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Lithophanes are artistic, unique collectible

Nov. 11, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

A lithophane is a wonderful trick the art world has perfected into magical images. Outwardly, they appear to be a lovely design carved on porcelain or stoneware, however when held to a light source they become a three dimensional presentation. By using varying thickness in the carving, the light shines brighter in some areas than others thus enhancing the artist's rendition of the subject.

It is believed lithophanes had their roots in China, however the perfected product we now celebrate was developed by the Parisian Baron Paul de Bourgoing in 1827. Under a light source craftspeople would first carve a wax image on a glass plate. Then a gypsum or metal mold was made from the wax carving and from there porcelain casts were created and fired.

From Paris the process of making lithophanes spread across Europe and into Asia. The images became quite the rage between 1834 and 1860 and found their way into all manner of chinaware. They appeared as lampshades, candlesticks, beer mugs and teacups as well as the framed picture. One of the more notable images can often be found in 20th Century Japanese tea sets. As one finishes tea and upends the cup an image of perhaps a Geisha girl will appear.

Lithophanes still are being made today. You can even purchase one from Amazon, however if the antique is your passion you will pay a lot more. What might be a good alternative is to visit the Blair Museum in Toledo, Ohio. This museum houses one of the finest collections of Lithophanes in the world. The museum is the result of a wealthy businessman becoming enamored with lithophanes and accumulating an extensive collection. Upon his death he left the collection to the city of Toledo who made it part of the Toledo Botanical Garden.

Dr. Margaret Carney, a curator of the Blair collection, has penned one of the first books on the topic and it might be worth someone's time if they wanted to further explore the topic. Also a visit to the Blair Museum's Website can be most informative. These are lovely pieces of art, and you might even have one and don't know it. To confirm a suspected piece just hold it to the light and see if a deeper image shines through.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.