Sévres Porcelain...A Royal Obsession
Held in the highest regard among monarchs, emperors, and cardinals, the beauty of Sevres porcelain is infinite and enduring. The factory began as a modest workshop in the royal chateau of Vincennes in 1740, established for the express purpose of improving the quality and production of French porcelain. The result, some of the most resplendent porcelain ever created.
The first monarch to take a great interest in porcelain was King Louis XV, whose mistress, Madame de Pompadour, adored the stunning pieces created in Vincennes. The King became a shareholder of the flourishing enterprise in 1752, and when they needed to expand, he suggested it should be closer to Versailles and Paris. The town of Sevres, on the banks of the Seine, proved to be the perfect location and the factory re-located in 1756. Due to the enormous production cost of creating such high quality porcelain, Sevres' operation costs were four times that of its income. In order to bankroll such an enterprise, and perhaps to keep his mistress happy, the King bought the entire factory in 1759. Louis XV used a variety of tactics to keep his business running including forbidding other porcelain manufacturers to paint in polychrome enamels, to use gold or to create sculptures. He also levied large import duties on porcelain wares from Meissen, Sevres biggest competitor. Annual exhibitions were held at Versailles, which the King personally attended acting as salesman!
The unprecedented beauty of Sevres porcelain soon became a source of national pride, although prices remained astronomical due to slow preparation processes. Sevres porcelain wares were unrivaled in their vibrant ground colors which included royal blue, crimson, rose (named rose Pompadour, after the King's mistress), apple green, turquoise and mulberry, all accented in flawless hand painted gilt and enamels. Sevres cabinet pieces, known as "wonders of the world," were commissioned by kings, dukes, princes and cardinals from around the world.
The introduction of hard paste porcelain in the 1770s brought about the biggest changes in the factory's production primarily because it was easier and less costly to produce than soft paste pieces. The first hard paste wares were typically gilt on a white ground, due the fact that their soft paste colors wouldn't adhere to the hard surfaces. However, it wasn't long before the innovative designers at Sevres created a variety of rich hues to decorate their equally impressive hard paste porcelain. Although production increased for a decade or so, the Revolution of 1789 took its toll on the factory, but Sevres remained in business against considerable odds. After the abolishment of the monarchy, the state took control of the factory in 1793 and even today it remains property of the French government.
It wasn't long before the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte also recognized the value of such magnificent porcelain. He also took steps to safeguard the finances of the factory by assuring them a regular governmental income and sometimes even donating money from his own purse. Napoleon also appointed Alexandre Brongniart as director of the factory (1800-1847), who abolished altogether the costly production of soft paste porcelain in 1804, preparing Sevres for a new century of exquisite porcelain production. Along with services and commissions for Napoleon including two dinner services for Tsar Alexander I, pieces were made for French sovereigns Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis Philippe and Napoleon III. English monarchs George III and George IV were avid collectors, and their collection, one of the finest of Sevres porcelain dating back to 1753, remains the property of Queen Elizabeth and is housed in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Numerous other prestigious commissions were made, some included on the pages to follow such as the tea service for the French Military Institute and the tableware made especially for King Louis Philippe's Chateau de Fontainbleu. Tableware, tea services, decorative "cabinet" pieces, biscuit statuary, vases, urns, sculpture...the Sevres factory excelled in the creation of everything they produced. For the past 250 years, Sevres porcelain has been prized by royalty and nobility, continuing to captivate collectors and museums world wide.