The model for this cave à liquor was first exhibited at the 1878 Exposition Universelle. As the only example to have been positively identified by the Baccarat Factory as period, the present lot is an exceptionally rare work by the world-renowned cristallerie firm (sold Sotheby's, London, 8 July 2015, lot 46, £485,000 inc. premium. A distinguishing feature of this nineteenth-century example is its complex construction and only one other example, commissioned slightly later circa 1920 for the for the Maharaja of Baroda in honour of the Elephant Festival in India, is similar in its technical characteristics. Between 1982 and 2004 Baccarat revived the popular model in a limited series of re-editions, and it is important to note that these examples vary significantly in structure, which is discussed in further detail below. Among these later editions is an example in the collection of the Hôtel Crillon, which was once believed to be the same cave à liquor exhibited at the 1878 Exhibition. The Hôtel Crillon model now having been determined to be of a later date, it is therefore possible that the present lot is in fact the original 1878 example.
BACCARAT AND THE 1878 EXPOSITION
Held only eight years following France’s devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1878 Exposition Universelle served as a rallying moment for the recently established French Republic. As call to the nations of the world to display their cultural and mechanical achievements, the exhibition served as a platform for French artisans to showcase France's great advancements in both Industry and Art. Nowhere is this more evident than with Baccarat’s show-stopping stand.
Since its founding by royal decree of Louis XV in 1764 through to the present day, Baccarat has been a technological innovator. The company’s origins lay in a desire for France to compete with its European rivals in the delicate and complex field of crystal making. The factory was built in the Lorraine town of Baccarat whose name the firm would ultimately assume after a series of acquisitions and organizational changes in the 19th century. In 1816, Aimé-Gabriel d’Artigues acquired the manufactory at Baccarat and oversaw the operation of its first oven for the creation of crystal, a material distinguished from glass by its density, durability and its highly reflective qualities, and for which the firm would become world renowned. However, it was not until 1841 when François-Eugène de Fontenay joined the firm that true innovation began. For it was de Fontenay who discovered that by the addition of nickel oxide in the manufacturing process, a perfectly clear product, "crystal glass", free of discolouration and imitating precious rock crystal, was produced. Shortly thereafter in 1844 the Baccarat company was awarded a Gold Medal at the French Expositions des Produits de l'Industrie.
Building on their prowess as industry leaders, Baccarat continued to innovate, developing ever more creative and technologically complex forms for their chandeliers, candelabra, and table decoration. The cristallerie’s stand at the 1878 Exposition was no exception. One visitor’s guide remarked, “The principal cristallerie manufactory in France is Baccarat… whose magnificent exhibition attracts the immediate attention of the visitor.”(1) One can clearly imagine why when reading a visitor’s guide description of the stand: “… composed of candelabra, chiselled decanters, delicious goblets with an air of lightness, sparkling chandeliers, prisms and pearls, where colours of the rainbow played so that one believed it to be under a shower of diamonds." “It’s dazzling!”, the authors exclaimed (2).
It was in this context that the cave à liquor Élephant was first presented in 1878. “A liqueur cabinet in the form of an elephant, more bizarre than elegant,” wrote one unconvinced contemporary critic (3). Indeed, the fabulous model was a completely unique work, created with the most cutting-edge technology and born out of a fascination with the Orient.
INNOVATION AND IMAGINATION
The original design for the cave à liquor Élephant model designed for the exhibition is incredibly technically complex in construction, as evidenced by the present lot. The elephant itself was produced in several moulded sections of crystal glass. The front and rear of the elephant were each cast as two separate and hollow parts. This open interior thus allowed for sections to be joined through the skilful assembly rods and nuts, all of which are hidden by the ruched drapery descending from cupola-form liqueur-casket. The ears were also moulded separately, the seams covered by the headdress. The glass was then frosted, a technique which purposefully dulls the brilliance of the glass. In the case of the present model this was achieved with an acid bath, and then polished, ultimately creating a striking contrast to the warm shine of the ormolu. It is significant to note that the elephants in the later 1982-2004 editions were made in one piece (the full body and ears moulded together) and the bronze and diamond-cut plinths are often signed ‘Baccarat’, which is not the case with the present example. This information was researched with the kind assistance of Mme Michaela Lerch, Curator/ Head of Heritage Department Baccarat.
This precise technical construction of the original model is juxtaposed with the design's the fantastical interpretation of the Orient. Orientalism, a Western preoccupation with the exoticism of the Middle and Far East, served as a motif in fine art since the beginning of the 19th century and which became progressively more of an influence on the decorative arts as the century went on. The model for the present elephant was particularly inspired by the “éléphant de la Bastille”, a monumental fountain commissioned by Napoleon I in 1808 on the fourth anniversary of his coronation designed, in various iterations, by architect Jean-Antoine Alavoine (1778-1834) (4).
The fountain was originally intended to be cast in the bronze from the melted down guns captured following Napoleon’s victorious Battle of Freidland and to be placed on the site of the fallen Bastille. It is unclear why an elephant was the desired form of the monument, but it did replace another Orientalist work: the Egyptian-inspired “Fountain of Regeneration” in the form of Isis, which was a temporary plaster version (5). Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo the project was eventually abandoned, but its life-size wood and plaster model (which stood over 24 meters high), remained displayed on la place de la Bastille until 1847. Although similarly ephemeral like the fountain before it, the model was forever immortalized by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables as shelter for the character Gavroche.
Within the same Orientalist vein, Baccarat also presented at the 1878 exhibition a brûle parfum in the form of a camel. Entitled Le Vaisseau du desert, the model was incredibly refined in both technique and form. Similar to the cave à liquor Éléphant in its rarity, only two versions were made. Appealing to the growing public interest in Orientalist objets another, less rare, model of the Baccarat elephant was produced several years later circa 1880, which veered more towards Japonsime in inspiration. Rather than supporting a cupola, the Vase éléphant was modelled supporting a vase decorated with Japanese motifs. Smaller in scale, the figure of the elephant and the base made entirely of gilt and patinated-bronze and ultimately designed for a different level of clientele than for this exceptional cave à liquor, which stands unparalleled as a ground breaking objet de curiosité of French industrial art.
(1) Exposition Universelle de 1878 : Guide-itine´raire du visiteur, Paris, 1878, p. 106.
(2) H. Gautier et Adrien Desprez, Les curiosite´s de l'Exposition de 1878; guide du visiteur, Paris, 1878, pp. 150- 151.
(3) Les merveilles de l'Exposition de 1878, Paris, 1878, p. 526.
(4) M. Lerch and D. Morel, Baccarat: La Le´gende du Cristal, Paris, Petit Palais, 15 October 2014 - 4 January 2015, p. 53.
(5) S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution, Paris, 1990, p. 7.