Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Collectors can buy well-documented examples of Sevres at the best auctions and antiques fairs, but catalogs are filled with lots hedged by qualifying phrases such as “Sevres-style” or “in the fashion of Sevres.” Other French, European and English factories made quite similar wares, sometimes very fine in their own right. Hands-on experience and critical thinking are needed to sort out the real Sevres from the rest. Many collectors focus on period Sevres, but there are also wealthy buyers for showy late-19th-century porcelain that only pays stylistic tribute to the original French factory. Each to his own.
Truth be told, the European porcelain-making world of the mid-18th century was a battle of competitive copyists. When the French works – established at Vincennes in 1740, moved to Sevres in 1756 – began, the enterprise was most anxious to compete with the products of the Meissen factory in Germany. And Meissen had been desperately trying to reproduce the qualities of Chinese porcelain. Meanwhile, independent makers around Paris and factories across the channel in England geared up to challenge Sevres.
What makes collecting Sevres so compelling is its development of a unique style, determined by the texture of the porcelain and the creativity of its decorators. To better understand the development of Sevres in its first 100 years, plan a pilgrimage to one of the great collections. Queen Elizabeth II has the best, thanks to an acquisitive ancestor. “The Royal Collection boasts the finest collection of 18th-century Sevres porcelain in the world,” states the official guide. “It was largely formed by King George IV who began collecting when he came of age in 1783.”
George was not really buying “antiques” but new luxury goods ranging from useful table services to ornamental vases. What makes the collection so special was his selection of objects: “He liked the unusual and the rare, the exotic and the extravagant. He was not deterred by price.” While some pieces are on view in the State Rooms or Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, see them all in French Porcelain in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen by Geoffrey de Bellaigue, issued by Royal Collection Publications in 2009. Although a hefty $1,000 for the three volumes, it will be a staple of ceramics reference libraries. More affordable from the same publisher, French Porcelain for English Palaces by Joanna Gwilt costs around $30.
The choice pieces in the Royal Collection include examples of both soft-paste and hard-paste porcelain. The factory experimented with different formulas when trying to achieve the right balance between beauty and durability. Sevres is celebrated for the vivid colored grounds applied to the forms – rose, green, lavender, dark and light blue, brick red. Reserved white areas contain delicate paintings of flora, fauna and scenery. Both table and decorative wares are lavishly accented with gold; gilding was a high art form at Sevres.
If you make the trek to London, see more 18th-century Sevres as well as Italian maiolica and other decorative arts at the Wallace Collection in Hereford House on Manchester Square, free of charge, seven days a week. Sevres, including the famous Service Egyptien. is also on display at Apsley House, the residence of the Dukes of Wellington on Hyde Park Corner. Time your visit to coincide with Art Antiques London, the successor of the long-running International Ceramics Fair, June 10-16. The show features an excellent lecture series on ceramics, including a talk on Sevres by the director of the Wallace Collection.
On this side of the Atlantic, view one woman’s personal collection of Sevres in the intimate setting of the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., once the residence of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), now a house museum. Sevres Porcelain at Hillwood by Liana Paredes, the museum’s Curator of Western Art, contains information on the formation of the collection and an outline of production at the factory. View publications available from the Museum Shop at www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
“What we have here is what Mrs. Post collected, and she really collected very prime examples of Sevres,” said Paredes. “She was a lover of porcelain and she gave it a lot of exhibit room in the house. She made it one of her primary collecting areas. This is a private home with specifically designed spaces to showcase porcelain.”
Paredes organized the current exhibition, Sevres Then and Now: Tradition and Innovation in Porcelain, 1750-2000, which runs through May 30. The show brings together more than 90 objects from the collection and numerous lenders including the Smithsonian and the Musee National de Ceramique at Sevres, France. As the title promises, the exhibition and its accompanying catalog covers the entire history of Sevres production. The curator said, “This is the biggest loan show that Hillwood has ever done. It was quite a bit of work for an institution our size and a great collaborative effort.”
Paredes stressed that Sevres was always in the vanguard of style: “While previous museum exhibitions have focused on a particular period or century of production, this exhibition will be the first to reveal the sustained creativity and unparalleled innovation that unifies the factory’s output over time, from its inception in 1740 all the way into the 21st century.”
Among her favorite pieces in the show, Paredes points out a Waterleaf ewer and bowl, 1759-1760, which she calls “an explosion of Rococo design.” From the 19th century, she cites the tea and coffee set decorated with almost photographic views of Egypt that Napoleon presented to the duchesse de Montebello, 1810-1812. She said, “It speaks to the connection of Sevres with the politics of the moment and the main historic events of the time.”
Most viewers will be less familiar with the 20th-century material. A pair of plates made in 1913, which depict characters from the Russian ballet, was spotted by Paredes at an antiques fair in London and secured for Hillwood’s permanent collection. From recent production, the curator likes the boldly geometric Reform vase, a 1995 work in soft-paste by artist Richard Peduzzi with facets of bright contrasting color.
Collectors just beginning to enter the Sevres market rely on offerings from reputable dealers and auction houses, which take pains to accurately describe porcelain offered for sale. In any given sale of French porcelain, the offerings will distinguish between well-documented genuine Sevres pieces, items “in the Sevres style,” Sevres-type forms with “spurious” marks, and lots described as “later-decorated.”
In the first half of the 19th century, the Sevres factory sold off undecorated, often-outdated porcelain blanks from their warehouse to raise cash. As Liana Paredes explained in a catalog chapter called “A Word About Fakes,” “Decorators and dealers bought these blanks by the wagonload and proceeded to decorate them in the Sevres manner, often giving them spurious marks to deceive the public even further. … As early as the 1840s confusion between real Sevres pieces and counterfeits was well established.”
As curator for Decorative Arts at the New Orleans Museum of Art and as the porcelain cataloger for the New Orleans Auction Galleries, John Keefe faces the yes, no and maybe of Sevres production every day. He explains the problem with these “later-decorated” blanks: “Although they were plain white, they were marked – and the buyers had their top decorators paint them. Some of the painted designs are fabulous – you’re really hard-pressed sometimes to distinguish them from the originals. But when someone is doing that kind of copying, inevitably the taste of the era doing the copying gets in.” For example, real 18th-century Sevres birds differ slightly from those painted by the fakers in the 19th century, and it takes considerable experience to tell them apart.
Supply struggled to keep up with the growing demand for this imitation French porcelain. Keefe says, “These pieces getting out on the English market and the American market and the antiquarian market started what I call the ‘robber baron’ taste for Sevres. Everybody who had any pretension to high fashion wanted Sevres porcelain, particularly in this country.
“Then you have the Bohemian factories – clever boys that they were – making those things that I catalog as ‘Sevres style.’ Those great big covered vases with the gilt brass or bronze mounts decorated with portraits of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and Madame Pompadour and Napoleon I. There was that enormous late-19th-century craze for it, and everybody who had an entrepreneurial instinct started to produce that stuff.”
Keefe was fortunate enough to catalog a group of fine Sevres lots for the January and March sales in New Orleans that had an impeccable provenance. They bore small handwritten labels that the curator traced back to the owner of the Antique Porcelain Co. in London, founded in 1946. These objects from an anonymous consignor also bore labels indicating that they had once belonged to well-known collectors Leo and Doris Hodroff, who had probably acquired them from the London dealer.
One of the pieces, a Sevres covered bowl, or ecuelle, with its underplate sold for $2,280 in January at the New Orleans Auction Galleries. Bearing the date letter for 1767, the porcelain set was decorated with panels of putti against an aqua and dark blue ground. Keefe says, “A lot of good stuff is still flowing through this part of the world.”
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