I t has been noted over the centuries that porcelain collecting has an addictive quality. Whether it is sought after by a member of European royalty, such as Augustus the Strong in the early 18th century, or the heiress to a mining fortune, Lady Charlotte Schreiber in the 19th century, collectors desire items which encapsulate beauty and rarity. However, today's collector also desires the reassurance of provenance to add authenticity as well as lustre to their collection, and such rarities can be found in Sotheby’s upcoming auction @Home | Decorative & Fine Art from Unique Homes & Collections. An object which is a signature piece by a particular artist and has the additional association of important ownership tells a story beyond the physical object itself.
Porcelain produced at Vincennes, and later at Sèvres, has always been prized by connoisseurs and deserves its reputation for quality, imagination and luxury alone. Unlike many of the other leading porcelain factories of the 18th century, it has an added fascination. Through careful examination of the factory marks it is often possible to discover the year of manufacture and the artists responsible for the piece. In some cases, through studying the wealth of research and with an understanding of contemporary documents, it is even possible to uncover the early ownership of a piece.
In most cases individual items are marked with the interlaced 'L' of Louis XV and his successors. In addition, the factory cypher usually encloses a letter, or letters, indicating the year of manufacture. Each object would often bear incised, painted and gilded marks which relate to the individuals responsible for the production and decoration of the item. These might take the form of numerals and, in the case of the decorator’s marks, an initial, symbol or rebus unique to each painter or gilder.
The contemporary records include a remarkably complete archive of information held by the factory. This includes a wealth of information relating to original design, production, employee and sales records. In some cases, this can be the start of a paper trail which leads to the original owners of the items whether as direct purchasers from the factory, clients of a marchand-mercier such as Lazare Duvaux, or recipients of a Royal diplomatic gift. These expensive and prized wares were also recorded in inventories which can add further evidence of provenance.
Whilst this porcelain was prized and exported around Europe, and further to Russia and the Middle East, the dispersal of many of the great pieces after the French Revolution mean that its influence is truly international. Important items came to Britain in the early 19th century, fueled by the collecting habits of the future George IV and his circle. Later the members of the Rothschild family amassed splendid collections of Sèvres which inspired generations of American collectors, so today superb pieces are found in great museums around the world. Knowledge of this fascinating subject also resides in many places and provenance is carefully recorded and built upon.
P orcelain plaques have been produced since the mid-18th century but their use, decoration and scale developed over the next 150 years. Small plaques were produced at Vincennes and Sèvres, which would then be mounted as snuffboxes and caskets, and incorporated into small pieces of furniture. It appears to be Poirier who first begins to use large trays as the tops of tables, and this practice led to the production of larger plaques or tableaux which would be the focus of a desk or cabinet and would often utilize the skills of the finest artists in the workshop.
Later Daguerre became the main buyer of plaques from the factory, using them in his finest pieces of furniture. The subject matter might be borrowed from artists such as Boucher or Teniers, or simply be larger scale more elaborate versions of the floral painting at which the factory excelled. The production of these plaques was almost exclusively the reserve of Sèvres although small plaques, usually with integral frames for support were produced at Meissen and later at other German factories such as Fürstenberg.
For centuries, pottery was also a medium for elaborate decorative tiled walls and whilst maiolica plaques had been made since the Renaissance in Italy, the 18th century saw the rise of decorative plaques made at Castelli as well as other European faience makers. However, it was Wedgwood who promoted the use and collecting of plaques and medallions probably more than any other potter in the 18th century. Their Jasperware and Basaltware plaques were used extensively in furniture, fire surrounds and as wall plaques, making sculpted and painted plaques desirable objects.
It was not until the 19th century that we see the Berlin (K.P.M.) factory establish a reputation for producing finely executed porcelain plaques. Two short-lived factories operated in Berlin in the 18th century until the patronage of Frederick the Great gave the factory it’s royal title in 1763. An early reputation for quality and scale was quickly established and by the early 19th century the factory was producing magnificent large vases and exquisite services which rivalled their main competitors at Sèvres, Vienna and St. Petersburg.
The production of plaques appears to have begun on a relatively small scale, with small roundels and rectangular plaques painted with portraits of the Imperial family as well as views of their territories, castles and palaces. These early works and the demands of the large-scale pieces meant that soon the K.P.M. was producing large plaques which overcame many of the firing problems associated with the plaques, which were prone to warp. These plaques allowed porcelain painters to display their virtuosity and were soon the calling card of the factory.
These plaques served no other purpose than as a decorative element and in an age when international exhibitions became increasingly important to the patronage of porcelain factories, Berlin became synonymous with these items. Early subjects moved from portraiture and topographical painting to the work inspired by the Renaissance and Baroque but as the century progressed, the popular works of the day began to be translated onto porcelain. This distinctive style and exotic subject matter reached its zenith in the last quarter of the 19th century.