Lithophanes are three-dimensional copies of two-dimensional etchings, paintings, prints or photographs produced on thin sheets of fine porcelain. Viewed in ambient natural light, their designs appear as vague, bumpy images of varying thickness, but when they are illuminated, the images come to life in amazingly detailed, finely tinted shades of gray, as though they were embedded within the porcelain itself. Nearly forgotten, now, lithophanes had their heyday in the 19th century. Although they were based on existing designs, at the time of their creation they were considered new works of art.
Producing these popular plaques, which ranged from barely an inch to more than a foot in size, was particularly challenging. After duplicating drawings on sheets of warm beeswax, artists meticulously relief-sculpted these fragile panels with minute modeling tools that gave them depth. Then the panels were carefully molded and fired. Eventually, harder plaster of Paris molds, based on original waxworks, accelerated production.
Because so many artisans were involved in creating a single lithophane, none signed their names to them, but the reverse sides often featured maker’s marks. Wedgwood, Belleek, and manufactories in America and in Continental Europe produced lithophanes in great numbers, with the best being the ones that came from German companies such as Prensaich Porzellan Manufactur (PPM), Berlin Porzellan Manufactur (BPM) and Koniglichen Preussische Manufactur (KPM).
Many lithophanes were purely decorative. Others, which featured single or multiple panels edged with brilliant stained glass, delivered pure drama. When fixed in window panes, these sun-catching images changed as the level of sunlight waxed and waned.
Lithophanes also beautified scores of functional items. Firescreens featured large lithophane panels festooned with domestic scenes, florals or exotic landscapes. Emptied teacups and beer mugs, held aloft to light, depicted low-relief lithophane soldiers or horsemen on their bases. Translucent cups and dessert plates produced to celebrate events such as the coronation of King Edward VII or the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair included lithophane bases, as well.
Decorative lithophane panels also adorned porcelain funnel-, round-, square- and cylindrical-shaped lamps. They also enhanced lanterns, wall sconces and chambersticks – a portable type of candleholder.
Expansive trapezoidal or rectangular-paneled lithophane lampshades often portrayed architectural marvels, sentimental religious scenes or pastoral landscapes. Some, reflecting their times, depicted whaling ships or an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Others showed idealized scenes from everyday life: children sledding, boys playing ninepins, brides with attendants or women at spinning wheels. Yet single-piece, hollow-cast, porcelain lithophane lampshades depicting continuous narratives were most prized of all.
By the mid-1800s, vigil lights, a form of small light used in personal altars, church chapels and outside homes to deter intruders, incorporated decorative lithophanes. Because they emitted a soft glow, they also served as night lights in nurseries. Lithophane-tipped fairy lamps, advertised as “improvements to night lights,” were popular, as well. Although their full-color domes appeared garish, when back-lit at night, their images became diffuse and appealing.
Tiny lithophane panels were also incorporated into bedside food warmers, devices that helped soothe babies roused from sleep. Their flickering candle-lit images often depicted youngsters on swings, boys with toy sabers, children eating grapes or beloved storybook characters such as Little Red Riding Hood.
As electric lights started to gain traction in the early 1900s, European and American lithophanes fell out of fashion. Yet as Don Maust observed in a 1996 issue of Antiques Journal, “Until you see a lithophane, it is impossible to understand them because of their three-dimensional quality and their ability to spring to life when the light is turned on behind them. No experience of viewing artworks previously prepares you for the first time you see a lithophane.”