The Making of: French Porcelain

A friend of mine recently said that he personally now lives with more conveniences than an 18th century French king in Versailles.

I don’t agree with him. I think that having servants to do every possible bit of minutiae it is possible to do (including things you’ve never heard of and would be horrified to have someone do for you) would outweigh the possible inconvenience of not being able to instantly call up your mate and go out for some beers whenever you feel like it.

Granted, today we have better healthcare – if we can afford it.

wallace egg cooker
Perfume Burner and Egg Steamer, 1758-1759, soft-paste porcelain, Sevres, c. The Wallace Collection

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to another friend of mine: this French perfume burner and egg cooker, manufactured in 1758-1759 by the Sèvres porcelain factory. This little thing would have sat in someone’s bedroom, where it would have two potential uses: as you might guess from the name, one is burning perfume, to sweeten your boudoir, and one is cooking eggs, for when you wake up hungry. Now, yes, today you could have an egg cooker sitting on your bedside table, and you can go buy a candle – but your amazon egg cooker and your yankee candle candle haven’t got an ounce of the panache this does.

getty potpourris pompadour
Pair of Potpourri Vases (potspourris Pompadour, troisième grandeur), 1755, Soft-paste porcelain, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Sèvres factory was renowned as one of the best porcelain manufacturers in Europe at the time. Originally housed in the royal château at Vincennes, it changed facilities to Sèvres in 1756, and three years later was bought outright by Louis XV. The factory produced items for the wealthiest people in Europe – French kings, queens, and mistresses, of course, but also Russia’s Catherine the Great, who actually changed the course of Sèvres’s designs. She wanted a more neoclassical form than the factory was producing at the time, and they delivered, creating new moulds for over 700 pieces – moulds that were never used again. The image below is an ice cream cooler that was part of this service, along with sets for dinner, coffee, tea, and everything else you might need serving ware for. At the time, ice cream was softer than we think of it today, more like sorbet. The cups that go along with this cooler have handles for drinking, rather than eating.

There’s a legend that when Catherine was presented with the bill (90,000 livres, at $40-50 million today) for her dinner service, she refused to pay up until the French Revolution, when the factory was deeply in debt and would have folded. In reality, the Tsarina paid her bill within two years, much faster than most wealthy customers of the day. Apparently the legend also got the bill wrong – instead of 90,000, it was more like 245,168 livres.

ice cream cooler wallace
Ice cream cooler, 1778, Sevres, part of the Catherine the Great Cameo Service, c. The Wallace Collection.

There are three main kinds of porcelain: hard-paste, soft-paste, and bone china.¹ Hard-paste is true porcelain, usually fired at 1450ºC. It was the attempt to imitate Asian hard-paste porcelain, which requires an ingredient known as kaolin, that spurred the first makers of soft-paste porcelain in the factories at Rouen and Saint-Cloud in the late 17th century. Initially the designs were very similar to their Asian counterparts, but French motifs and designs quickly became more common. In the image of the vase below, you can see how the shape of the vase, and the blue and white coloring, are obviously informed by Chinese porcelain, but the design of the swirling vines is more French in origin.

the met st cloud
Vase with cover, 1695-1710, Saint-Cloud, c. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The amount of effort that went into one piece of Sèvres porcelain is incredible. Each piece would first be drawn by an artist, and from the drawing a mould would be created. The Sèvres website has images and explanations of how the piece would be formed from the mould (I’ll admit it goes a little over my head). Once formed and polished, the piece is fired and prepared for glazing, first with a transparent colourless glaze and then glazes with colour, each fired on separately.

By the time kaolin was discovered in France, Sèvres was the leading manufacturer of porcelain, and continued to be – in fact the factory still makes porcelain today. This teacup (below) is one of my favourite Sèvres pieces. The form is stunning, with a bamboo-inspired handle and pierced decoration not unlike a wood screen. It’s more simplistic than the pieces in vogue when the factory first stepped on the stage, but it retains the elegance and the ostentatiousness that is so characteristic of Sèvres porcelain.

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Teacup, 1866-1878, Sevres, hard-paste porcelain, c. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

French porcelain styles have changed considerably over the years as they’ve followed artistic conventions. If you’re interested in seeing more examples, click the link to my pinterest at the top of the page.

¹Bone china does include real bone ash. It’s made the same way as hard-paste, but because of the inclusion of the ash, it’s cheaper, like soft-paste, while still retaining the strength of hard-paste. It is, and was, really only made in England.

Featured Image: Etienne-Henri Le Guay (French, 1719/1720 – about 1799), Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1756 – present) A Tea Service (déjeuner ruban), about 1765 – 1770, Soft-paste porcelain with polychrome enamelled decoration and gilding
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Further Reading:

This article from the New York Times about Saint-Cloud and the origins of soft-paste porcelain.

This article from the New York Times called A History of Imperial Russia, In Porcelain. 

This article on jstor debunking the Catherine the Great myth, The Sevres Porcelain Service of Catherine II of Russia, The Truth Concerning Payment.

This article by the Hermitage Museum on the Myths and Reality of the Cameo Service.

One essay from the Met on French Porcelain in the Eighteenth Century.

A second essay from the Met on Sèvres Porcelain in the Nineteenth Century.

One article from the Sevres website on ceramics, and another on shaping a piece.

The ice cream cooler on the Wallace Collection’s Treasure of the Month.

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