The third seminar of Lent term was on the theme of Porcelain. The two talks complimented each other well to provide a comprehensive presentation of porcelain ‘things’ throughout the eighteenth century.

Dame Rosalind Savill, former Director of The Wallace Collection spoke first, with her talk ‘Objectivity: A Curator’s View’. She explained how in a gallery a curator would choose the story to be told and then select objects to illustrate that story. But here she delighted in being able to tell us the story that objects showed us, through their decoration, design, function and patronage. These objects reveal to us aspects of history and society in the eighteenth century. As a world-expert on Sèvres porcelain, Ros drew on her extensive knowledge to provide an insightful account of the manufacture of Sèvres, the different artisans involved and the customers. We learnt how Madame de Pompadour was integral to the success of the Sèvres factory, based at Vincennes, east of Paris. Madame de Pompadour’s involvement and patronage ensured innovative wares were created, including an elaborate elephant vase. Though used in the twentieth century as an example of bad taste, at the time it was a vibrant and highly individual creation. This particular object also highlights the interconnection with east and west, for the elephant shape itself is an idea from the Chinese, while the object also incorporates painting by Boucher, the popular and prolific French artist.

Dr Anne Gerritsen was our second speaker, her talk was titled ‘Objectivity: An Historian’s View’. Gerritsen is an historian of China, and her work pays attention to the trade in porcelain. Anne explained that the location of porcelain manufacture, in Jiangxi Province, was where the right ingredients came together, and that a network of rivers could transport the porcelain to the coast, and then to Europe. Production in both China and France included a highly skilled and carefully managed workforce. The skill of the workforce was shown off in the many objects that were illustrated in Anne’s talk. They experimented with techniques and finishes, porcelain was made to look like bronze, for example. Anne ended her talk by showing us her own piece of porcelain, but interestingly, this was not in immaculate condition but rather a cup that had ‘failed’ during the firing process. She pointed out that though the rather squashed cup, with grains of sand and other material stuck to its base, was not perfect, it could still tell us a lot. It was found at the site of manufacture, in Jingdezhen, where the majority of the population made up the huge labour force for porcelain production. Such shards, or ‘broken’ objects are part of something larger, and as historians we should seek to make up the whole narrative with them.

During discussion we were treated to more objects, Ros Savill had come with a small suitcase of Sèvres porcelain for us to pore over! Questions ranged from the notions of taste in the objects, what were the sources for, and had there been discussions about, beauty and taste? The Chinese had huge manuals to consult, while Sèvres looked to Salon paintings and engravings. We discussed the role of the Jesuits in the dissemination of knowledge between the two centres, and also the importance of such factories on the local area. Have a listen to the podcast and tell us what you think.