This plate is from the famous Catherine the Great Service, also known as the ‘Cameo Service’ or the Service aux Camées, which was the most 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.
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. He became her lover in January 1774, and Catherine became utterly smitten with the witty and dashing war hero. Blue-eyed and over six feet tall, Potemkin was also one of Russia’s finest cavalry commanders. It is possible that they married secretly.1 In 1776 he was ennobled and given 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. A recently discovered letter that she wrote to Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm2 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 (this is published in full on www.christies.com). On 16th July Potemkin conveyed Catherine's instructions for the service, which was to be a dinner, dessert, tea and coffee-service for sixty placings in ‘the best and newest style, with Her Majesty’s monogram on every piece’; and it should be ‘without any deviation from antique models, with reproductions of cameos’.3 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.4 Only a soft-paste porcelain body was suitable for the bleu celeste ground colour,5 but only the newly developed hard-paste porcelain was suitable to be cut to simulate cameos. The ingenious solution was to set the hard-paste cameos into the soft-paste body, fixing them in place with gilt-copper laurel-garland mounts.6 The hard-paste cameos were complimented by painted cameos, and an innovative form of transfer-printing was used for the initial outline of these.7
The other important innovative feature of the service was its design and decoration. It was the first service to be made in the neo-classical style, for which completely new sets of designs and moulds were required. The gilt scroll friezes were based on the frieze of the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome,8 and the white bead-ornament borders simulated pearls. The painted simulated bas-relief scenes were based on antique medallions and bracelets.
The completed service was dispatched to Russia by sea 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.
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. 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.9
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.10 In 1856 the French Embassy notified the Russian Court that a London dealer had 156 pieces of the Cameo Service.11
1. See Susan Jaques, The Empress of Art: Catherine The Great and the Transformation of Russia, 2016, p. 145.
2. 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.
3. 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. 304.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 David Peters, Sèvres Plates and Services of the 18th century, Little Berkhamsted, 2005, Vol. III, p. 602.
8. A document in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris records this, see Peters, ibid., Vol. III, p. 602.
9. See Savill, ibid., 1988, Vol. II, p. 767 and p. 781, notes 68 and 69.
10. See Savill, ibid., November 1982, p. 310.
11. Nina Birioukova and Natalia Kazakevitch, ibid., 2005, p. 151.