Continental Porcelain Factories - Sevres

The National Manufactory of porcelain in France was started in a disused chateau in the suburbs of Paris in 1738. In that year some workmen who had left the Chantilly factory and claimed to know the secrets of making porcelain, were engaged to conduct experiments to that end. They failed to make good their boasts and are said to have spent most of their time drinking, with the result that they were sent away in disgrace and another arcanist employed in their place. Finally, in 1745, success was achieved, and Royal permission given to form a company to make 'porcelain in the style of the Saxon, that is to say, painted and gilded with human figures'.

Undoubtedly the factory aimed at challenging the hold that Germany had on the French market, and replacing the imported wares by home-produced ones. From the start the best chemists, goldsmiths and other experts were employed, and decrees were passed forbidding any other factory in France from making porcelain or the workmen at the new factory to leave and reveal the secrets. By 1750 more than a hundred workers were employed, and three years later a further order again prohibited manufacture by any rival concern; an order that does not seem to have been taken very seriously. In 1753, also, it was proposed to build new premises at Sevres, again close to Paris and on the way to Versailles, and when the erection was completed in 1756 the move was made. After a number of financial difficulties, growing pains common to the porcelain factories of all nations, the establishment was taken over by Louis XV in 1760.

The justly-famous Sevres soft-paste porcelain quickly rose to a high position as a leader of fashion, and when the Seven Years War started in 1756, the French factory was able to leap ahead as its rival fell into the hands of Frederick the Great and the Prussian soldiers. A large part of the early output was devoted to the making of artificial flowers of all kinds that were coloured naturally. On one occasion Madame de Pompadour received the King in a conservatory filled with quantities of these porcelain blooms which were perfumed to make them more convincing.

Figures began to be made at an early date, and the majority were glazed and uncoloured. In 1751 came the introduction of figures made and sold in the biscuit; an entirely new idea that was very successful and that employed many first-class modellers. The magnificent vases made at Sevres were finely painted in panels on grounds of colours that were envied and copied throughout Europe: dark blue, turquoise, yellow, green, and rose-pink (known as Rose du Barry or Rose Pompadour). Many of the vases were made especially for presentation by the King to foreign Royalties and acted as excellent ambassadors of trade; orders flowed to the factory in their wake. In spite of the success and popularity of the Sevres soft-paste the directors of the manufactory were not satisfied and continued to attempt to make hard- paste: 'in the style of the Saxon.' Eventually, they succeeded, and by 1772, the new material was being manufactured in quantity.

The use of hard-paste enabled much larger pieces to be made, and lowered the proportion of losses in firing, but the ware lost much of its beauty as a result. In the nineteenth century numbers of large vases and covers were made, many painted with pseudo-eighteenth-century scenes on a turquoise ground and heavily mounted in gilt metal. Services painted with portraits of Royal and noble personages were also popular.

About 1800, following the Revolution, changes in direction and policy caused the sale of great quantities of 'seconds' and stored undecorated pieces, that were bought by English and French 'outside decorators'. These genuinely old soft-paste specimens were carefully painted in authentic styles and colours; also, sparsely-decorated old Sevres has sometimes had its enameling removed with acid and more valuable embellishment added and glazed. At Coalport and elsewhere in England, and at some Continental factories, clever forgeries were made. Altogether, the collector should bear in mind the words of W. B. Honey: 'It is probable that more than half the porcelain purporting to be Sevres in private hands is partly or wholly false.'

The mark, which is often imitated, comprises two script 'L'S facing each other and interlinked. There is often an additional letter between them to denote the year of manufacture.

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