What does a faux minaret have to do with a pencil?

The answer to this rather odd question lies in the grounds of the Lednice Chateau in the southern Czech region of Moravia. Just a few kilometres away from the Austro-Czech border, the UNESCO-protected site is a great daytrip destination from Vienna and a popular stop-off point for cyclists on the Iron Curtain Cycle Trail.

Lednice chateau, Czech Republic
Lednice Chateau, Czech Republic (Katharine Eyre © 2022)

It’s going to be another hot summer day in Austria and we’re dying to get out of the city into the countryside to do some walking — preferably somewhere shady and away from roads and traffic. For several years, I’ve been hankering to return to Lednice Chateau in the Czech Republic. I first stopped off here in 2017 while out riding my bike and was impressed by the romantic Gothic architecture, the elegant palm house and the extensive castle gardens.

Lednice has been a notable location since the 13th century when the records show that there was a fortress with a courtyard on the site. However, the chateau’s current appearance dates back to the mid-19th century, when Alois II. of Liechtenstein, a member of the powerful aristocratic Liechtenstein family, decided that Vienna was not a suitable venue for entertaining guests in the warmer months. He wanted a proper summer palace and had the chateau at Lednice (called Eisgrub in German) altered to meet his needs.

The gardens have also been through several transformations. From the baroque arrangement of the 17th century, it took on a classical style in the 18th century before being reworked again to fit the fashionable “English garden” trend of the time.

Decorative minaret in the gardens of Lednice chateau
The minaret at Lednice (Katharine Eyre © 2022)

During the classical period, several follies were added to the estate, including the minaret which is visible from the castle across the lake. This was erected between 1797 and 1804 according to the designs of one Josef Hardtmuth. Due to the marshy ground at its location, the minaret had to be built on a foundation of iron-shod wooden pillars, several wooden grates and a layer of stone slabs. It cost almost a million guilders.

You can consider whether this exorbitant expenditure was worth it while you climb the 302 steps up the winding staircase inside and take in the panoramic view over Southern Moravia from one of the three balconies. The third and highest of these balconies is a particularly awe-inspiring experience: it is narrower than the others and only has a cast-iron railing for extra vertigo. Add a stiff wind and too many people trying to take a photo all around you for an extra thrill.

View from the minart in Lednice
The view from the Lednice minaret (Katharine Eyre © 2022)

The minaret is an impressive feature to be sure. But my interest was more piqued by the name of the architect, Josef Hardtmuth. Hadn’t I heard that name before? Having got down the minaret in one piece and found mobile reception, I decided to some quick sleuthing.

His name may be one which less and less people know. But Josef Hardtmuth was one of the more interesting movers and shakers living and working in 18th and 19th century Austria, when the Habsburg Empire stretched across great swathes of Europe with Vienna as its grand, glittering capital.

Hardtmuth was born in the Lower Austrian town of Asparn an der Zaya in 1758, the son of a Bavarian carpenter. He trained as a bricklayer and stonemason before heading off to Vienna where he worked as a builder under the tutelage of his uncle. No doubt helped by well-placed contacts in the industry (but also his self-taught drawing skills), he was soon contributing to the design and construction of some of Vienna’s grandest buildings, such as the Palais Liechtenstein in the Herrengasse. He went on to become the favoured architect of the Liechtenstein family — which is how he came to design and build a minaret with no practical use whatsoever in a Moravian park.

Any other person might have been satisfied with that as a life’s work. But Hardtmuth was not content to simply call a single métier his own. He was also a notable inventor. Many people in Vienna will associate his name with the glazed earthenware (“Wiener Steingut”) which he developed and patented and which he established a factory in Vienna’s 9th district to produce. The material was as fine as porcelain, but more hard-wearing — and cheaper, making it available to a larger portion of the population. Beer krugs, crockery and pipes were just some of the products to be made and sold.

Another Hardtmuth invention was a pressing machine to produce blocks (“Quader”) made of sand and lime which were hardwearing and would withstand weathering without the need for firing. The wall around the castle at Valtice (another Liechtenstein family property a few km away from Lednice) was made entirely from these bricks.

As an architect, Hardtmuth needed to spend a large amount of time drawing and sketching. At the time, pencils were mostly imported from England and were quite expensive. Hardtmuth, on the search for better solutions, found a way of mixing kaolin with graphite to form a wet mass which was then squeezed through a form to make pencil leads of equal size and shape. By firing these leads for different lengths of time, different grades of pencil lead could be made. They were a hit on the market and comprehensively trounced all the competition.

When the Napoleonic blockade made the import of graphite from England prohibitively expensive, Hardtmuth turned to graphite from Bohemia and kaolin from the Budweis region — both of which could be easily sourced. The wood for the pencil outer was also obtained locally, making his business completely independent of supply restrictions or geopolitical caprice. The business went from strength to strength and Hardtmuth’s pencils, fabricated in Vienna, were exported to Germany, Holland, Italy and Russia. They were also sold in England: the Viennese pencils were of the same quality as the domestically-made ones but could be bought for a fraction of the price.

Josef Hardtmuth died in 1816, and the company he founded to produce the famous Hardtmuth pencils, Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth, was taken over by his sons, Carl and Ludwig. In 1848, the company was relocated to Budweis (now České Budějovice in CZ) for economic reasons where it continued to grow and expand its offer to include ever more innovative products. By 1910, it was one of the world’s largest pencil producers, with over 200,000 units rolling off the production line every year.

The turbulent years following the First World War meant more difficult business conditions for the company. The Habsburg monarchy had fallen and the company was now located in a new country, Czechoslovakia. After the Second World War, the company was nationalised before being returned to private hands again in 1992. Today, it continues to make and distribute a wide range of art and writing equipment to more than 90 countries around the world. On a recent holiday to the Czech Republic, I even bought a beautiful notebook in its shop in Pardubice — completely unaware of the connection to Vienna.

Back in the city where he made his fortune, Josef Hardtmuth is commemorated with a street bearing his name in the 10th district. He was without doubt one of Austria’s most interesting and versatile entrepreneurs — able to teach himself new skills, identify exciting gaps in the market, experiment and present the world with new and innovative items. From a decorative garden minaret to a plain old pencil.

Josef Hardtmuth
Josef Hardtmuth (public domain)

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Geriatric millennial writing on Medium.

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