Collecting guide: Sèvres porcelain
Specialist Matilda Burn tells the story of the French factory founded over 250 years ago, from the evolution of its beautiful wares to the monarchs who waited years for their commissions to be created. Illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s
In the 18th century, porcelain was one of the most highly prized commodities in the world. Only the very wealthy could afford objects made of this fragile material, which was shipped at great expense from the Far East.
Porcelain was developed in China around 2,000 years ago but the recipe was a closely guarded secret. It was not until the early 18th century that Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the magic formula for making true hard-paste porcelain, and in 1710 the Meissen factory was established.
Although the first ‘true’ porcelain in Europe was made by Böttger in what is now Germany, the French were swift to follow the lead from Dresden. Soft paste porcelain was produced at Chantilly, St Cloud and at Vincennes from 1738.
From the beginning the Vincennes factory enjoyed a privileged status as Manufacture royale among the porcelain factories, with royal patronage and financial support from King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. By 1756 the Vincennes premises were considered too cramped and a new factory was built on the edge of the village of Sèvres, where technical developments and artistic achievements continued apace.
Some of the early French porcelain had an imitative nature. The above Vincennes pot and cover emulates the shape and decoration of early Meissen pieces painted with harbour scenes. However, Sèvres quickly began to distance itself from its German competitor, and by the 1750s had developed forms and decoration uniquely its own.
Some of the first pieces produced were small tea and coffee wares with coloured grounds and gilding. The early ‘bleu lapis’ ground is particularly distinctive, with a beautiful wash-like or ‘mottled’ quality. These pieces, such as the one above, have an elegant simplicity and the cartouches are often painted or gilded with birds in flight.
The Shearer Collection, sold in 2014 at Christie’s, was a particularly well-curated group of 18th-century Sèvres, bought by John Shearer from the late 1960s into the 1990s, with the advice and assistance of Bob Williams, a renowned porcelain dealer of the day.
Know your marks
Sèvres porcelain is very often marked with two blue-painted ‘interlaced’ Ls. This in turn often encloses a letter or double letter, which acts as a code for the year in which the piece was produced. Thus, a teabowl with the letter A on it would have a production date of circa 1754.
Blue L marks enclosing date letter F and crescent painter’s mark for Louis-Denis Armand l’aîné
Sèvres is a particularly documentary factory in this respect, as painters and gilders were allowed to add their ‘mark’ on pieces they worked on in order to identify themselves. Many of these painters and the pieces they worked on are noted in factory records (now held in the archives at Sèvres) and are therefore identifiable.
Painters were famed for particular skills, and so you have François–Joseph Aloncle (1734-81), who largely painted birds in a distinctive style; Jean-Louis Morin (active at the factory 1754-87), who was known for military and marine scenes; and Étienne-Henry Le Guay (active 1748-97), who was a celebrated gilder. These craftsmen often passed their skills down through the generations and so several painters of the same name can be mentioned in the records across decades. A helpful reference work listing the painters’ marks and date codes is the book by David Peters, Sèvres Plates and Services of the 18th Century.
During the 19th century, the interlaced Ls mark was replaced by a variety of stencilled, printed and painted marks.
How to spot a fake
Just because a porcelain piece is marked in this way does not necessarily mean that it was produced at the Sèvres factory. The Sèvres mark has been frequently faked by other continental factories, most often in the 19th century. Sometimes this can be revealed by the confidence of the painted mark, sometimes by the quality of the piece and its decoration.
A ‘fake’ may be a vase with a badly painted scene on it, or a teabowl with a green ground colour which is too garish, or a gilded cartouche which is too bright and thickly painted. Vincennes and Sèvres gilding is often finely worked or ‘tooled’ with subtle patterns, and has a light touch that is very distinctive.
Some pieces may be Sèvres porcelain which was left blank in the 18th century and decorated later. A giveaway for these pieces is that they often have black specks in the white porcelain body, which happens sometimes when porcelain is re-fired.
Royal and diplomatic gifts
Just as at Meissen, Sèvres was a popular factory for the commission and production of royal and diplomatic gifts, as well as for direct purchases by royal families and the aristocracy. Marie Antoinette was an early supporter, ordering vase garnitures, teawares and dinner-services.
In 1784 the queen ordered a sumptuous service decorated with roses, faux pearls and pansies in medallions, on a carmine ground. This was for use at Versailles. Upon its completion in May of that year it was given instead by Louis XVI to Gustav III as a diplomatic gift commemorating the Swedish king’s visit.
Unused to self-sacrifice, the French queen did not wait long for her own service. She received one in exactly the same pattern in August that year. The service was so popular that another was commissioned five years later, by Marie Antoinette's sister-in-law, the Comtesse d’Artois.
Monarchs and leaders across the Western world looked to France for their important commissions and major purchases. Catherine the Great ordered a fabulous service from Sèvres in 1776, but it was eventually delivered to her lover, the Prince Grigori Potemkin, in 1779.
The Imperial EII cypher (for Ekaterina II) was used, and Catherine also specified that the ground colour should be bleu celeste, imitating turquoise stone. The grandest pieces of the service were mounted with hard-paste cameos which were cut with portraits to resemble real cameos. It was incredibly costly to produce and took the factory almost four years to complete, stretching its financial, technical and artistic resources to the limit.
The majority of this service is in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but a few pieces have come up for sale over the years, including a pair of ice-pails, covers and liners, selling for £842,500 with premium (see above), and a soup-plate, which sold for £137,000 (below).
Royal and political patronage continued over successive decades into the 19th century and beyond. Napoleon ordered the service ‘Marly Rouge’, which was delivered to Château de Fontainebleau in October 1809, shortly before the Emperor arrived for a one-month stay. This service was decorated with finely painted moths within red and gilt borders. A single plate sold for £15,000 in 2015.
More than a decade later the porcelain factory was still popular with political rulers and monarchs. A very fine pair of ice-pails will be offered at Christie’s in The Collector on 15 November 2017 in London. These were part of a service — a royal gift from King Charles X to the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence, given as thanks for a portrait the latter undertook of the King and his son, the dauphin.
Many Sèvres porcelain pieces were also purchased by dealers, or marchand-merciers, particularly in the early 19th century, and sold to wealthy and aristocratic buyers (many of whom were English). A splendid large Sèvres vase ‘Lagrenée’ offered in our 15 November sale was purchased by the marchand-mercier M. Jacques between 1805 and 1806, and was sold on to Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852).
Centuries of innovation
After the French Revolution, which marked a particularly difficult period for the factory, not least financially, the 19th century saw developments in new directions both technical and artistic, under Alexandre Broigniart, who served as director from 1800 to 1847. Broigniart was a scientist and engineer, and his training provided a fresh approach to factory production.
In the 1770s the factory had developed a hard-paste porcelain that enabled the application of new types of gilding and ground colours. This was perfected in the 19th century, and under Broigniart there was a huge focus on the development of new glazes and colours (simulating hardstones and marble), as well as on the creation of complex shapes and forms.
The ‘reticulated’ or pierced bodies developed in the 19th century were particularly hard to achieve. They involved creating and firing a double porcelain wall with an intricate lattice of openings to the outer wall.
The forms of these pieces were new, too, with attention shifting to the East for inspiration. A Sèvres gilt-metal and ivory-mounted teapot and cover made in 1846 is described in the archives as a théière ‘Chinoise ronde’ and combines this new form with European decoration.
By the 1850s Sèvres had also developed a technique called ‘pâte-sur-pâte’ — literally ‘paste on paste’. This involved building up layers of slip (liquid clay) decoration in white on coloured grounds — creating translucent and diaphanous effects. The finest examples of this technique achieve high prices at auction today, particularly if they are signed by notable makers (including Marc-Louis Solon). Solon fled war in the 1870s and ended up working at the Minton factory in England, where very similar style pâte-sur-pâte wares were produced on the Sèvres model.
Innovation at Sèvres continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the factory is still innovating today.
Where to see large collections of Sèvres porcelain
One of the best places to see early Vincennes and Sèvres porcelain is in London at The Wallace Collection, where you can view many fine examples of 18th-century soft-paste porcelain, including four ice-cream coolers from the Catherine the Great service.
A short train ride away from Paris is the Sèvres factory museum ‘Cité de la Céramique’, which holds beautiful examples of factory production from the 18th century to the present day.
How to start a collection
Small 18th-century tea wares can be a good and relatively inexpensive way to start a collection. Be sure to watch out for restorations, later decoration and re-gilding. However, if you are looking for a starter piece, later decoration and restored porcelain carries a lower price tag, and can be fascinating to study as well as being a great place to start.