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Home | Articles | In the best taste: Sévre-style Minton ÿby Amy Gale

In the best taste: Sévre-style Minton ÿby Amy Gale
by Amy Gale

Fig. 1: A pair of Minton cobalt-blue ground "New Dresden" pot-pourri vases and covers, ca. 1838. Sold at Christie's, New York, Apr 20, 2005. Price realized $6,000. Christie's Images Ltd. 2007.

Victorians admired eighteenth-century Sévres porcelain, but authentic pieces were hard to come by. Even wealthy collectors were challenged (in the words of the 4th Marquess of Hertford) to find something "in a perfect state & most positively old."1 The market was awash in copies and fakes, and every collection counted a fair number of them. Although most reproductions were acquired out of ignorance, a number were sought out as works of art in their own right. To meet the demand, manufacturers made new "antique" porcelain. Among these was the Sévres-style porcelain produced by Minton, the Staffordshire firm founded in 1793.

Minton began making Sévre-style wares during the late 1820s. The cobalt blue ground and seasonal allegories, as seen on a pair of pot-pourri vases (Fig. 1), reflect the renewed appeal of the eighteenth century, while their cumbersome form suggests that the lessons of the rococo had not been fully mastered in Stoke-on-Trent.

Fig. 2: A Minton Sévres-inspired three-tiered custard stand, ca. 1850-1851. Sold at Bonhams, London, December 13, 2006, lot 310, for a modest $5,684. Courtesy of Bonhams, London.

By mid-century, Minton was producing a range of Sévres reproductions and Sévres-inspired wares. The first big occasion to promote them was the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, where an enthusiastic Queen Victoria bought a turquoise-ground dessert service decorated with Parian figurines and lacy hand-piercing. The service, which became known as "Victoria pierced," was in production for many years (Fig. 2). "In the best taste," was how the queen characterized Minton's French-style wares.

"The Louis Quinze is still the prevailing style in porcelain," wrote the art critic Ralph Nicholson Wornum in an essay in the exhibition catalogue for the Crystal Palace Exhibition. "And, generally speaking, profusion of ornament is the rule." At Minton, this involved the application of eighteenth-century decoration to nineteenth-century forms. The Victoria-pierced pattern is representative of this hybrid style, with its turquoise ground, ornamental s-scrolls, and painted ribbons and festoons. Another feature was the use of figurines that were made of Parian, a newly developed material resembling statuary marble.

The many Sévres-inspired pieces that come on the market attest to the style's enduring popularity among wealthy Victorians. A typical model, a centerpiece from 1872, is embellished with Parian putti, gilt swags, and medallion dog portraits after the English artist Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) (Fig 3).

Minton began producing copies of antique Sévres with impressive accuracy in the early Victorian period. The practice was commercially successful, although critics were ambivalent about redoing what had been done a century before. The London International Exhibition in 1862, an occasion for Minton to showcase the latest replicas and adaptations, elicited the comment, "We were struck with a superabundance, to our minds, of old Sévres models."2

LEFT: Fig 3: A Minton parcel-biscuit turquoise-ground reticulated centerpiece, with painted pendant medallions attributed to Henry Mitchell after Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, two with spaniels, the third with a horse, the gilt borders acid-etched with a vine. 1873. H: 8-7/8 in. Sold at Christie's, New York, April 23, 2004, lot 367, for $10,158. Christie's Images Ltd. 2007. RIGHT: Fig 4: A pair of Minton pink-ground vase à oreilles, 1840, based on a Sévres prototype. Sold at Christie's, New York, May 23, 2002, lot 134, for $2,629. Christie's Images Ltd 2007.

Clearly, though, there was a market for these ornamental wares, which were based on evermore sophisticated precedents. A case in point is the vase à oreilles, a classic Sévres design, which Minton copied for more than forty years -- although "copy," is not, perhaps, the right word. An early pair has the Sévres form, but the decoration is different (Fig. 4). The Sévres originals were painted with birds and putti while the Minton copies have flowers. Such discrepancies were typical, and even replicas varied in how closely they followed eighteenth-century originals.

Fig. 5: Minton pair of vases à têtes d'eléphant, dated 1876. Sold at Bonhams, London, October 5, 2004, lot 10, for $13,036. Courtesy of Bonhams, London.

These differences were not due to ignorance or carelessness. Minton went to great lengths to ensure precision, acquiring a set of plaster moulds of old Sévres vases and compiling an archive of books and images. And thanks to influential collectors like Sir Richard Wallace and Alfred Charles de Rothschild, their designers were able to study firsthand original pieces in private collections. The painters at Minton were another resource, many of whom had trained at the Sévres manufactory and knew the traditional repertoire. In fact, there was an important commercial reason for the differences between original Sévres and the Minton copies. Unlike the Sévres manufactory, which had received royal subsidies, Minton was a business. To make a profit, it was necessary to adapt to the taste of the times. The flowery, sometimes fussy look is what sold.

Minton's clientele tended to prefer the pieces that looked like easily identifiable Sévres, preferably in pink or turquoise. The pair of vase à tête d'éléphant, first made by Sévres in 1757, was one such icon. When Minton began making its own version sometime in the 1870s, the designers and painters had opportunities to study the original models. Both Wallace and Rothschild, for example, owned multiple copies, variously decorated with putti, Chinamen, and delicate floral garlands.3 But none of these motifs was used for the pair of Minton elephant vases that sold in London in 2004 (Fig. 5). They were decorated instead with a shepherd and shepherdess. Likewise the vaisseau à mat pot pourri, another classic model that Minton "improved" by replacing the bird motif of the original with a pastoral scene (Figs. 6, 6a).

LEFT: Fig. 6: Minton vaisseau à mat pot-pourri vase and cover in the shape of a masted ship. Bone china, ca. 1890. Sold at Sotheby's, London, June 2, 2005, lot 113, for £14,400. Compare with original Sévres pot-pourri vase in figure 6a. Image courtesy of Sotheby's. RIGHT: Fig 6a: Sévres Manufactory vaisseau à mat pot-pourri vase in the shape of a masted ship (one of a set of three), ca. 1759. Porcelain, soft paste. 17-1/2 in. x 14-7/8 in. x 7-1/2 in. Purchased by The Frick Collection, 1916. 1916.9.07. Compare with Minton copy in figure 6.

The buyers of Sévres-style were not influenced by the theories of design reformers who advocated stylized motifs. Occasionally, though, experimental ideas were heeded, at least in part, by Minton's Sévres designers. Take the wine cooler, circa 1900, that came on the market three years ago (Fig 7). It was inspired by the Sévres model that was made for Catherine the Great in the 1770s. On the Minton version, the upper half has been "Victorianized" with the addition of more flowers and a patterned gilt and white rim. The lower half, however, with its ring of stylized gilt leaves, suggests the sort of flat repeating pattern advocated by design reformers. Other simplifications include the elimination of the beading around the base, the substitution of caryatid gilt handles for scrolled ones, and a more tubular form.

It was the resolve to do things right that set Minton's production apart from the flood of cheap and fraudulent knock-offs. Authentic marks were another distinguishing characteristic. Beginning in the 1850s, all Minton's Sévres pieces were fully marked.

Fig. 7: Minton wine cooler, 1906, inspired by the Sévres model that was made for Catherine the Great in the 1770s. Sold at Bonhams, London, October 5, 2004, lot 11, for $7,822.

Minton's achievements were also scientific. Under the direction of Léon Arnoux (a Sévres alumnus) the firm experimented with clays and glazes, and the Sévres-style wares were the subject of ongoing research during the second half of the nineteenth century. One practical development was the adaptation of the famous Sévres ground colors for use on bone china. This fine-tuning was all part of Minton's technical contribution to the ceramics industry. "Our productions possess all the advantages of the old porcelain and have, in addition, accessory ones," declared Arnoux on the occasion of the International Exhibition in 1862.

Minton experimented with other historic ceramics, including Chinese crackleware and Italian maiolica. The firm, however, remained closely identified with the Sévres style, which was in production until the 1920s. This association is reflected in the account in the London Times of the sale, in 1902, of the collection of Colin Minton Campbell, who was for many years the director of the firm. Christie, Manson, and Woods auctioned "many of the choicest specimens made at the Minton Factory during the 19th century." Then followed an enumeration of "the copies of old Sévres porcelain," that were, noted the Times admiringly, "remarkable in their fidelity to the original."4 The hammer total was a newsworthy £1,998, with many of the ninety-seven lots setting auction records.

The prices today for Minton Sévres are low, especially in comparison with prices for maiolica and pâte-sur-pâte. Thanks to the sale of the contents of the Minton Museum in 2002 and 2004 many nice pieces have come on the market. There is an opportunity here for porcelain collectors.

Amy Gale writes about antiques and collecting. She is based in New York City.

1. The background information for this article is based on: Joan Jones, Minton: the First Two Hundred Years of Design & Production (Shrewsbury, England: Swan Hill Press, 1993); Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Minton (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club, 1998).
2. John Burley Waring, Masterpieces of Industrial Art and Sculpture at the International Exhibition, 1862. (London: Day & Son, 1863), 3:228.
3. A Description of the Works of Art Forming the Collection of Alfred de Rothschild (London: Chiswick Press, 1884).
4. "Sale of Minton Porcelain," Times, January 30, 1902, 8.

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