The Hippopotamus Service

ROYAL COPENHAGEN

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One of the world’s most prestigious dinner services provided the pattern for an exclusively commissioned service with embellishments featuring collector Richard Baron Cohen’s favourite animal – the hippopotamus.
By Bolette Bramsen


American businessman and renowned porcelain collector Richard Baron Cohen was inspired by a visit to Denmark to commission an exclusive special edition of one of the world’s most prestigious historic dinner services, the Flora Danica by Royal Copenhagen. Danish antique dealer Lars Christoffersen was to assist him in approaching the time-honoured porcelain manufacturer with an entirely novel design idea. The Flora Danica is Europe’s oldest dinner service still in production and already included in Richard Baron Cohen’s vast collections of neoclassical European porcelain. Originally commissioned in 1790 by Frederik VII of Denmark and intended as a gift to Catherine the Great of Russia, the Flora Danica features plants and wildflowers from every corner of the Danish realm. But Richard Baron Cohen had set his heart on replacing this magnificently rendered herbarium with motifs of his favourite animal, the wallowing hippo.

 

101 zoos worldwide

The original Flora Danica dinner service draws on motifs from a collection of hand-coloured copperplate prints of Danish flora, which was later to form the groundwork for the science of taxonomical classification. No such comprehensive collection of hippopotamus images was available, so Richard Baron Cohen sent out a photographer to 101 zoos and safari parks in 33 different countries with the sole purpose of photographing hippopotami. The young photographer, Sarah Louise Galbraith, spent a year on the go with no more than three days at each destination. Of her vast portfolio of images, 303 were selected to represent the many subspecies of hippopotami in the world, alone or in groups and in characteristic positions – hippos with very different expressions, often quite humorous.

Three years in the making

Royal Copenhagen, purveyor to the Royal Danish Court, is probably the only fine dinnerware manufacturer in the world with the capacity to handle such a large commission, which in this case comprised 144 unique pieces in a dinner set for 12 people. Each individual plate, bowl and dish was decorated by Jørgen Steensen – one of Royal Copenhagen’s most experienced porcelain painters. The daunting task took three years to accomplish and involved a number of other artisan-craftspeople highly skilled in fine porcelain embellishment. Each piece of china was first moulded and then rendered with perforated patterns and serrated edges. Handles, festoons and flower petals were added before the hippo decorations were hand painted on each individual piece with four days spent on each item. Finally the edges were gilded, a lengthy process that demands up to four firings. Richard Baron Cohen visited Royal Copenhagen a number of times during the production to witness the dinner service come to life.

 

Round the world

The Hippopotamus Service was created exclusively for the collector and is not available for retail. On completion of the dinner service in 2006, select items were exhibited at the New York City galleries of Sotheby’s. The dinner service then went on show at the Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin and continued to the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. This autumn, the dinner service will return to New York where it will be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the spring of 2009.