Collecting guide: Sèvres porcelain

Specialist Matilda Burn tells the story of the French factory founded more than 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

A Sèvres porcelain ‘rose marbre’ part dejeuner, circa 1762-63

A Sèvres porcelain ‘rose marbré’ part déjeuner, circa 1762-63. Sold for $52,920 on 4 April 2022 at Christie's Online

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, until European production began, had to be 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.

Competitive beginnings

Although the first ‘true’ porcelain in Europe was made by Böttger in Germany, the French were keen to follow Dresden’s lead. Soft-paste porcelain was produced at Chantilly, Saint-Cloud and, from 1738, at Vincennes.

From the beginning, Vincennes enjoyed privileged status among the porcelain factories as manufacture royale, 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 early French porcelain had an imitative quality. The Vincennes pot above emulates the shape and decoration of 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 decorative motifs uniquely its own.

Among 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. The factory was also well known for its brilliant ‘bleu céleste’ colour, which was introduced in 1753. It was one of the costliest colours to produce, and Louis XV famously ordered an entire bleu céleste service soon after its development, a plate from which is shown above.

Know your marks

Sèvres porcelain is very often marked with two blue-painted interlaced Ls. These in turn usually enclose another letter or double letter, indicating the year in which the piece was produced. A tea bowl with the letter A on it would have a production date of circa 1754.

Sevres porcelain marks

Blue L marks enclosing the date letter F and a crescent painter’s mark for Louis-Denis Armand l’aîné

The Sèvres factory is known for its good documentation in this respect. The names of many painters and gilders — who were allowed to add their ‘mark’ to pieces they worked on — are noted in records now held in the archives at Sèvres, so they are identifiable.

Painters were famed for particular skills. For instance, François-Joseph Aloncle (active at the factory 1758-81) largely painted birds in a distinctive style; Jean-Louis Morin (active 1754-87) was known for military and marine scenes; and Etienne-Henry Le Guay (active 1748-97) was a celebrated gilder.

These craftsmen often passed their skills down through the generations, so several painters of the same name might be mentioned in the records across decades. A helpful reference work listing the painters’ marks and date codes is Sèvres Plates and Services of the 18th Century  by David Peters.

During the 19th century, the interlaced letter Ls were 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 was frequently faked by other factories, most often in the 19th century. Sometimes this can be revealed by a lack of confidence in the way the mark was painted, 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 tea bowl with a ground colour that is too garish, or a gilded cartouche that 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 of Sèvres porcelain were 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 can appear when porcelain is re-fired.

Royal and diplomatic gifts

Like 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, tea wares and dinner services.

In 1784 the queen ordered a sumptuous service decorated with roses, faux pearls and pansies in medallions, on a carmine ground. It was intended for use at Versailles, but upon its completion Louis XVI instead gave it to Gustav III as a diplomatic gift commemorating the Swedish king’s visit. Unused to self-sacrifice, Marie Antoinette did not wait long to order her own replacement service in the same pattern.

Similarly, in 1782 Louis-Philippe de Bourbon, duc de Chartres, ordered an elaborate bleu céleste service (shown below) for the common-law wife of his friend, Nathaniel Parker Forth, British special envoy to France. Each piece has finely painted birds in the centre and on the rim, based on images found in The Natural History of Birds  by the Comte de Buffon. The service eventually came into the collection of Alfred de Rothschild at Halton House, Buckinghamshire, before being acquired by the Desmarais family in the late 1990s.

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, which was eventually delivered to her lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, in 1779.

The imperial ‘EII’ cypher (for Ekaterina II) was used, and Catherine also specified that the ground colour should be bleu céleste, imitating turquoise stone. The grandest pieces of the service were mounted with hard-paste cameos cut with portraits. 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 (below), which sold for £842,500, and a soup plate, which fetched £137,000.

A Sèvres bleu celeste-ground soup-plate from the Catherine the Great service, 1778, blue interlaced L mark enclosing date letters AA, iron-red gilder's mark 2000 for Henry-François Vincent, the reverse applied with various printed and script collection and exhibition labels. 26.6 cm (10½ in) diam. Sold for £137,000 on 4 July 2017 at Christie’s in London

Royal and political patronage continued into the 19th century and beyond. Napoleon ordered the ‘Marly Rouge’ service, which was delivered to the Château de Fontainebleau in October 1809, shortly before the emperor arrived for a one-month stay. A portion of this service (below) — decorated with finely painted moths within red and gilt borders — was sold as part of the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in May 2018, for the world-record price of $1,812,500.  

A large number of Sèvres pieces were also purchased by dealers, or marchands-merciers, particularly in the early 19th century, and sold to wealthy and aristocratic buyers (many of whom were British). The splendid large Sèvres ‘Lagrenée’ vase below was purchased by the marchand-mercier M. Jacques between 1805 and 1806, and sold on to Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852).

A Sèvres hard-paste ormolu-mounted powdered lavender and gold-ground vase, circa 1805-06. Sold for $150,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

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 Brongniart, who served as director from 1800 to 1847. Brongniart was a scientist and engineer, and his training led him to adopt 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 Brongniart there was a major focus on the development of new glazes and colours (simulating hardstones and marble), as well as on the creation of pieces in more complex forms.

The ‘reticulated’ or pierced bodies developed in the 19th century (as in the part déjeuner below) were particularly difficult to achieve. They involved creating and firing a double porcelain wall with an intricate lattice of openings to the outer layer.

The shapes 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 such as Marc-Louis Solon. Solon fled war in France in the 1870s and ended up working at the Minton factory in England, where very similar 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 pieces is at the Wallace Collection in London, 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 from Paris is the Sèvres factory museum, the ‘Cité de la Céramique’, which houses 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 begin a collection, but be sure to watch out for restorations, later decoration and re-gilding. On the other hand, pieces that have been restored or decorated later carry a lower price tag, and can be fascinating to study as well as being a great place to start.

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