke, a goshawk by a yeoman and a kestrel for a knave (to coin a phrase).
Finally, another panel shows a harbour and lighthouse, dominated on the right by a huge equestrian statue showing a rearing white horse.
Apparently, the king intended to install a statue of this design and was developed at Meissen by J.J.Kaendler. The idea never got beyond a terracotta model but by including the design in the chafing dish infers that the queen was complimenting the king on his grandiose scheme.
Mr Crane declined to reveal its price, but said it was in six figures. In May, Christie’s New York sold a Vincennes porcelain table fountain that had belonged to Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. It fetched $1.8 million. That’s a little over £1 million.
The Meissen factory was established in 1710 near Dresden. Until then, only the Chinese were capable of making true porcelain but in 1707, an apprentice pharmacist called Johann Friedrich Bottger managed to make a fine red stoneware.
Bottger also claimed to be able to make gold from base metal and the then Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, had Bottger imprisoned, to be released only when he had proved his claim.
Bottger worked for years but naturally failed. However, he accidentally hit on the process of making porcelain, which was at least as good – particularly to Augustus, who was an avid collector of Chinese porcelain.
Meissen’s most famous designers were Johann Gregor Horoldt (1720-55), who produced the renowned blue onion pattern, and Johann Joachim Kandler (1706-75) who created figurines, giant animals, and elegant table services.
Still in production today, collectors should look for the famous crossed swords trademark which was used on all products from 1723.
Pictures show, top: The highly important royal armorial presentation chafing dish and stand made at Meissen in 1745. The dish was commissioned personally by Queen Maria-Josepha to give to her husband Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, King Augustus III of Poland to mark their 25th wedding anniversary
Below: The cover or lid of the dish. It has a gold coloured artichoke finial and the royal arms are flanked by heartsease, a sprig of iron red flowering sweet pea and speedwell and three pained panels of landscapes
Bottom, three of the painted views, left to right The pleasure gardens of a huge royal palace with courtiers walking in pairs and a with a tunnel of love in the background. A stag hunt pictured at the moment of capitulation as a white deerhound pulls down a running stag (he yellow coat of the huntsman indicates that it is a royal hunt). A view of a harbour with a huge equestrian statue of a rearing white horse that dominates the right side of the scene. The statue was never built