These ice-pails, or seaux ‘à glace’, are from the famous Catherine the Great Service, also known as the ‘Cameo Service’ or Service aux Camées. The Cameo Service was the most elaborate and expensive service ever produced by Sèvres. Pieces from it rarely appear on the market as the majority of the service is in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Sèvres made 10 seaux ‘à glace’ for the service, 4 of which are in the Wallace Collection, London, and 4 of which are in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. The remaining 2, the present seaux ‘à glace’, are the only examples in private hands.1 There is a small group of pieces from the service (of other forms) which are not in the Hermitage, and most of these pieces are in museums.2
The Cameo Service was the product of a love affair between Catherine the Great and Prince Grigori Potemkin. Catherine met Potemkin on the day of her coup, when she had her husband, Tsar Peter III, strangled. An act of gallantry brought the 28 year-old guardsman Potemkin to her attention, and he subsequently became part of her inner circle. As his rapport with the Empress grew, so did the jealousy of her lover at the time, Alexei Orlov. After her affair with Orlov had ended, she briefly turned her attentions to Alexander Vasilchikov before Potemkin engineered his replacement as her lover in January 1774. Catherine became utterly smitten with Potemkin, a witty and dashing war hero of over six feet tall, and it is possible that they married secretly.3 Aside from his blue-eyed good looks, he was also one of Russia’s finest cavalry commanders. In June 1774 Catherine wrote to him: ‘My darling, darling my dear, my beloved, I have lost all common sense today. Love, love is the reason. I love you with my heart, mind, soul and body. I love you with all my senses and shall love you eternally’.4 In 1776 she ennobled Potemkin and gave him Anichkov House, a large residence by the river Neva. Other lavish gifts, including the Cameo Service, followed.
In 1776 the Empress commissioned the Cameo Service via her lover, Prince Potemkin. A recently discovered letter that she wrote to Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm5 in March 1778 reveals that although the order for the service was commissioned in her name, she intended it to be a gift to Potemkin. She purposefully ordered it for herself to ensure that Sèvres produced a service of the very highest quality; 'Le service de Sèvres que j’ai commandé est pour le premier rongeur de doigts de l’univers, pour mon cher et bien-aimé prince Potemkine, et pour qu’il soit le plus beau, j’ai dit qu’il est pour moi’ (The Sèvres service that I ordered is for the most nervous and impatient man in the universe, for my dear and beloved Prince Potemkin, and, in order that it be as beautiful as possible, I said that it was for me’).6 On 16th July Potemkin instructed the director of the cabinet of Her Imperial Majesty, K.V. Olsufyev, to order the service through Prince Ivan Sergeyvich Bariatinsky, her ambassador to Louis XVI’s Court at Versailles. Potemkin’s instructions were that the dinner, dessert, tea and coffee-service should be for sixty placings, and that it should be in ‘the best and newest style, with Her Majesty’s monogram on every piece’, and that it should be ‘without any deviation from antique models, with reproductions of cameos’.7 The Imperial EII cypher (for Ekaterina II) was used, and Catherine also specified that the ground colour should be bleu celeste, imitating turquoise stone, and a particular hue of ‘bleu celeste imitant la turquoise’ was used.
The technical difficulty of fulfilling Catherine’s choice of ground colour and the inclusion of ‘cameos’ led to the service’s most extraordinary and innovative feature; the grandest pieces of the service are mounted with hard-paste cameos which are cut with portraits to resemble real cameos.8 As Savill notes, the inclusion of cut simulated cameos were almost certainly Catherine’s idea because when she balked at the price of the service, and her ambassador Bariatinsky investigated the reasons for the extremely high price, he was reminded by the factory that the expense of the service was partly due to his request to include the cameos.9
In order to fulfil the imperial order, Sèvres had to solve a major technical difficulty: only a soft-paste porcelain body was suitable for the bleu celeste ground colour,10 but only the newly developed hard-paste porcelain was suitable to be cut to simulate cameos. The ingenious solution to this problem was to set the hard-paste cameos into the soft-paste body of the most important pieces, and fix them in place with gilt-copper laurel-garland mounts.11 The hard-paste cameos were produced by fusing two layers of a dark reddish-brown hard paste and white hard paste together and then cutting through the top white layer with stone-cutting wheels to create the effect of antique Greek and Roman agate-onyx cameos. New mills to power the cutting-wheels were designed and built at Sèvres with a lapidary workshop above, and this process cost 40,000 livres. Each cut cameo was charged at 96 livres, and the overall cost of each seau à glace was a prodigious 2,058 livres - 10 times the cost of other seaux à glace (of conventional form) with best quality decoration. The hard-paste cameos were complimented by painted cameos which only cost 8 livres each, and an innovative form of transfer-printing was used for the initial outline of these cameos.12 The painted simulated bas-relief scenes were based on antique medallions and bracelets.
The first hard-paste cameo experiments were taken to Versailles for Louis XVI’s approval on 24th December 1777, and a surviving memorandum (which may have been sent with the cameos) suggests that the designs for the cameos in the service were based on antique originals in the king’s collection, as it asked if he would allow the factory to copy some of the cameos in the cabinet du Roi.13 As Savill notes: ‘red-wax casts (possibly from the originals), plaster and unmounted porcelain versions are at Sèvres’.14 It is interesting to note the striking similarity between the head of Jupiter on one of the present seaux à glace to that in a vignette published in the catalogue of the cameo collection of the King’s cousin, Louis Philippe Joseph, duc d’Orléans. This vignette, engraved by Auguste de St. Aubin, features a head of Jupiter after an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi of a gold medal in the collection of the lawyer and collector Matthew Duane in London. It is perhaps possible that Sèvres utilised the Bartolozzi print as a source for this cameo (or Auguste de St. Aubin’s engraving if they had access to it).15 Only a few years later, the duc d’Orléans sold his cameo collection to Catherine The Great in 1787 to pay off his gambling debts.
The other important innovative feature of the service was its design and decoration. The Cameo Service was the first service to be made in the neo-classical style, for which completely new sets of designs and moulds were required. None of these were ever reused. Louis-Simon Boizot, the head of the sculptors’ workshop, most probably designed the forms of the service. Having been to Rome, Boizot had the necessary schooling in classical vocabulary, and, in addition to the dinner, dessert, coffee and tea-service he designed a large white biscuit centrepiece and ninety white biscuit table-decoration figures as a compliment to the wares.16 The gilt scroll friezes were based on the frieze of the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome,17 and the white bead-ornament borders simulated pearls.
To complete the commission, Sèvres called upon many of its greatest resources; at least 37 of its 69 painters, 5 of its 13 gilders and nearly all of its modellers and kiln managers. The completion of the project brought about a stylistic revolution and many technical innovations (which ultimately expanded the production capabilities of Sèvres), but it also brought the factory close to bankruptcy. The year 1777 was largely dedicated to the project and to the creation of new forms and elaborate decorative schemes. The following year was largely devoted to painting and 1779 to gilding, firing and the burnishing of the pieces. On 20th May 1779 Louis XVI visited the factory five days after the final seau ‘à bouteille’ had been fired.
It is not absolutely clear what the total cost of the service was, or exactly how many pieces were sent to St. Petersburg. Although the manufactory Registres du magasin des Ventes recorded a list of 778 pieces for the service and 77 pieces for the centrepiece, it corresponds neither to the total number appearing in the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs records, nor to the number of objects noted as received in St. Petersburg. It is thought that the final total cost was 331,317 livres, a truly prodigious sum, which Catherine paid in instalments, with the final instalment of 90,000 livres clearing the bill in 1792. Surviving correspondence tracing the evolution of the project is retained at Sèvres, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris (which retains a bound volume of Dessins et Devis du Service de Porcelaine pour l'Imperatrice de Russie 1778), and at the Archives of St. Petersburg.
The completed service was dispatched to Russia by sea on a Dutch ship from Rouen in June 1779, arriving at St. Petersburg in October, where it was delivered Potemkin at the Tauride Palace. The service had taken almost four years to produce, and by the time it arrived Catherine and Potemkin’s tempestuous affair was already over. The cracks in their relationship had begun to appear in the middle of 1775, so presumably one of Catherine’s motivations for the quantity and quality of the gifts that she bestowed upon him was an attempt to keep the relationship on course. Potemkin’s temper frequently flared up and his passion for Catherine was waning. Catherine wrote to him: “I ask God to forgive you your vain despair and violence but also your injustice to me. I believe that you love me in spite of the fact that often there is no trace of love in your words’.18
Although they were ultimately unable to make their relationship work as lovers, they remained devoted to one another platonically, and (which shocked Europe at the time), they both arranged to take on younger lovers. Over the years Catherine continued her pursuit of younger men and they were usually procured by Potemkin, being vetted first for venereal disease by the Scottish doctor John Rogerson.19 When Potemkin sold Anichkov to pay his debts, Catherine bought it back, and he gave the Sèvres Cameo Service to Catherine. The service arrived at the Winter Palace on 26th July 1782.
As replacements for the service were made by the Imperial porcelain factory in the 19th century, the service must have been used at the Winter Palace. Catherine would (presumably) have used the service for State Banquets, and, when it was not in use, the service was probably put on display.20 The seaux ‘à glace’, or ice-pails, were important components of the service and their function was to keep ice-cream or sorbet cool. The ice-cream or sorbet would have been put in the liners, and crushed ice to keep it cool was put in the main bodies of the pails. The covers have raised galleried sides which allowed them to be packed with ice as well. Ice-creams or sorbets were filled with fruit juices, chocolate or cream, and they were drunk in a semi-liquid state from small tasses ‘à glaces’.21
After the fire at the Winter Palace on 17th December 1837 a large number of pieces from the service (approximately 160) were looted. The stolen pieces passed via Ferdinando Civilotti to the London dealers Storr and Mortimer of 156 New Bond Street.22 Sèvres made 10 seaux ‘à glace’ for the service, and 7 of these were stolen during the Winter Palace fire and taken to London. By 20th July 1840 Viscount Lowther (1787-1872, later 2nd Earl of Londsdale, from 1844) had bought 129 or 130 pieces, and these were followed by a further 20 pieces by 21st July 1842. In 1856 Lord Lonsdale started selling various objects d’art at Christie’s, the same year that he also sold 156 of his Cameo Service pieces to the London dealer John Webb (keeping a small group of the Cameo Service pieces).23 In the same year the French Embassy notified the Russian Court that a London dealer had 156 pieces of the Cameo Service.24 The large group of pieces which John Webb sold to Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford,25 included 5 seaux à ‘glace’. Lord Hertford subsequently sold the majority of his pieces back to Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1856-57,26 including one of his five seaux ‘à glace’, but he kept the best six pieces of the Cameo Service for himself, of which four were the seaux ‘à glace’ now in the Wallace Collection, London. Today there are four seaux ‘à glace’ in the Hermitage, one of which was returned by Lord Hertford.
It is less clear how the present two seaux ‘à glace’ passed from the Earl of Lonsdale’s collection to the collection of Octavius Edward Coope (1814-1886). Lord Lonsdale had a series of sales at Christie’s between 1856 and 1887, but these ice-pails do not appear in any of those auctions. Although it is possible that he sold them directly to Coope, it is more probable that he sold them to the dealer John Webb in 1856 along with all the other pieces, and that John Web sold five of the seaux ‘à glace’ to Lord Hertford and two of the seaux ‘à glace’ to Octavius Coope.
PAINTERS AND GILDERS
The LG marks for Le Guay are almost certainly for Étienne-Henry Le Guay (l’aîné, or père, at the time these seaux were being made), rather than Pierre-André Le Guay, who used a similar mark. Étienne-Henry Le Guay was initially a painter at Sèvres, but he then became a gilder, often working on friezes. Although one of these seaux ‘à glace’ bears a mark for Jean-Pierre Boulanger, also a gilder, the gilding of these seaux was carried out by Le Guay, as only his name appears in the records for gilding on this form in the service. This tallies with the fact that it was Le Guay who put his mark on the liners, which have gilt decoration only. Jean-Pierre Boulanger was a painter of patterns as well as being a gilder, and he was active at Sèvres from 1754 to 1785. François-Marie Barrat (oncle) was a flower painter active at Sèvres from 1769 to 1791, and from 1795 to 1796, and in 1779 he was the only artist recorded painting flowers on seaux ‘à glaces’ for the service.
The significance of the scratched # mark on the underside of one cover and scratched B on the other is unknown, and it is interesting to note that two of the four covers on the Wallace Collection examples also bear scratched marks (one is scratched with D, the other with XX). All ten ice-pails were given the final firings between 13th July 1778 and 29th March 1779.
1. Three of the four seaux à ‘glace’ in the Wallace Collection are illustrated by Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection, catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain, London, 1988, Vol. II, pp. 773-775, Nos. C477, C478 and C479. Written before the fall of the Soviet Union, when access to information was limited, the catalogue erroneously records (on p. 773) 6 seaux ‘à glace’ in the Hermitage. There are 4 seaux à ‘glace’ in the Hermitage, and one is illustrated by Nina Birioukova and Natalia Kazakevitch, La porcelaine de Sèvres du XVIII siècle, St. Petersburg, 2005, p. 140 (one of numbers nos. 322-325).
2. For a comprehensive listing of other pieces which have surfaced on the market and which are illustrated in the literature, see David Peters, Sèvres Plates and Services of the 18th century, Little Berkhamsted, 2005, Vol. III, pp. 604-606. An important sucrier from the service was sold by Christie’s Paris on 4 November 2015, lot 504.
3. See Susan Jaques, The Empress of Art: Catherine The Great and the Transformation of Russia, 2016, p. 145.
4. Cited by Susan Jaques, ibid., 2016, pp. 142-143, and Virginia Rounding, Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, London, 2006, p. 275.
5. Grimm lived in Paris and they corresponded regularly. His letters kept her informed of literary gossip and events, as well as providing her with cultural contacts and advice. He even helped Catherine to find a wife for her son.
6. Cited by Jaques, ibid., p. 162 and Rounding, ibid., p. 325. This explains why Grimm referred to the service as ‘le service du prince Potemkin’ when he wrote to Catherine in 1781 telling her that he had purchased a Sèvres bust of her (of the same type found on the top of the centrepiece for the Cameo Service); see Rosalind Savill, ‘Cameo Fever: Six Pieces from the Sèvres Porcelain Dinner Service Made for Catherine II of Russia,’ Apollo Magazine, Vol. CXVI, No. 249, November 1982, p. 310 and p. 311, note 67.
7. See Savill, ibid., 1982, p. 304.
8. Only the ice-pails (seaux ‘à glaces’), the bottle-coolers (seaux ‘à bouteille’), the glass-coolers (seaux crénelés), the liqueur-bottle coolers (seaux à liqueur ovales) and the sugar-bowls, covers and stands (sucriers de table) have cut cameos.
9. Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection, catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain, London, 1988, Vol. II, p. 765, and p. 780, note 25.
10. As soft-paste was unstable during firing, the factory estimated it would need to fire 3,000 pieces in order to be left with 800 of sufficient quality. A new soft paste recipe was devised to minimise this, but there were still huge losses and costly delays. The revised soft-paste was glazed via a lengthy process; the glaze was formed from heating white sand, red lead and soda salt which fused when heated to form a lead glass. This was then ground to a fine powder and mixed with vinegar and chymie (a gum made from soap and animal glue). Two coats were applied and fired for forty-eight hours per coat. The turquoise ground was a copper-based enamel with an acid component which helped it to eat into the glassy surface and adhere. Two or three coats and firings were necessary for a good finish. See Savill, ibid., 1982, p. 306.
11. These were possibly supplied by Grandin who was paid 1,000 livres 'pour montures de pieces de porcelaine' in gilt copper in 1779. See Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 766 and p. 780, note 53.
12. A sheet printed with twelve classical heads (each with titles in reverse) is in the collection of Sèvres-Cité de la Céramique, and bears the inscription ‘Têtes imprimée avec de la couleur à porcelain tendre en 1777 ou 1778 service’. Although different from the transfer-printing technique introduced by Pierre Nicolas Berthevin (who had worked with this technique at Marieberg), it seems likely that Berthevin devised this particular technique for the Cameo Service before his death (see Savill, ibid., 1982, p. 306). Most of these outlined images were then painted by Jean Baptiste Etienne Genest. David Peters notes: ‘the merit, in terms of production, of employing transfers which are entirely overpainted is not obvious and it is not clear how a transfer could be usefully employed unless, at the least, a field of the basic enamel colour of a bust was in place even before application of the transfer and firing'. See Peters, ibid., Vol. III, p. 602.
13. The King’s approval for this suggestion was annotated in the margin of the memorandum. ‘...Et si le Roy daigne favoriser ce nouvel Etablissement dans sa manufacture en luy faisant communiquer successivement une partie des Pierres gravées du Cabinet de Sa majesté Le plus Riche quil y ait En Europe on pourra faire jouer le public amateur Et Curieux, des copies fidels de ces pretieux monumens qui ne sont Presque connus que par les description que les autheurs en ont donné Et par des Gravures imparfaites’. See Savill, ibid., 1982, p. 308 and note 42, and Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 765.
14. See Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 766.
15. The first volume of this work, François Arnaud, Description des principales pierres gravées du cabinet de S.A.S. Monseigneur le duc d'Orléans, was published in Paris by La Chau and Le Blond in 1780 (the second volume followed in 1784). The frontispiece and the vignette on p. 1 of the first volume, both of which are after Cochin, were engraved by Auguste de St. Aubin in 1778 and 1779 respectively, which is exactly the same time that these seaux à glaces were being made. The explanation for the p. 24 vignette is listed as: ‘Médaille d’or d’Alexandre fils de Néoptolème, sur laquelle est représentée une tête de Jupiter Dodonéen d’un travail exquis: la même tête a été gravée à Londres part M. Bartolozzi d’apres une médaille d’or du Cabinet de M. Duane. A des branches de chêne, Attribut de Jupiter Dodonéen, est suspendue une autre médaille de la ville d’Halicarnasse, publiée par Vaillant’. Auguste de St. Aubin was appointed the official engraver at the Bibliothèque Royale in 1766.
16. A note by Riocreux in the Sèvres archives suggests that he was responsible; see Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 763 and p. 780, note 14.
17. A document in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris records this, see Peters, ibid., Vol. III, p. 602.
18. Cited by Jaques, ibid., 2016, pp. 165.
19. See Jaques, ibid., 2016, p. 166.
20. See Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 767 and p. 781, notes 68 and 69.
21. See Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 773.
22. See Savill, ibid., November 1982, p. 310.
23. Lord Lonsdale’s sales at Christie’s were on 30th May 1856, 11th March 1859, 16th July 1879 and 13-18th June 1887. Savill notes that the small group of Cameo Service pieces that he did not sell to the dealer John Webb appear in his posthumous 1887 sale. The present seaux ‘à glace’ do not appear in any of these sales. As Peters notes (ibid., pp. 603-4), the 156 pieces that Webb bought from Lord Lonsdale may not have been listed in the same manner as previously, which could have interfered with the numbers of pieces recorded.
24. Nina Birioukova and Natalia Kazakevitch, ibid., 2005, p. 151.
25. See Savill, ibid., 1982, p. 310, where she discusses the bill (from Webb to the 4th Marquess of Hertford) preserved in the Wallace Collection archive.
26. This group was previously thought to have been bought back by two different Tsars, but a 9th February 1857 instruction for payment ‘for part of the Sèvres porcelain service bought from Mr Webbs and bearing the monogram of the Empress Catherine II’ confirms its return at this time. See Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 767 and p. 781, note 76.