Sèvres Porcelain

Established during the heyday of the European quest to equal the much revered porcelains of China, the manufactory at Sevres has produced some of the world’s finest porcelain works. Originally lacking the techniques and raw materials to make hard paste porcelain, Sevres mastered soft paste techniques. With the financial backing of the King and the protection of a royal monopoly, the manufactory produced elaborate works for France’s privileged class. Early Sevres pieces include tableware, tea sets, figures and vases. They are prized for the warmth achieved in the soft paste, complemented by distinctive colors and exquisite gilding.

History of the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory

The history of French porcelain actually begins not at Sevres but at Saint-Cloud. By the late 17th century the European powers were intense in their drive to create porcelain. The brilliant blue and white wares imported from Asia were avidly collected by royalty at great expense. The quintessential status symbol, the wealth and power of a noble was frequently reflected in his porcelain collection. The methods of porcelain manufacture were closely guarded secrets and even if France had had access to this technology, the country lacked a source of kaolin clay, a necessary ingredient in porcelain.

It was at Saint-Cloud in about 1695 that the first French porcelain-like works were produced. The ceramic made there was what is known as frit porcelain, or soft paste porcelain. Frit is a mixture of chalk, sand and flux that fires to a glassy ceramic. The porcelain from Saint-Cloud was a creamy yellow when compared with the white of hard paste porcelain from China. It did not fire well and they were not able to create larger pieces. Nonetheless, Saint-Cloud porcelain was popular in French society and in 1702 was granted a patent under the somewhat excessive claim that the manufactory had solved the mystery of crafting porcelain.

Despite the patent, a number of competing French manufactories appeared over the coming decades. In 1740 a group of artisans deserted form one such competitor, the Chantilly manufactory in Oise, and embarked on an endeavor to produce an improved soft paste porcelain that more closely resembled the porcelain of China and the Meissen manufactory in Saxony which by this time had begun to produce true hard paste. The Chantilly defectors included Claude-Humbert Gerin together with the Dubois brothers, Giles and Robert. Impressed by the early pieces produced from the workshops, Jean-Henri-Louis Orry de Fulvy, brother of the superintendent of royal buildings, initiated the establishment of the Vincennes porcelain manufactory in the premises of the unused Château de Vincennes, located east of Paris.

The early attempts fell short of the goal and most of the financiers abandoned the project in the hands of Louis-François Gravant. In 1745, with the sustained patronage of Jean-Henri-Louis Orry de Fulvy, the manufactory finally successfully produced pieces that were accepted and appreciated by the Paris market.

On July 24, 1745, Louis XV signed a decree granting Charles Adam, Orry de Fulvy’s servant, the exclusive privilege to manufacture porcelain in the Meissen style. It was also during this time that Jean-Claude Duplessis, a silversmith, was brought in. Duplessis is credited for the design of Vincennes vases exemplifying the full-bodied yet graceful French Rococo.

The death of the Fulvy brothers in 1750 and 1751 brought a brief financial crisis but serendipitously led to a positive outcome for the firm. To rescue the financially stressed operation, Louis XV made Vincennes the recipient of royal patronage and it became the object of his mistress Madame de Pompadour’s special attentions. New artists and administrators were hired including Jean-Jacques Bachelier, a painter who was put in-charge of the enamel workshop and Jean Hellot, a chemist, academic, and author of metallurgy books, who was made responsible for the research arm of the operation that conducted studies of glazes, clay and enamel colors.

In 1752 a Royal Edict was issued giving Vincennes a monopoly over ceramic polychrome decors. The edict diminished the manufacturing capacity of Vincennes’ rivals and made the Vincennes porcelain manufactory the leader in Europe for the manufacture of soft-paste porcelain. The manufactory produced decorative items incomparable in ornamental excitement and technical genius.

In 1756, the entire operation was transferred to Sèvres, located west of Paris close to the King’s palace in Versailles. In 1759, because of another imminent financial crisis, the king himself bought the entire venture and became the chief salesman of all its products. He even hosted a New Year ’s Day showing of the finest Sèvres pieces for the French nobility in his palace at Versailles. It was also about this time that Sèvres began producing items under the “Royal” name. It became a Manufacture Royale de la porcelaine de France.

Toward the end of the 18th century, Sèvres Porcelain virtually dominated the market for luxurious porcelain decorations, besting the makers of Dresden. However, the advent of the French Revolution brought an abrupt reversal of fortune; . By 1800 Sèvres Porcelain was essentially bankrupt.

In 1804, as Napoleon Bonaparte established himself Emperor of France, Sèvres found a new lease on life under the able management of Alexander Brongniart. For over 40 years, Alexandre Brongniart was in charge of the epic growth and advancement of Sèvres, even breaking into the larger, more profitable middle class market.

Under Brongniart’s leadership the manufacture of soft-paste porcelain was phased out in favor of hard-paste porcelain. This transition had actually begun in 1759 after the discovery of Kaolin, in France close to Limoges. However, Sevres was so renowned for soft paste, and its soft paste works were so popular, that the firm continued to make the “inferior” porcelain along with hard paste for many years.

Sèvres porcelain markings and style

As with most porcelain manufactories, Sevres employed a marking system to distinguish its works. The somewhat elaborate system was decidedly more descriptive than its contemporaries including marks to indicate the date of manufacture as well as painters and gilders.

In 1751 Sevres began marking pieces with a Double “L” insignia. Beginning in 1753, the factory added a date code to the markings. The letter “A” indicates 1753, “B” 1754 and so on. When in 1777 the letter “Z” was reached, they began again with “AA” in 1778 and ran up to “PP” in 1793.

After 1793 the Double “L” mark was changed to RF, meaning “Republique Francaise. This period was known as the Republique period. In 1803 the consulate period began followed by the empire period in 1804, when Napoleon declared himself emperor. By 1814 after the defeat of Napoleon, the Double “L” mark was reintroduced by Sèvres porcelain when the monarchy was again installed in France under Louis XVIII. The manufactory continued to use the marking up to 1824. When Louis the XVIII was succeeded by Charles X the Double “L” mark was supplanted by the Double “C” mark.

Sèvres porcelain Style

Possibly, the supreme accomplishment of the Sèvres porcelain manufactory was its manufacture of decorative vases with excellent painting quality, richness of color and lavishness of gilded ornamentation.

The soft paste Sèvres porcelain items required very low firing temperature and allowed for the application of rich decorative colors that became the model for other porcelain manufacturers in Europe. The manufactory also broke ground in modeling unglazed biscuit porcelain as introduced by Bachelier.

The perfect colors achieved by Sèvres are similar to the colors of the paintings of Francois Boucher, one of the major French rococo period painters. These are blues with a greenish tint, and a superb pink color given the name rose Pompadour. There was a wide range of items produced including ink wells, wall sconces and potpourri vases. Unglazed white biscuit figurines were also great favorites.

Collectability

The worth of a Sèvres porcelain piece is dependent on the quantity of sets and individual pieces produced. Political gifts such as the set sent to Empress Maria Theresa by Louis XV in 1758 have high value. Further celebrated sets consist of the services produced for Madame du Barry and Catherine the Great.

Notable Sevres Collections

The Wallace Collection – The Wallace collection has the acknowledged world’s best museum collection of antique Sèvres porcelain. The collection includes soft-paste porcelain such as tea sets, vases, biscuit figures, useful wares and plaques produced from 1740 when the manufactory was still in Vincennes, up to the time of the French Revolution.

The Royal Collection at the Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace - The 18th century Sèvres porcelain works in the Royal Collection are considered as the world’s finest. It was mainly collected by George IV from 1783 to 1830. The collection exemplifies George IV’s penchant for the extravagant, the exotic and the luxurious. The most exquisite pieces are used to decorate the flamboyant state rooms of Carlton, his London home.

The Rothschild Collection at Waddeson Manor – The 18th century Sèvres porcelain collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild has more than 160 pieces, almost half of which are vases. There are also three large Sèvres porcelain dinner services and rare pieces such as a nightlight, a plaque with the likeness of Louis XV and the Copenhagen vase.

These collections were generally assembled in the 19th century in the aftermath of the French Revolution when the market was flooded with works of art.

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