European lithophanes were first produced nearly at the same time in France, Germany, Prussia, and England around the later part of the 1820s. Many times historians credit Baron Paul de Bourging (1791–1864) with inventing the process “email ombrant” (pottery decorating) of lithophanes in 1827 in France. Robert Griffith Jones acquired Bourging’s rights in 1828 and licensed out to English factories to make them. The English factories sometimes used the name “lithophane” for specimens of ordinary “email ombrant.” Some say however it was Georg Friedrich Christoph (1781–1848) of Prussia that actually perfected the true lithophane process in 1828. Others say the technique was developed in Berlin and other parts of Germany by such manufacturers as Königlichen Porzellan-Manufaktur and Porzellanmanufactur. This is why sometimes lithophanes are referred to as “Berlin transparency.” There is a well know mark of Ad’T’ on lithophanes from Rubles, near Melun in France. It is thought to be the mark of Baron A. de Tremblay, however some scholars on the subject think he only made earthenware and not true lithophanes and the mark belongs to a yet unknown source.
Many historians argue that the inspiration for the idea came originally from China nearly a thousand years before in the Tang dynasty. According to the scholar R. L. Hobson during the Ming dynasty the Chinese produced bowls “as thin as paper” with secret decorations in them. According to W. Hodgson she describes some Chinese biscuit porcelains as looking like “little screens with landscapes in relief” which resemble white porcelian that is obtained in Switzerland. Other potential precursors to the European lithophanes come from the Chinese Song dynasty. Qingbal wares had their translucency with carved and molded designs of flowers, fish, and birds. Japanese lithophane tea sets are referred to as Dragonware and were popular for GI trading in Japan during World War II.
In the early part of the 20th century many lithophane investigators were making connections between the European 18th and 19th century ceramics and the Chinese porcelains. In France they used the term “Blanc de Chine” in the 18th century to designate a highly translucent Chinese porcelain. Porcelain factories in France, Germany and England mimicked the Chinese “Blanc de Chine” in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. These same factories then started to make lithophanes in the early part of the 19th century. The technical and aesthetic inspirations for European lithophanes can be seen coming from Chinese works, however the exact relationship between the two remains elusive to this day. The missing link is a definite known lithophane plaque produced anywhere in China prior to 1800.
Lithophanes were made by specialized European craftspeople beginning as an image carved in warm wax on a glass plate. This was then backlit and carved. Sometimes the carving table was near a window and had a mirror below the table to provide constant light for carving. A modeler would duplicate the image on a flat wax plate carving relief and intaglio. Where the wax was carved thinnest more would shine through. Of course where the wax was carved thickest then there was less light shone through.
A plaster gypsum mold was cast from the wax. It was sometimes cast in metal for the production of multiple molds. The casts were removed from the molds and then fired to about 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. The porcelain would include around 66% kaolin, 30% feldspar and 4% soapstone. It turned out that up to about 60% of the porcelains would warp or crack in the kiln causing them to become useless. Finished lithophanes are somewhere between one sixteenth of an inch thin to almost a quarter inch (1.5 to 6mm) thick.
Lithophanes were produced in Austria, Belgium, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and Wales in the 19th century. Lithophanes by the hundreds of thousands were made in the middle of the eighteen hundreds by such firms as Wedgwood in England, Meissen in Dresden, and Belleek in Ireland. Lithophanes were produced then in the United States as well, however not nearly as much as in Europe. Popular subjects of lithophanes were religious themes, portraits, genre scenes, literature ideas such as stories from the Bible, and masterpieces. Some lithophanes even commemorated events such as the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.
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.