In the 18th century, porcelain was one of the most highly prized commodities in the world. Only the extremely wealthy could afford objects made of this fragile material, which was often shipped at great expense from the Far East.
Developed in China around 2,000 years ago, the recipe for creating porcelain was a closely guarded secret. It was first brought to Europe from China by Marco Polo in the 14th century who called it porcellana. However, it was not until the early 18th century that Europeans discovered how to create porcelain for themselves. Johann Friedrich Böttger is most often credited with creating Europe’s first true hard-paste porcelain and in 1710 he brought it to market financed by Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, and thus the Meissen manufactory was founded.
From here, the French were swift to follow, with soft-paste porcelain being produced at Chantilly, St Cloud, and Vincennes from 1738. 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.
From the beginning, the Vincennes factory enjoyed a privileged status as Manufacture Royale among the porcelain factories, with royal patronage and financial support from King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. By 1759, the Sèvres manufactory was entirely owned by the monarch.
The factory employed some of the highest skilled artisans and professionals in Europe, enabling them to develop a soft-paste porcelain which was whiter and purer than any other French factory. By the mid-18th century, they had become the leading producer of porcelain in Europe. Hard-paste or ‘true’ porcelain, containing the essential ingredient kaolin, was first made at Sèvres in 1769.
The Royal Collection, UK, contains the most important assemblage of Sèvres porcelain in the world. Much of it was acquired between 1783 and 1830 by George IV (1762-1830) who popularised the taste for French porcelain in Britain. George IV was an enthusiastic collector of Sèvres, which suited his taste for lavish and colourful decoration, particularly at his London residence, Carlton House. In 1783, at the age of 21, he made his first purchase from the factory, and he continued to buy as Prince of Wales, Regent, and King. To this day, dinner services bought by George IV continue to be used for State Visits and ceremonial occasions. One of the highlights in the Royal Collection is a pot-pourri vase in the form of a ship which belonged originally to Madame de Pompadour.
As the factory of the French state, Sèvres was regularly called upon in the 18th and 19th centuries to produce diplomatic gifts and this resulted in the creation of some of its most famous porcelain dinner services, vases and plaques. Perhaps the most notorious porcelain dinner service produced by Sèvres was the 700-piece service commissioned in 1770 by Catherine the Great of Russia, which she gave as a gift to her secret lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin. The majority of this service is now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Today, several public collections are particularly renowned for owning large amounts of important Sèvres porcelain. These include the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire; the Wallace Collection, London; the Louvre, Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Madeleine Norton / Associate Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney
Banner Image: Pieces from the Sèvres dinner service (1783-1793), at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London / Alamy