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Sèvres porcelain factory

Sèvres was the finest porcelain manufactory in Europe from the mid-eighteenth century. Known for its unrivalled techniques and complex methods of production, the factory produced rich and extravagant wares sought after by the wealthiest of patrons. Today, the Royal Collection contains the most important assemblage of Sèvres porcelain in the world. Much of it was acquired between 1783 and 1830 by George IV (1762–1830), who popularised the taste for French porcelain in Britain.

The manufactory was founded in 1740 in Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris, with the aim of rivalling the popular imported porcelain productions of China and Japan and the Meissen factory in Germany. In 1756 it was relocated to the village of Sèvres, south-west of the Paris. From the beginning, financial backing was provided by Louis XV (1710–1774), and by 1759 the manufactory was entirely owned by the monarch.

The factory ran as a highly professional and specialist organisation, using some of the country’s most talented artists and celebrated chemists. Each piece of porcelain passed through the hands of a thrower or moulder, sculptor of details and glaze painter, as well as specialist painters of flowers, landscapes or figures, and gilders. A soft-paste or 'artificial' porcelain was developed which was whiter and purer than any other French factory, and by mid-century Sèvres had become the leading producer in Europe. Hard-paste or 'true' porcelain, containing the essential ingredient kaolin, was first made at Sèvres in 1769.

Sèvres porcelain surpassed all others in the quality of its painting, and some of the most prized designs were of mythological, classical and historical subjects. From the 1760s, pieces were also often embellished with gilt bronze, which added to the opulence of the porcelain – making it a highly desirable ornament for luxurious interiors.

George IV was an enthusiastic collector of Sèvres, which suited his taste for lavish and colourful decoration, particularly at his London residence, Carlton House. In 1783, at the age of 21, he made his first purchase from the factory and he continued to buy as Prince of Wales, Regent and King. The ornamental vases he bought went on display on furniture or chimneypieces in the richly decorated rooms of Carlton House. Pieces were often grouped together in pairs or garnitures by colour, shape or painted decoration. George IV also followed the French practice of displaying practical tablewares, such as broth basins and déjeneurs (tea sets), as bibelots or trinkets. To this day, dinner services bought by George IV continue to be used for State Visits and ceremonial occasions (RCIN 5000017). 

The French Revolution brought on to the market a vast quantity of works of art that had been the property of the French Crown and France’s ruling classes, making the finest Sèvres porcelain available to the agents and dealers used by George IV. His particular interest in the French royal family is reflected in his acquisitions, such as the porcelain busts of Louis XVI (RCIN 39496) and Marie-Antoinette (RCIN 39497). Although Queen Victoria and her successors did acquire further examples of Sèvres porcelain, their collecting was piecemeal and limited in comparison to the George IV's, which was driven by his enthusiastic admiration for the French style.

Among the highlights of the Collection today are a pot-pourri vase in the form of a ship (RCIN 2360) which belonged originally to Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV and a greater lover of Sèvres, and the Table of the Great Commanders of Antiquity, which was made for Napoleon and later given as a gift to George IV by a grateful Louis XVIII (RCIN 2634). 


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