The Branicki Service
These plates form part of a sumptuous and extensive service commissioned by the newly-widowed Countess Branicka in 1819. The bill for the service, dated 13 May 1819 of that year, is preserved in the archives of the Maison Odiot in Paris. The service comprised 140 pieces and cost in excess of 300,000 francs.
The Countess Branicka (1754-1838) was a woman of contrasts; her love of the rich and splendid is exemplified by Odiot's magnificent service but her collection of art and precious objects were housed in rooms panelled in plain wood. Her true passion was for horticulture, and both of the houses where she spent her last years, wintering at Belaya-Tserkov and spending her summers at Alexandria, had famous parks and gardens.
As niece of Prince Potemkin, Alexandra Vasil'evna Engelhardt was presented at the court in St. Petersburg in 1772, when she was eighteen. She immediately became a favourite of the Empress Catherine and accompanied her on many of her travels. Stories later circulated that Alexandra was Catherine's daughter by Potemkin; while these unsubstantiated claims were circulated in the later years of her life by French writers, it is fairly well-documented that she was Potemkin's mistress as well as his niece.
In 1781, Alexandra married Count François-Xavier Petrovich Branicki, of an old and powerful Polish family. Trained as a soldier and diplomat, Count Branicki held several posts before being sent to St. Petersburg. He became great friends with Stanislaus Poniatowski, who had been Catherine's lover. Branicki enjoyed the favour of Catherine and, after supporting Russian suzerainty over the Sejm, or Polish parliament, he was awarded vast estates in Belaya-Tserkov after the province was ceded to Russia following the Partition of Poland in 1793.
Countess Branicka accompanied the Empress on her journey to the Crimea in 1787. After Catherine's death, she and her husband retired to their estates where the Count died in 1819. The Countess did not return to court until 1824 when she accepted the post of ober-gofmeistrina, or Senior Court Chamberlain. Having inherited the estates of her uncle Potemkin and her husband, she was thought to be worth 28 million roubles.
The Branicki service was exhibited by Odiot in the exhibition Produits de l'Industrie Français at the Louvre from August 25 to September 30, 1819. After Countess Branicka's death in 1838, the magnificent dinner service remained in the Branicki family and was probably transferred to Wilanowo, when the family inherited that property in 1892. The tea and coffee service remain at Wilanowo, but the majority of the pieces were eventually sold by the Russian government. Much of the service was acquired by a German banker, Dr. Fritz Mannheimer, who subsequently settled in Amsterdam. Many of those pieces are now in the Rijksmuseum. Other pieces were dispersed; a pair of soup-tureens, matching one in the Rijksmuseum, sold from the collection of C. Ruxton Love, Christie's New York, April 28, 1992, and another single tureen sold at Sotheby's Geneva, November 12, 1990, lot 98.