Vase madness: the craze for garnitures
We care for the world’s largest collection of vase sets. Also known as ‘garnitures’, these matching sets of ceramic vessels were traditionally used to ‘garnish’ chimney mantels and cabinet tops.
As a ground-breaking exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum brings together 15 of our remarkable vase sets, Patricia F. Ferguson explores the history of garnitures in this country, shedding new light on a collecting craze that gripped the nation.
A Chinese import and a Dutch adaptation
The idea of displaying a vase purely for decoration dates back to the early 1600s, when Chinese porcelain began to be imported into Europe. Ceramic vessels, beautifully painted in underglaze blue, were acquired in pairs and as single objects. These included large storage jars with matching lids, tall cylindrical beakers and ‘rolwagens’ - a type of vase with a narrow neck.
17th-century homes were often dim and poorly lit. These shiny porcelain pieces, in pure white and brilliant blue, provided dazzling flourishes in dark spaces. Arranged symmetrically above cupboards or hooded chimneys, they were symbols of wealth, privilege and access to a network of trade that stretched across the globe.
The impact of war
The transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty in China was a tumultuous one and after 1647, imports came to a halt. As no new porcelain was available, French merchants turned to Dutch potters in Delft who were able to produce convincing copies of Chinese porcelain, both in terms of shape and decoration. Wealthy consumers clearly wanted ‘traditional’ Chinese shapes, including Margaret Bankes of Kingston Lacy in Dorset who purchased a garniture of three Delft pieces in the 'Chinese style' in 1698.
French innovations and an ancient revival
In the 1650s, the demand for garnitures soared thanks to changes in interior design. With the introduction of smaller-scale chimney surrounds, a more prominent mantelpiece provided a focal point for small luxury goods.
In France, potters began to make vase sets in odd numbers of three, five, seven, nine and even eleven to display above chimneys. The French term ‘garniture de cheminée’ first appeared in the early 1680s describing a set of seven vessels as well as over 100 porcelain objects arranged above a chimneypiece.
Meanwhile, the discovery of ancient Greek vases at Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 and 1748 introduced a new repertoire of shapes, replacing the earlier standard Chinese forms of jars and beakers. The shapes of vases and urns became more inventive and the ground colours became richer. At Upton House in West Sussex, an elegant set of three vases made at the royal manufactory at Sèvres are unified by a vibrant ‘bleu celeste’ (heavenly blue) ground colour, accented with fine gold details. The panels are painted with different scenes on each side, with the rear intended to be reflected in a mirror placed over the mantelpiece.
The publication of a catalogue of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases between 1766 and 1767 offered Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley a seemingly infinite source for vase designs. In 1769, Wedgwood, the self-proclaimed 'Vase-maker General to the Universe' tapped into the public's insatiable appetite for vases, which he described as a 'violent Vase Madness'.
Wedgwood’s black stoneware, known as ‘black basalt’ was ideal for recreating the style of Greek vase painting that flourished from the late 6th to the late 4th century BC. Hundreds of vase shapes were produced, from which customers could assemble their own garnitures.
More readily available
As vase sets became more affordable to the middle classes, they also needed to perform additional functions to justify the expense. Vessels were often supplemented with specially made covers that allowed for flower arranging, bulb growing, porpourri storage and even incense burning. Used as such, these vase sets filled domestic interiors with a variety of fragrances and aromas throughout the year.
Between 1660 and 1830, almost every ceramic vessel made in Britain and Europe was conceived as part of a vase set. Customers could purchase just one vase, a pair, or dozens based on their need, wealth and status.
From multiples to singles
Ultimately, the fashion for displaying garnitures declined. By the 1870s, single, ‘unique’ vases were championed above formal sets. Garnitures were separated and sometimes lost or damaged through sales or family division. Today, surviving vase sets are rarer than single, stand alone pieces.
For this reason, the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum offers an extraordinary opportunity to see these vase sets beautifully displayed in a single venue. Don't miss your chance to see these remarkable objects and to learn more about this fascinating ceramic phenomenon.