Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    The Porcelain Secret
by N. F. Karlins
Vase, ca. 1700
Decoration after an engraving by Jacques Androuet Ducerceau
Inkstand, sugar bowl, two toilet pots, a cup and saucer, ca. 1700-1720
Snuff boxes in the shape of Chinese figures
ca. 1740
Figure of a European dancer
(one of a pair)
ca. 1730-1740
ca. 1720-1730
Octagonal tray
ca. 1700-1730, St. Cloud
Faience of Sinceny, ca. 1740
Two pair of vases
ca. 1700
ca. 1730
"Discovering the Secrets of Soft-Paste Porcelain at the Saint-Cloud Manufactory, ca. 1690-1766," July 15-Oct. 24, 1999, at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 18 West 86th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024.

In the 17th century, imports of brilliant blue and white porcelain ware from China and Japan beguiled European royalty and set off a fierce competition to imitate and manufacture the real thing at home. "Discovering the Secrets of Soft-Paste Porcelain at the Saint-Cloud Manufactory, ca. 1690-1766," an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York, traces one chapter of this saga from triumph to disaster. The approximately 300 pieces of porcelain in this show will make pottery-lovers swoon.

Saint-Cloud was established in 1664 as a producer of faience, or tin-glazed earthenware. The craze for Asian blue-and-white ware had started, and faience was painted to resemble it and used as a substitute for the more precious porcelain. Over the next 30 years, Saint-Cloud strove to become the first European company to actually manufacture soft-paste porcelain.

Technically, soft-paste porcelain is not quite the same as the pottery from the Far East. That was hard-paste porcelain, which was made with kaolin clay. Around 1693, Saint-Cloud devised a reasonable facsimile using frit -- a mixture of a flux, sand and chalk -- in place of the kaolin. The result did not have the same brilliant, cold white of Oriental porcelain, and proved much more difficult to fire and scratched more easily. Yet, Saint-Cloud's "porcelain" was admired and avidly collected.

By 1730, the firm was at its peak. But Saint-Cloud was plagued by a series of family disputes, as well as floods and other heavy losses that drained its finances. Other companies poached Saint-Cloud's workers, and Saint-Cloud's royal patent for making porcelain did little to discourage competitors. The final blow came when the mistress of King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, bought from the Vincennes, later Sévres, Manufactory.

To make matters worse, the secret of hard-paste porcelain had been discovered in Dresden in 1708. Shortly after its establishment in 1710, the Meissen Manufactory in Saxony was producing hard-paste pottery in a broad range of fashionable shapes and glazes. By the late 1730s, Saint-Cloud's wares looked old-fashioned, and the firm went bankrupt in 1766.

Bard's survey has three sections: blue-and-white ware, works in color, and white relief pieces. You do not need to understand anything about the history of porcelain to admire the blue-and-white vases, bowls, urns and other items decorated with Chinese motifs or delicate, Renaissance-based grotesques. Later pieces employed more European strapwork, scrolls, foliage and a fusion of Oriental and European motifs called a "lambrequin," a tracery lappet or tongue ending in a hanging floral motif, often used around the rims or bases of vessels. Saint-Cloud became especially adept at combining Oriental shapes with mixtures of freely interpreted Oriental and Western designs.

Sets for serving coffee, tea or chocolate, all relatively new and expensive drinks at the time, were popular, and many cups, saucers and pots are on display. Saint-Cloud even created a new form, the "tasse-trembleuse," a cup without handles that fit into a saucer with a raised interior section to prevent spillage. Merchants often packaged porcelains with tea caddies, crystal bottles and cutlery into portable picnic sets. The show includes a "Nécessaire" -- white porcelain in silver mounts tucked into a box line with blue silk moiré.

Unlike many later porcelain producers, who were supported by royal coffers, Saint-Cloud was a for-profit business. The company understood that many would-be clients could not afford a nécessaire, but might be able to manage a cane handle or snuffbox, which were produced in large quantities. A common motif for molded snuffboxes was the "magot," a vaguely Buddha-like figure that could be accompanied by Oriental scenes painted on the outside and inside of the lids.

Animals were in demand, too. One identified particularly with Saint-Cloud was the armadillo. Texas natives might not recognize these smiling critters, but there is one languorous armadillo with long eyelashes and whiskers that is sure to endear himself to everyone.

Saint-Cloud lacked a range of monochrome overglazes, yet it produced some lovely yellow and green wares. A covered water jug with silver mounts and a basin adorned with birds and flowers are covered in a very pretty lime green glaze.

Saint-Cloud was in the forefront in utilizing painted gold, which helped the manufactory to produce items similar to Japanese ceramics, and it successfully applied gold foil over white ware. Saint-Cloud also made some very refined white statuettes and white molded serving pieces, including an unusual tureen supported by three poultry feet.

There are plenty of other beautiful pieces in this show. One small blue-and-white cup sits next to another that collapsed during firing. Unfortunately, they reflect the poles of Saint-Cloud's short yet important history.

N. F. KARLINS is a New York based art historian and writer.