Exquisite Deception: Sèvres porcelain at Belton House

A row of five items of Sèvres black porcelain with a ewer in the centre

Unique to Belton is an extraordinary group of important French porcelain vessels decorated to resemble Japanese gold-painted black lacquer. Ceramics, objects made from clay and hardened by heat, are exceptional in their ability to imitate other materials. In the hands of skilled craftsmen ceramics can resemble hardstones, wood and even food.

These imitations are sometimes known as trompe l'oeil, French "to deceive the eye". They are often a response, as here, to more fashionable luxury materials. The seven vessels at Belton were made at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory, in Sèvres, just outside Paris, between 1790 and 1791.

Made for royalty

The Sèvres factory was patronized by the king of France, and his mistress Madame de Pompadour. In 1759, the king, Louis XV, became its sole owner. Many of its products or wares were aimed at the royal household and aristocratic courtiers. 

In the 1780s, there was a revived interest at the French court in Japanese and Chinese lacquer. In 1783 Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, commissioned a lacquer-themed room at the Palace of Versailles. She filled it with neoclassical furniture mounted with seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer by Adam Weisweiler (1744–1820) and collected small antique lacquer objects.

Japanese influence

The finest Asian lacquer was made in Japan in the seventeenth-century. Lacquer objects of wood or bamboo were coated in several layers of urushi (poison oak sap). When dry it forms a shiny finish. Iron was added to the sap to create the black colour. In the 18th century, Japanese lacquer was rarely exported.

French passion for lacquer was intense. In 1791, during the French Revolution, a lacquer-themed table service was produced at Sèvres. It was described as 'fond noir, Chinois en or de couleurs et platine' (black ground, chinoiserie, in coloured gold and platinum). The first order was for Charles-Louis Huguet de Sémonville (1759–1839), Louis XVI’s ambassador to Genoa.

The unique Sèvres porcelain on display at Belton NT 433527
Sèvres black porcelain on a fireplace at Belton House, Lincolnshire
The unique Sèvres porcelain on display at Belton NT 433527

Black porcelain, silver paint

The deep bluish-black background colour on the porcelain plates and Belton's vessels was created from iron and cobalt oxides. It was applied in several thick layers. The recipe was developed at the factory especially for the new hard-paste porcelain, introduced in 1769, with contained the essential kaolin. 

The colour also imitated rare Chinese porcelain, known as wujin (black bronze). It was described as "mirror-black" in the letters of a French Jesuit living in China, Père François-Xavier d’Entrecolles (1664¬–1741). At Belton, there are two pairs of small wujin vases, c.1720, inventoried in 1754. One has gold decoration and the other silver, now tarnished.

Platinum, a silverish-white metal, which does not tarnish, replaced silver painting at Sèvres around 1789/90. French chemists had discovered arsenic lowered the melting temperature of the metal in the kiln. Gilders used it with a yellow gold and a copper-red gold. 

The colourful metal decoration was left matte or burnished (polished) and then chased (incised) with fine details. The Chinese-style designs were after engravings by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728–1808), others were adapted from Japanese gold-painted lacquer.  

The jug or ewer in the Belton Sèvres collection
Black Sèvres porcelain on the mantelpiece at Belton. Ewer closest to the camera
The jug or ewer in the Belton Sèvres collection

The shapes of these ornamental vessels include a jug, known in the factory records as a ‘buire a fleurs Duplessis uni’. It was perhaps part of a hand-washing set with a large basin. The mark painted on the base identifies the painter as Louis-Antoine Le Grand (working 1776–1824), who specialised in gold chinoiseries. 

There is a pair of bizarre jars for containing pot-pourri or burning incense. The necks are pierced and they have Egyptian lion’s head handles, however, the covers are missing. The factory described them as‘Vase pot pourri à têtes de lions’, and no other example of the model survives.

Black Sèvres pot pourri vase at Belton/NT 433512.1
Black and gold Sèvres jar with lions head handles
Black Sèvres pot pourri vase at Belton/NT 433512.1

There is also a pair of hexagonal double-gourd bottles and two small pear-shaped vases. These shapes are associated in the factory records with the duc de Gramont. The entire group may have formed a garniture, a matching set of vases displayed above a chimney. 

Gourd vase of Sèvres porcelain of a very rare mirror- black ground colour/ NT 433511.1
Black Sèvres porcelain gourd
Gourd vase of Sèvres porcelain of a very rare mirror- black ground colour/ NT 433511.1

Unknown collector

Between 1787 and 1790, the aristocratic collector Antoine VII, duc de Gramont (1722–1801) commissioned several new models from Sèvres. Many were based on his own objects. Orders came to an end in 1794, when his 299-piece collection was auctioned. His sale did not include these pieces.

Twelve similar pieces were included in an auction in Paris during the short-lived Peace of Amiens, on 18 April 1803. The forced sale was held by the Mont de piété, the institutional pawnbrokers. Paris was awash with English tourists, including John Cust (1779-1853), later first Earl Brownlow of Belton.

Alternatively, at the time, a cousin, the eccentric Francis Henry Egerton, eighth Earl of Bridgewater (1756–1829) was living in Paris. He famously dressed his dogs for dinner and was a collector. The Brownlow family inherited his collection, when it was at Ashridge Park, Hertfordshire. 

Black Sèvres porcelain on display at Belton NT 433527
A row of five items of Sèvres black porcelain with a ewer in the centre
Black Sèvres porcelain on display at Belton NT 433527

In 1929, the Brownlows put the Sèvres group up for auction, along with another matching pair of pear-shaped vases, which they did sell. Today, this amazing group documents the revived aristocratic taste for Japanese lacquer, the ingenuity of French chemists, the creativity of the duc de Gramont, the expertise of the Sèvres factory painters, and the passion of an as yet unidentified English collector.