Lithophane is an invented word formed from the Greek for stone, litho, and phanes, meaning appearance. The things themselves were first seen at some point after 1827, when a French diplomat, Baron Paul de Bourgoing, was granted a patent for their manufacture in France. What are probably our earliest lithophanes come from a factory in Paris identified by a small elusive ‘AdT’ mark, linking them to a friend of de Bourgoing’s, Baron Alexis du Tremblay.
Like most inventions, de Bourgoing’s was not entirely new. The effect of light and shade observable in porcelain of varying thickness was exploited in China in the 15th century. Porcelain ornamented using the An-hua (secret decoration) technique had designs scratched into it before glazing which appeared only when the piece was held up to the light. And in the 1760s the Worcester porcelain factory used shaped moulds to create decoration on some of their wares that was very similar in effect to the lithophanes of the next century.
Almost as soon as they had appeared in France, lithophanes began to be made elsewhere. Several centres of production emerged in the independent states that now constitute Germany. The Meissen factory in Saxony was first, followed closely by the Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain Factory) in Berlin, whose success led to lithophanes being sometimes known as ‘Berlin transparencies’. Later they came to be made in most continental and eastern European countries. Comparatively few were made in mainland Britain, though we have one believed to come from the Beleek factory in Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.
No doubt once photography was invented, photographs provided the design source for many lithophanes. The French photographer Alphonse Louis Poitevin (1819-1882) even conducted experiments in the 1850s into making lithophane moulds by a photomechanical process, but it seems his work was not immediately followed up.
There is evidence that towards the end of the century, photography was being used in a similar way to produce tiles in émail ombrant, a technique literally mirroring the lithophane, in which dark tones are created by the tinted glaze filling deep impressions, and light tones by the thin glaze in shallow ones. However, by then lithophanes themselves were less popular, and it seems photography was not directly used in their manufacture at that time.
In 1902, the coronation of Edward VII was celebrated with commemorative mugs with lithophanes of the King and Queen Alexandra in their bases. But in general far fewer were made in the 20th century. Some were reproductions of earlier European designs made in the USA and in the far-east, though in the middle years of the century Japan produced many porcelain tea-sets for export, with lithophane heads of geishas in the bottoms of the tea cups.
More recently, with the help of the latest digital technology, they have made something of a comeback. Lithophane candle-shades are being made by a porcelain company in Limoges in France. Also it has been recognised that materials other than porcelain can be used to make them. Translucent plastics like polyethylene work well, as evidenced by some promotional ones given away in boxes of breakfast cereal in 2000. And an added dimension comes with the edible lithophane – a company in Durham now makes them in white chocolate. One hopes the ghost of Monsieur the Baron de Bourgoing is suitably amused.
Harold Newman, Lithophane Plaques, in the Antique Dealer and Collectors Guide, August 1990, published by Statuscourt, London.
Lithophanes by Margaret Carney, published by Schiffer, Ardglen, Pennsylvania, 2008
By far the largest collection of lithophanes in the world is held at the Blair Museum of Lithophanes in Toledo, Ohio