The Beginning: 1738 – 1751
Sèvres porcelain was conceived by Marquis Orry de Fulvy, the brother of the Minister of Finance, and opened its doors in 1738 as the Manufacture de Vincennes at the Château de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris. Early Sèvres pieces imitated the well-established Meissen style and the local craftsmen succeeded in producing a soft-paste porcelain. Focused on innovation, the factory has developed the first Sèvres hallmarks by 1745: the celebrated shades of turquoise – ‘bleu céleste’ – and a deep ‘royal blue’.
Louis XV and XVl: 1751 – 1780
Louis XV and his dashing mistress Madame de Pompadour not only appreciated the finesse of porcelain, but also saw its promising economic potential as the product so popular among the elite. Louis XV offered royal patronage to Vincennes and in 1756 ordered the whole operation to be moved to the larger premises in Sèvres, west of Paris.
By 1759, the king owned the factory outright and his investment paid off. Louis XV and then XVl held exclusive showings for the ladies at Versailles to introduce new patterns, shapes and colours. It also became a custom to gift a complete dinner service to every royal visitor, a diplomatic gesture that spread Sèvres’ fame all over the global royal courts.
At the time, all porcelain factories in Europe were making soft-paste porcelain. As beautiful as they were, the pieces couldn’t match the durability and the exquisite transparency of Chinese ‘hard-paste’ porcelain. The Chinese had closely guarded their secret recipe until an alchemist employed by Meissen developed his own hard-paste recipe based on the information smuggled out of China by Jesuit priests. The magic ingredient was kaolin.
By 1868, kaolin deposits were discovered in France, near Limoges, and Sèvres perfected the technology which required high temperatures for firing and glazing.
One of the most notable pieces of this period was the lavish dinner service commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1776. It was Sèvres first neoclassical design in new shapes and ground colours that matched the factory’s own bleu céleste, splendidly decorated with cameos copied from the Empress’s renowned collection and using the Imperial Ell cypher (for Ekaterina ll).
French Revolution – 1780 – 1800
The French Revolution made a dent in the prosperity of the factory and it almost collapsed due to debt and unpaid workers. The history of this tumultuous time was immortalised in the Sèvres’ strangely captivating Bol Sein milk bowl of 1787, shaped after the breast of Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France taken down by the Revolution.
Together with threats, the Revolution offered Sèvres a way to survive as it became property of the state.
Alexandre Brogniart – 1800-1847
The appointment of Alexandre Brogniart as the factory administrator coincided with Napoleon’s reign and marked a chapter of innovation and prosperity for Sèvres. Brogniart had no experience in porcelain design and production. An architect’s son and a scientist skilled in zoology, botany, chemistry and geology, he applied his skills and experience to creative design and production, bringing the factory back to its glory.
Napoleon’s celebrated campaign in Egypt created a new vogue in Paris and Sèvres responded with intricately detailed Egyptian-inspired services. Bonaparte favoured magnificent pieces of the Empire style, with classical influences and elaborate ornamentation as marks of power. One of the most notable pieces from the service ordered by Napoleon for Joséphine at the Tuileries Palace is a sugar bowl in royal blue with the factory’s elaborate gilding. It is still in production and can be bought at the Manufacture’s boutiques.
Brogniart’s tenure was characterised with eclecticism and historicism. He embraced various decorative styles to commemorate different art forms and periods in porcelain. For sets, such as dinner, coffee and tea services, Bogniart devised schemes that united objects stylistically and in terms of subject matter. One of the best examples is the ‘Service des Départements’ from 1824. Each plate is decorated with a famous view of the département (administrative unit) of France it represented, its border painted with a cameo of a well-known person, industries and arts from the region.
The factory sought to copy famous paintings perceived to be fragile, to record their true appearance. Among the many artists’ masterpieces Sèvres copied, those by Raphael were the most popular.
Sèvres has continued to grow and innovate throughout the 20th and the 21st centuries, while preserving its precious expertise in producing the finest porcelain.
At Sèvres, numerous painters and gilders worked together to produce a single piece and were allowed to incise their personal identification marks into the paste or paint them over the glaze. In addition to the artists’ marks, Sèvres wares carry signs identifying them as royal manufacture products. Soft-paste pieces have two blue interlaced L’s enclosing a letter that marks a date: A indicating 1753, B for 1754, and so on. When all the letters were used up in 1777, the marking switched to double letters. Hard-paste porcelain was marked in the same way, with a small crown added above the crossed L’s.
Is it genuine Sèvres porcelain?
Here are some tips that will help you identify if the Sèvres piece is authentic:
- Is it hand-painted? Try learning to differentiate between hand-painted and transfer prints, generally used in the 19th and 20th centuries and considered modern copies.
- What type of paste is the body made from? Hard-paste porcelain wasn’t used until the 1770s and soft-paste was abolished by Brogniart in 1804.
- Are the decorations painted in layers? Authentic pieces have extremely fine decorations that are built up in layers and can be felt with fingers. If everything feels flat, the piece is most likely forged.
Where to see Sèvres Porcelain?
Musée Nationale de Céramique in Sèvres features iconic pieces from every century since its inception. The Wallace Collection in London, the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and the Rothschild Collection at Waddeson Manor contain the finest examples of tableware and decorative objects.
Patrick Moorhead Antiques is a great place to start or grow your Sèvres porcelain collection. Browse our pieces online or visit our Brighton warehouse – we’d be delighted to give you a tour.