Porcelain And Majolica, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
As you have been passing through the rooms looking at the pictures your eye will have glanced at cases of porcelain, maj olica, earthenware, and faience. I hope to be able to tell you enough about these things to encourage you to make a study of them for yourselves, with the help of the catalogue, which gives all the details as to dates and subjects.
In Gallery I there are some exquisite pieces of Sèvres porcelain, as there are also in Galleries II, XII, XIV, XV, XVII, XVIII, XXII, and in the Corridor. I think I might, before we begin to look at any special pieces tell you a little about the manufactory where the china was made.
At Sèvres, a small town near Paris, in the middle of the eighteenth century, a royal manufactory for china was set up. Louis XIV gave much encouragement to it. A short time after this date a French-woman, Madame Darnet, had found at the little village of St. Yrieux la Perche, the invaluable kaolin, a white clay, which is the foundation of the hard Sèvres porcelain. She must have known a great deal about china to be able to appreciate the importance of her discovery. No doubt she kept it a great secret till it had been secured for the use of the royal factory, which was then making soft porcelain.
As you look at the porcelain you will notice its creamy and pearly softness and the richness of its colour. The colours have special names, and tell of royal patronage. Here is a blue du roi, a royal blue. Du Barry pink called after Madame Du Barry, one of the favourites of Louis XIV: oeil de perdrix, a delicate shade of blue ; blue turquoise, indigo blue, apple green, creamy white, every colour which the royal manufactory turned out except the rare canary yellow.
The second thing to notice about the porcelain is the idyllic figures painted on cups and saucers, vases, and plates. They remind one of Watteau's shepherdesses, of Boucher's goddesses, of Fragonard's sportive cupids. They are all part of that eighteenth century France, whose history can be read over and over again in Hertford House.
The third thing to notice is the shapes of the vases, and here they are sometimes disappointing. In form they are not so beautiful as the Dresden china. Then again there is the richness of the gilding.
This added very much to the cost of manufacture, and Louis XIV, who liked to keep all good things to himself, ordered that gold should only be used in the royal manufactory at Sevres. This makes French gilded porcelain rare and precious. We can imagine what a lot of this lovely china must have been destroyed at the time of the Revolution, when the heads of its owners had bowed to the guillotine, their pottery would be smashed into atoms. It was like the breaking up of idols ; for it was beauty such as this that its possessors worshipped.
I don't want to trouble you much with dates, but from 1740 to 1769 the most perfect porcelain was made, and though the Revolutionary government later on supported the manufacture, the glory had waned. A great deal of skill was required in making the porcelain, and it was consequently very expensive. A plate would cost from five to ten pounds ; a dinner service a fortune. Catherine of Russia paid twenty-five thousand pounds for hers.
In the first room you will see in a cabinet a little tray of turquoise blue (40) with a fanciful representation on it of children dancing in the happy morning of life, also a little ewer and bowl in myrtle green (41) belonging to the best period. The decoration is of children playing as they would be in one of Fragonard's pictures, dream children with laughter on their lips, and never a tear. We wonder if these ewers and bowls were ever intended for daily use, perhaps in them may have been dipped the delicate fingers of a Pompadour or a Du Barry.
Have you ever read Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn ? If you have, you will learn how the poet makes the forms on the vase live to us, play and make love under the ever-green trees. So we must think of the figures on these cups and saucers, plates and vases, evermore playing, evermore holiday making, in the sunshine.
Let us try to imagine the room in which this pot - pourri vase (Gallery XVIII, 156) first exhaled the perfume of roses through its perforated cover, draped with the banner of France and golden fleurs-de-lys. Who knows but what it may have been in some luxurious boudoir of a marquise ? Boucher's floating goddesses may have been on the walls, Gobelin tapestry have covered the chairs. A secrétaire by Boulle or one of the great cabinet-makers perhaps, was open—the marquise was sitting at it, dressed in brocaded satin. She was writing away, making arrangements for some fete, and as she held up her pen to think out her plans for a moment, she breathed in the fragrance of the flowers.
Sèvres porcelain was put to many uses, there are inkstands, miniature saucepans, egg boilers, soup tureens, decorated with gaily plumed birds, Cupids, Boors Carousing, shepherds and shepherdesses.
If you go into the corridor between galleries XX and XXI you will see a set of vases (6, 7, 8, 9) that belonged to Catherine II of Russia. They are called ` Brûle-Parfums ' vases, and I suppose they were intended for some sweet scent to be slowly burnt in them which would fill the air with incense.
Another historical piece of porcelain is an inkstand (Gallery XII, 134) which was presented to Marie Antoinette by Louis XV when she married the Dauphin it is of apple green Sèvres, with a portrait of the King and a decoration of the lilies of France.
When she received this token of her father-in-law's delight in the marriage she was a frank and light-hearted girl of sixteen. There are the terrestrial and celestial globes on either side of the crown of France, and I need hardly say, bewitching Cupids. There are two vases of Dresden china you should look at. They are what is known as the ` mayflower pattern.' You will see that they are entirely covered over with tiny flowers, and have much the same sort of idyllic scenes painted on them as you have been looking at on the Sèvres ware (Gallery II, 13 and 15). They are of hard white porcelain, and beautifully shaped. It was in the making of this sort of pottery that the invaluable clay kaolin was used. In form, and form alone, the Dresden porcelain is more beautiful than the Sévres.
From Germany we will pass on to Italy, and look at the cases of majolica in Gallery III. Majolica is the enamelled ware of Italy, and we are told it took its name from. the island of Majorca. Most of it dates from the sixteenth century, and what we see here has withstood all accidents, and changes of ownership, journeys by sea and land. The sun has not taken from its colour ; it is as perfect as when it left the potter's hands.
I am going to show you one or two pieces of the majolica of Urbino, the town that one associates with the name of Raphael. I remember once reading a story of his childhood. There was to be at Urbino a competition for the best design for a majolica dish, and all the artists strove to win the prize. Raphael, who was only seven at the time, resolved to try his luck, and unknown to his father he set to work. He had been watching a great friend of his, who was a painter on majolica. and who taught him how to use the colours. In a little attic by himself Raphael worked away at his plate. The great day came when the Duke of Montefeltro, the patron of the arts, was to award the prize. He passed slowly down the room where the competitors had arranged their work, looking from one piece to another, praising and blaming—a little disappointed that there was nothing above the ordinary level. Somewhat wearily he glanced at the last plate and was astonished. He uttered an exclamation of delight.
' Wonderful ! Whose is this ? This is far the best.' The number was called out, and to the surprise of everyone the boy stepped out to claim the reward.
' Surely not,' the great man said, as he looked down at the child. But it was Raphael's all the same.
Raphael's designs were often used for the majolica, and so too were those of the della Robbia family.
The subjects on the plates and dishes vary, they are from the Bible, from mythology, from history. ' The Virgin and Child," The Resurrection, ' Bacchus presiding over the Vintage,' ' Brutus triumphs on the deliverance of Rome,' ' The Descent of Orpheus into Hell.'
There is here a large circular dish of lustred majolica, the finest thing of its kind in the world (Case A, 47). It has a curious design on it of women bathing in a river, a peaceful Italian landscape as a background.
Here is a plate called an ` amalorii' (Case A, 6o). It was given by a lady to her lover. She has had her portrait painted on it, so that even when he was eating his macaroni he might remember his beloved.
If you want to see a gruesome subject on one of these plates of majolica of Urbino you should look at (Case A, 73), a king receiving the severed head of an enemy on a charger. The head of a foe was often in request in those days. Men were straining to attain great things in art, but were barbarous enough in other ways.
For the mere grotesqueness of some of their designs, these plates are worth studying. Their interest is increased when we think of the great difficulties that were encountered before the lustre was discovered, of the hindrances that potters in the sixteenth century had to encounter, the difficulties of travel, and so on.
Palissy ware which you will see here (Case F) is called after Palissy the potter, who invented it. He was the son of poor parents and was born at the beginning of the sixteenth century. When he was a boy he was apprenticed to a potter, but afterwards threw up that occupation and became a land-surveyor. While he was on his travels one day in the country he saw an enamelled cup of Faience. His old love for the potter's art came back to him as he looked at it, and he made a resolution that he would discover the secret of white enamel. He gave up everything for this absorbing pursuit. For sixteen long years he laboured, spending all that he had. As time went on and he grew poorer and poorer, he burnt up the furniture of his house to keep the furnace going. His neighbours thought him mad, his wife and children were starving, but he would go on, he was sure he must be successful at last. Here is a dish (Case F, 226) on which Diana is resting from the chase. You are sure to notice another dish (234) of this ware on which there is a huge snake coiling in the green foliage. You need not admire it. I do not want you to feel you ought to say ` how beautiful,' when you really think ` how ugly.' But I do want you to understand something of the interest of this collection.
There are also here (Case F) specimens of Champlevé enamel. In this enamel the figures that were to be filled in with colour were first cut in the metal to some depth, and wherever two colours met a thin partition of the metal was left, to prevent the colours running into each other when fired. You have here (283) a bishop's crozier—the pastoral staff—which has on it a design of a bishop adoring the Virgin and Child.