I recently stumbled over a detail on the bottom of a delicate piece of egg shell porcelain.
Although, the heavily over decorated porcelain itself wasn’t quite to my liking, the bottom detail was simply wonderful: when lifting the piece in a vertical position, and holding it against the light, a geisha with a garland in her hair appeared in all details as if one would look at a 3D black and white photography.
After doing some inquiries I figured out that this delightful impressed picture is called lithophane. This is a term formed from the Greek words lithos, meaning stone, and Phánēs, a deity of light. The sources regarding its first appearance vary. In this case however the hidden geisha “en grisaille” is dwelling at the bottom of a tea cup that was made in Japan where lithophane tea cups have been produced until the late 1950ies or early 1960ies. To my eye it looks like a rather complicated process, because the thickness of the porcelain is varying in order to create the 3D effect and grey tones.
In strong contrast to this delicate likeness, the porcelain itself is decorated with moriage, another layer of slip (raised enamel) on top of the painted pottery, as well as with gold – again for a 3D effect (see also Satsuma ware). The geisha lithophane is also classified as Imari ware, a Japanese export porcelain made in the area of Arita.