Englishman Brings China to Russia

If you turn over one of the imitation china antiques at a tourist stall on the Arbat, chances are you will find the Gardner Factory's trademark.

And if you do, the piece was made in the village of Verbilki, deep in the forests north of Moscow, at a china factory set up 235 years ago by the English merchant Francis Gardner.

After supplying dinner services for the tables of Catherine the Great, making some of the best Russian ceramics of the 19th century and supplying the Soviet mass market in the 20th century, the Gardner factory is still going strong in 2001. It is now Russia's second-largest producer of crockery, just as it was in the 18th century, when it was second only to the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg.

Vadim Lunyov, the factory's managing director, is now compiling a history of the factory, with the help of Fyodor Semevsky, an eighth-generation descendant of Francis Gardner, whose family sold the business in 1892, but never left Russia.

"The Gardners were forced to sell by the monopolization process in manufacturing," Lunyov said. "You can read about it in Lenin's book 'Capitalism in Russia.'"

Semevsky is the great-grandson of Francis Gardner's great-great-granddaughter, Maria Gardner. It was Maria Gardner's mother who sold the factory. Semevsky still lives in the fine wooden house Maria Gardner built in the north of Moscow after leaving Verbilki. A doctor of biological sciences, Semevsky's only visit to his ancestral homeland was to change planes once in London en route to the United States.

Semevsky is no porcelain specialist, but neither was Francis Gardner when he came to St. Petersburg in the 1740s with his father and cousins to trade timber. A preserve of the Chinese for 1,000 years, the art of porcelain-making was not mastered in Europe until the early 18th century, in the town of Meissen in Saxony. Subsequently, many European countries began to race to learn the secrets of porcelain-making. By the 1740s, Tsarina Yelizaveta Petrovna was desperate for the technology. Spies were dispatched to Meissen and efforts were made to obtain the secret from China, but it was Russian chemist Dmitry Vinogradov who finally developed a porcelain recipe and launched production at the Imperial Factory (now the Lomonosov Factory) around 1750.

Meanwhile, Gardner moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow in the 1750s and was busy running a financial firm in the city's German settlement on a street that is still called Gardner Alley (Gardnerovsky Pereulok) in what is now the region around the Baumanskaya metro station. The idea to build a second Russian porcelain factory to serve the country's second capital was as brilliant as it was obvious, and Gardner submitted a petition to the Moscow Manufacturing College in 1765, asking permission to start a factory at his own cost "for the good of the Russian Empire."

The authorities granted his petition, but solved some or their own problems at the same time in a pattern that may be familiar to foreign businessmen who deal with the Moscow administration today: Gardner wanted permission to own serfs because, as he wrote then, "freemen, not serfs, cannot be forced to learn such a new skill at any price," but the Manufacturing College refused his request, citing as its reason the fact that Gardner was a foreigner. The college also insisted the factory be built on a site far from Moscow Ч Verbilki is between Dmitrov and Taldom, about 60 kilometers north of the city Ч citing as its reason that its porcelain baking ovens would deplete forests adjacent to Moscow.

Their motives became clear soon after the decision was final: It turns out that the college member who signed Gardner's petition just happened to have an indebted relative who owned serfs in Verbilki and wanted to sell them. They were purchased by another Russian gentleman, who unofficially left them at Gardner's disposal for a suitable recompense. Gardner only found out a year later what the college member, his relative and the gentleman had "forgotten" to inform him Ч that the serfs were pawned to a bank three years earlier.

But the Englishman was no quitter. Construction of the factory went forward at top speed and, as early as 1770, the memoirist Andrei Bolotov noted that "the factory set up three years ago by the English merchant Gardner now has such repute that the articles made there are truly little inferior to the Saxon and are used all over Russia."

The orders from Empress Catherine the Great, which confirmed the factory's reputation, came at the end of the 1770s. They were for a series of porcelain services to be used at annual ceremonial dinners of the knightly orders of Saint Vladimir, Saint Andrei and Saint George. Articles from those services can still be viewed in Moscow at the Kuskovo Estate Museum.

After Gardner's death in 1797, his children and grandchildren maintained the factory's reputation for excellence. Because of the factory's remote location, and because the Gardners used local talent instead of foreign specialists, output from the factory acquired a particularly national character.

"The porcelain painters started with scenes from Italian opera, but quickly switched to bluebells and forget-me-nots Е or Е peasant children, because that is what they saw around them," said Yulia Korovtsova, the factory's archivist.

Combining quality with affordability, the factory was consistently successful in the mid-19th century. Ultimately, though, the Gardners lost their niche as an increasingly mass market was divided between foreign imports and ceramics monopolist Matvei Kuznetsov, who bought their factory and all the article types ever produced there for a bargain price of 237,000 rubles in 1892.

"The Gardners were never rich," said Olga Novikova of the Kuskova Museum. "They always had too many children, and they had to borrow to maintain the quality they prized. At the end, they were in debt, their land was mortgaged and they ran out of money."

Nationalized after 1917, the factory spent 70 years as the Dmitrov Porcelain Factory before reverting to its old name after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is now owned by 450 people, including managing director Lunyov, who banded together to purchase it from the state in 1991.

For information about visiting the museum or touring the factory, call Yulia Korovtsova at 587-2521/2597.