Exquisite Deception: Sèvres porcelain at Belton House
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.
At Belton House there is an extraordinary group of important French porcelain vessels decorated to resemble the lustrous, flawless finish of Japanese lacquerware.
Patricia Ferguson, the National Trust’s Adviser on Ceramics, takes a closer look at these exquisite deceptions.
A rare ornamental group
The ornamental vessels, consisting of a jug and six vases, were made at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory, in Sèvres, just outside Paris, between 1790 and 1791. They were painted to resemble Japanese black-ground lacquer with gold-painted scenes, the likes of which adorned wooden and bamboo screens, boxes and cabinets that were at the heart of a lucrative import market from East Asia.
The imitation of lacquer, including Belton’s exceptional group of Sèvres, is sometimes known as ‘trompe l'oeil’, or ‘trick of the eye’. Imitations like these were often made as a response to more costly luxury materials that could not be easily replicated domestically.
What is lacquer?
Derived from the sap of a tree native to East Asia, lacquer is a sticky, glossy substance that hardens to a sleek, dark finish when applied to wooden surfaces.
The finest Asian lacquer was made in Japan in the 17th century. Objects of wood or bamboo were coated in several layers of urushi (poison oak sap), drying to form a shiny finish. Iron was then added to the sap to create the black colour.
The taste for lacquer
During the 18th century, the European desire for lacquer was such that the Chinese and Japanese began making and exporting lacquered objects – including cabinets, screens, chests and other pieces of furniture – specifically to meet European demand and tastes.
Comparing the Sèvres porcelain to another object in Belton’s collection, a late 17th-century Japanese lacquer coffer, one can see the imitative strategy in effect.
Like the coffer, the porcelain boasts a lustrous black ground which is offset by glistening, Chinese-style designs in gold and platinum.
Interest in Japanese and Chinese lacquer peaked at the French court in the 1780s. In 1783 Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, commissioned a lacquer-themed room at the Palace of Versailles. She furnished it with 17th-century Japanese lacquer and neoclassical furniture mounted with lacquer.
Between 1790 and 1805, the Sèvres Manufactory produced lacquer-themed table services with painted flowers in gold and platinum. Porcelain in this rich taste was a technical triumph. Rarer still were ornamental vases such as Belton’s ornamental vessels.
Black porcelain, silver paint
How was this lacquer affect achieved? 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, which contained the essential kaolin.
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 the French designer Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728–1808). Others were adapted from Japanese gold-painted lacquer.
The royal cipher and the artist's mark
On the base of the ornamental jug there is an interlaced doubled 'L' (Louis XV's royal cipher and the factory mark for Sèvres). This sits beneath a crown, indicating that the vessel is hard-paste porcelain, and above a painter's mark, 'LG' in iron-red enamel. The initials 'LG' identify the painter as Louis-Antoine Le Grand (working 1776–1824), who specialised in gold chinoiseries.
In addition to the jug, there is a pair of unusual jars for containing pot-pourri or burning incense. The necks are pierced and they have Egyptian lion’s head handles. The factory described them as ‘Pot pourri vase with lion-heads’ (‘vase pot pourri à têtes de lions’), and no other example of the model survives.
There is also a pair of hexagonal double-gourd bottles and two small pear-shaped vases. The entire group may have formed a garniture, a matching set of vases displayed above a chimney.
Finding a place at Belton
How these pieces came to Belton is not entirely clear. They may have been acquired at a sale in 1803 by John Cust (1779-1853), later first Earl Brownlow of Belton when he was in Paris on his Grand Tour. It is also possibly they were acquired by his cousin, Francis Henry Egerton, eighth Earl of Bridgewater (1756–1829), who was living in Paris at the same time. Known for his eccentricities, he famously dressed his dogs for dinner and was a collector. On his death, his collection was shipped from France to his family seat, Ashridge Park, Hertfordshire. The house later passed by inheritance to the Browlow, as did the contents of his collection.
Today, this amazing group documents the revived aristocratic taste for Japanese lacquer, the ingenuity of French chemists, the expertise of the Sèvres factory painters and the passion of an as yet unidentified English collector.