"Collecting Antique Sevres Porcelain"

By: John Stephen Beers

Pair of Sevres Candlesticks 14" Tall, c. 1760, Front View & Close Up

Sevres porcelain is widely known to be both the French porcelain of royalty and the royal porcelain of France. The first soft paste porcelain Sevres items, known as Vincennes, were begun in 1738 at the Chateau de Vincennes southeast of Paris. Former workmen from the Chantilly ceramics works started the factory. In the early days, the Vincennes Sevres factory produced mostly painted and gilded figures and ornamental flowers.

King Louis XV, known as the most notable art patron in modern history, became the major customer and joined as a shareholder of the factory in 1745. The factory had a goal to deliver a superior product in order to compete with the early Meissen, Berlin, and other continental porcelains. Close ties to the French court enabled the Sevres factory to expand the manufacture as well as to monopolize porcelain production in France in the early years.

Large Sevres Cachepot, 7" Tall, c. 1757

By 1752, the year that vases were introduced at the factory, the king became the major shareholder. He deemed that this porcelain to be designated as royal, or Manufacturer Royale du Porcelaine. He conducted annual sales from his palace grounds at Versailles, encouraged his court and other royalty to buy his product, and even restricted other porcelain factories from using gilding or colored grounds on their porcelains.

When the operation ran into financial troubles in 1759, King Louis XV acquired the factory as royal property. The king took over the manufacturing operations, and considered himself the principal client and salesperson of these extraordinary porcelain creations. The factory was moved to the village of Sevres southwest of Paris; a location near to the palace of Versailles and close to the home of Madame de Pompadour at the Chateau de Bellevue. From that time the porcelain became officially known as Sevres porcelain.

Over the years, Sevres recruited the finest talents and artists. The factory developed a unique rococo style, a romanticist theme, of lavishly decorated dishes, form pieces and decorative items. The exceptional glazes and deep background colors included royal blue (bleu de roi), turquoise (bleu celeste), pea green, and pink (rose Pompadour- so named for the king’s famous mistress). Decoration was floral and figural within white reserve panels; these set in deeply glazed colors, and then complemented with sumptuously gilded handles and edges. The king and his nobility acquired exceptional collections including dinner services, monumental vases and urns, and centerpieces. The shapes and the décor on the pieces expressed the whimsy and elegant pleasures of the lifestyles of the Ancien Regime, a royal society.

Early Sevres soft paste porcelain, or Vieux Sevres is considered by some experts to be the finest of all porcelains. Its’ manufacture was more tedious, risky, and expensive than the other competing hard paste porcelains of Germany and England, as well as the French faience potteries. The legendary Sevres porcelain that was so popular was only available in limited in supply to the chosen few at exorbitant prices.

Deposits of kaolin, the white clay essential in making hard paste porcelain, were discovered in Limoge in 1768. Almost fifty years after Meissen, the Sevres Factory was now able to produce hard paste porcelains, as well as the soft variety. The factory continued as a royal enterprise until the French Revolution in 1789. After the ending of the monarchy, the factory became the property of the French government, and remains so today.

Large Sevres Basin, 15" Wide, c. 1783

The end of the monarchy and its’ Ancien Regime was heralded by a rise in a new industrial based bourgeoisie; the landed gentry was being replaced by an affluent middle class. A new social order brought new tastes and lifestyles, including new demands for the finer things.

Alexandre Brongniart became the director at Sevres in 1800, and for the next forty-seven years the factory continued to evolve and prosper under his expert guidance. Regrettably, in 1804 Brongniart was said to have burned the formula by which the soft paste porcelain was mixed, and buried the remaining materials at the Garden of Versailles. However, this creative and innovative director drove the Sevres factory forward to make the transition to producing only exceptional hard paste porcelains to meet the demands of a new market. New designs, materials, and techniques were achieved, and mass production was carefully controlled.

Superb porcelain production continued at Sevres through the 19th Century and into the 20th Century. Dazzling collections of the finest porcelains now quietly reside in museums, castles, and elegant homes. Custom commissions for Napoleon, and other monarchs and prefects grace the finest antique collections around the world today.

Pair Small Sevres Cachepots, 7" Tall, Early 19th Century, Front View

Sevres porcelains have been characteristically well marked on the underside with makers’ marks. Many of the marks are documented in reference books. On the oldest pieces, an underglaze blue “double-Louis” (or double L) mark exists, with a letter and numbering system between 1745 and 1793. After that, many other official marks, seals and monograms would identify the age of these items. It is said that a seasoned and experienced Sevres collector can identify an item without ever turning the piece over based on the object, its artistry and its artistic merit.

Collecting Sevres can be a challenging matter, and there are many pitfalls to the novice collector. One of the most difficult things for a collector to do is to reliably collect antique porcelain that is legitimately Sevres. Expert artists outside the factory often acquired and decorated porcelain blanks and factory seconds. There was a large cottage industry throughout Europe producing “Sevres-type” items or knock offs. Forgeries and reproductions do abound- the blue double L mark is one of the most copied marks on antique porcelain. The rule caveat emptor, or  “let the buyer beware” stalwartly applies. In order to learn more about Sevres porcelain, study specialty books, visit museums, and visit shops and dealers specializing in Sevres. The best shops usually guarantee authenticity and sell with a money back guarantee.

About the author:

The author, John Stephen Beers, is owner of Fleur-de-Lis Antiques, 524-D Northlake Boulevard, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33408, and is a specialist in 19th Century Continental and Chinese Export porcelains. John has contributed other articles in past issues of Antiques & Art Around Florida on antique Meissen, French faience, toby jugs, and milk glass. His mother, Dorothea Mitchell Beers, has recently semi retired after 50 years in the business! Fleur-de-Lis Antiques has recently relocated and invite you to visit their elegant shop on Northlake Boulevard!  Website Address: www.fleurdelisantiques.com

Email: fleurdelisantiqu@aol.com Phone: (561) 655-2295 Fax:  561-845-3751

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