The fortunes of the French porcelain factory, Sevres, in the 18th and 19th century followed those of the nation and produced two periods of great influence, the first under the Bourbon kings, and the second under
In 1738, a factory was founded at the Chat an de Vincennes to manufacture fine soft paste porcelain for the nobility. It thrived, attracting royal patronage, and was awarded a state monopoly of the manufacture of painted and gilded porcelain wares.
In 1752, Louis XV, influenced by his Mistress Madame de Pompadour, became the major shareholder. Four years later, the factory moved to the town of Sevres, and in 1759 Louis tool over completely.
Further reorganization in 1848 led to a switch in emphasis from decoration to the quality of the porcelain itself. Much paler colours were used. The factory moved to St Cloud in 1876, and continues there today. Apart from some fine work in the art nouveau and art deco styles, much of the production in the last 100 years has been copies or smaller versions of wares from the 18th century.
Sevres led France, and indeed Europe in producing luxury ornamental and table wares. The light, delicate, creamy porcelain featured rich, enamelled ground colours - various shades of blue, pea-green, yellow and rose-pink enclosing white panels painted with delicate bird and flower studies or landscapes. The panel borders were often elaborate and liberal use was made of gilding.
The first wares were full of ornamental detail, with tooled surfaces and applied, raised decoration in the rococo style. In the l770s, a more restrained neo-classical influence took over.
The revolution of 1789 swept away much of Sevres' aristocratic clientele. After the factory was nationalized in 1793, its stock was sold off to be decorated elsewhere, some of it in Britain.
A new director took over the moribund works in 1800. He abandoned the making of
soft-paste porcelain for hard-paste, introduced there in the 1760s. Sevres won huge orders from the Napoleonic government in the new Empire style. Though not as fine as 18th century work, the products of the Empire period (1802-1815) put Sevres back in the black and revived its influence.
Wonderfully colourful Sevres porcelain pieces were never meant to be used - except, perhaps, on
glittering social occasions - and their natural habitat is a display case.
SEVRES PORCELAIN COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Porcelain from Sevres' golden age in the 18th century is rare. Many of the better pieces are in museums. Early 19th-century wares are a little easier to find, but can still be very expensive. Genuine pieces are rarely offered for sale outside specialist dealers and auction rooms.
The Sevres style inspired other porcelain makers from the beginning. Some made honest reproductions, others downright forgeries complete with a version of the Sevres mark. This is particularly true of the unpainted stock sold off after the Revolution and decorated by others, and also of copies originating in continental Europe.
MARKS OF CHANGE
The much copied 18th century mark of interlaced capitals, taken from the royal cipher, was replaced briefly in 1800 by a mark of R.F. Sevres, commemorating the republic. This was followed by Manufacture Imperiale de Sevres printed in red, and the mark continued to change with various shifts in ownership and circumstance through the 19th century.
All marks should be treated with a large pinch of salt. Experts estimate that as many as 95 per cent of marked 'Sevres' pieces did not originate in the factory. Style and quality of decoration are a better guide, and even here it often takes an expert to tell the difference.
The art of re-creating classic 18th-century pieces was taken to a very high level by British firms in the 1850s and 1860s, when the French style of interior decoration became fashionable. This is particularly true of Minton's, whose Sevres-style pieces are valued today almost as much as the originals.
Because perfect pieces are so rare, slightly chipped or cracked pieces, or ones with mild imperfections in the decoration, do have a collectors' value. Professional restorers may make practically invisible repairs, but these don't greatly increase the value of a damaged piece, and are probably best avoided.
Valuable pieces of porcelain should be kept in a display cabinet, which will protect them from dust and accidents alike.
Read articles and references:
Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).