Dining in style at Petworth House

Part of a dessert service, soft-paste porcelain, painted and gilded, made by the Sèvres factory (France), 1773-4. The Egremont Collection.

Petworth houses some of the finest ceramics in the National Trust. Our curator and collections team recently redisplayed some important 18th-century European porcelain dining services on loan from The Egremont Collection. While Petworth House is closed, and at a time when many more of us are dining at home, we have created this online version of the tableware displays for you to enjoy.

 

A passion for porcelain

During the 17th and 18th centuries there was a desire in Europe to create porcelain objects, of the type imported from East Asia and collected by wealthy consumers. Porcelain (a white, semi-translucent, ceramic) was created in ‘hard-paste’ or ‘true’ porcelain (high-fired with kaolin) in East Asia and later in Europe or ‘soft-paste’ (low-fired without kaolin) in Europe. Porcelain was highly regarded as ‘white gold’.

Blue-and-white, hard-paste porcelain vases in the Grand Staircase at Petworth. Made in Jingdezhen (China), about 1685-95. The Egremont Collection
Blue-and-white, hard-paste porcelain vases in the Grand Staircase at Petworth. Made in Jingdezhen (China), about 1685-95. The Egremont Collection
Blue-and-white, hard-paste porcelain vases in the Grand Staircase at Petworth. Made in Jingdezhen (China), about 1685-95. The Egremont Collection

Market leaders

Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was a keen porcelain collector and financed a factory at Meissen from about 1710.  It was the first European factory to make ‘true’ porcelain of the East Asian type and many other factories soon followed their lead. These new porcelains were extremely fashionable for use on the dining table and could fetch high prices. This service was probably acquired in 1770 by the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837) on a Grand Tour of Europe, when he visited Meissen and spent £55.2s (about £5,000 today).

Viennese versions

The Vienna porcelain factory was founded in 1718 by Claude du Paquier, an official of the Viennese Imperial court, with a group of partners. It was the second factory, after Meissen, to produce ‘true’ porcelains of the East Asian type and these two dishes are of a similar design and floral decoration to that made by Meissen. Du Paquier is said to have stolen key workers and secrets of production from his German rivals. Around the time these dishes were made, the factory was taken over by Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) in 1744 becoming the Imperial Manufactory. 

Two dishes, hard-paste porcelain, painted and gilded, made by the Vienna porcelain factory (Austria), about 1750. The Egremont Collection.
Two dishes, hard-paste porcelain, painted and gilded, made by the Vienna porcelain factory (Austria), about 1750. The Egremont Collection.
Two dishes, hard-paste porcelain, painted and gilded, made by the Vienna porcelain factory (Austria), about 1750. The Egremont Collection.

French royalty

The Sèvres factory was originally founded in 1740 in the royal chateau of Vincennes. In 1756 it was transferred to Sèvres, the other side of Paris, and shortly after was bought by Louis XV, and Sèvres porcelain soon became the most sought after in Europe. The 3rd Earl of Egremont bought his dessert service in September 1774 at a cost of 1,206 livres (about £5,000 today). The service is decorated with a pattern described in the factory as ‘fleurs filets bleu’ (flowers and blue ribbons) which would have suited the colourful desserts, such as sorbets or puddings, served on it. The plates were designed by Sèvres factory for eating soup, but the shape seems to have suited British consumers who often ate puddings with spoons. Some are marked, underneath, with interlaced ‘L’ s for the royal factory and ‘LB’ for the painter Jean-Nicholas le Bel jeune (1749-after 1816). The two crenelated buckets, known as monteiths, were used for cooling and rinsing glasses for drinking wine with the meal.

Chelsea porcelain

On 24 December 1751, a year after inheriting Petworth, the 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710-63) recorded in his account book that he ‘pd at the Chelsea Warehouse for two tureens £21.0.0’, almost certainly this pair.

Their shape echoes silver forms but the handles, in the form of cut lemons attached to flowering branches, and the colourful polychrome floral decoration emulates Meissen porcelain examples, such as a tureen in the collection at Wimpole Hall.

Chelsea created these models in part to satisfy consumer demand for Meissen and other European porcelain at a time when British laws stopped the import of foreign porcelains for immediate sale. There was also an illegal trade for those willing to pay a premium. In January 1751 the 2nd Earl of Egremont bought ‘a set of Dresden China £40’ from the London dealer Susannah Passavant, in total disregard of the law.

In place of the humble broth, in the mid-eighteenth century a range of sophisticated recipes for soups emerged. Tureens, such as this, were developed to do justice to the newly refined image of soup, frequently taking centre stage on the dining table. The decoration inside these tureens would be revealed as the soup ladle drained the contents. Unfortunately, due to the lack of kaolin in the English porcelain mixture, these soft-paste porcelain tureens were prone to cracking if the liquid was too hot. Inside and around the rim there are cracks which have lovingly been repaired.

Meissen tureen, made about 1750-55. National Trust, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire
Meissen tureen, made about 1750-55. National Trust, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire
Meissen tureen, made about 1750-55. National Trust, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire