Though developed for home hygiene, the pot pourri vase - an early form of air freshener - became part of the repertoire of the great ceramic factories of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although the 18th century was known as the Age of Elegance, the people of the time were not known for their scrupulousness in matters of hygiene. Bathtime was an occasional indulgence at best and the elaborate clothing worn by both men and women rarely, if ever, saw a washtub. This must have made even modest social gatherings smelly affairs, while the idea of a grand ball hardly bears thinking about.
Cleaning up their act didn't seem to have occurred to anyone, and if it did, the idea just didn't catch on. People preferred to mask the smells rather than eliminate them. Pot-pourri vases were the best-looking solution to the problem. They first appeared at the French Court, which, though magnificent, was by legend inclined towards a very rich melange of odours. Its efficacy proven, the pot pourri thereafter spread through fashionable Europe.
Pot pourri literally means 'rotten pot', and was so-called because the vases originally contained a sweet-smelling liquid made from decomposing flower petals and herbs.
The vases, usually made of porcelain, had perforations on their lids and sometimes their shoulders to allow the aroma of the contents to waft into the air. They were made in an enormous range of styles to suit every room and taste. Magnificently ornate examples graced the state rooms of royalty, while more modest ones turned up in the elegant bedrooms of the merely rich.
The former include some of the finest 18th century porcelain ever made. The lavish tastes of Madame de Pompadour inspired such extravagant beauties as the vaissou a mat (ship with mast) vase, with scrolled legs and a lid shaped like stylized rigging of a ship, and the
British royal family owns a wonderful collection of
Sevres vases collected by George III.
The market for pot-pourri vases continued to grow in the 19th century, though they became more a matter of taste and refinement than necessity as standards of hygiene improved. As a result, vases tended to become less elaborate and smaller - some looking just like pots - to contain more conventional aromatic substances and to be displayed on mantelpieces, sideboards or occasional tables. Larger ones, though, were sometimes used as centrepieces for dining tables.
The finest pot-pourri vases from the 18th century are likely to be so expensive that they are best left to the museum or the specialist collector to buy. However, more modest pieces, and those from the 19th century, are available at sales or from antique or specialist shops. Examples may also turn up in antiques fairs.
Most English makers of fine china produced pot-pourri vases. Look out for names such as Coalport, Copeland, Davenport, Grainger, Derby, Doulton, Minton, Spode, Wedgwood, Rockingham and Worcester. The great majority of vases were made of porcelain or bone china, though fine stoneware and ironstone were also used.
The best pieces were individually thrown, turned on a lathe and hand-painted and gilded. Quality of modelling and decorative details determine the desirability and value of a piece. 18th century vases tended to be very elaborate indeed, while 19th century potters tended to show more restraint.
These later pieces may be more likely to appeal to the eye (and, indeed, the pocket) of today's collector.
Maker's marks on a vase tend to increase the value significantly and there are pocket reference books available to help identify them on these vases and other pieces of porcelain and pottery.
Pot-pourri vases must have their lids intact if they are to be of value, so look carefully for signs of chipping around the rim of the lid and inside the neck of the vase. In the same way check all vases on pedestals for signs of chipping or repair work between the body of the vase and the neck of the base. Repairs will reduce the value of a piece.
Brighter gilding or the absence of wear on a handle, vase or lid may indicate that a vase has been repaired or regilded. Such work also diminishes the value of a piece and this should be reflected in the price.
Warman's English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain.