The history of French porcelain reveals a story of aristocracy, of triumph and bankruptcy, and of revolution. Porcelain marks, the small characters or symbols often found on the body of a piece of French porcelain, can uncover hidden details about a piece, including its manufacturer and period. Below, explore the rich history of French porcelain, its earliest makers, and learn to identify common porcelain marks and what they mean.
The Emergence of French Porcelain
Like most of Western Europe, the range of French porcelain produced prior to Colonial expansion into Asia was limited to earthenware. When porcelain eventually came to France, the commodity remained the exclusive reserve of aristocracy and royalty. It was in the mid- to late-17th century when soft-paste porcelain (a delicate form of porcelain made without kaolin) was developed in France. Before this time, all porcelain had been imported from China, and was quite costly.
French porcelain first emerged in Nevers and Rouen at factories that already produced common earthenware used by the French, known as faience/fayence (faïence). These initial versions were left unmarked, making them difficult to verify by the amateur collector today. All but one of the early French porcelain-producing factories were closed over two centuries ago, which means that surviving examples can be very valuable today. From the emergence of Saint-Cloud porcelain onwards, most French porcelain was labeled with distinctive marks.
French porcelain marks can indicate:
- Who made the piece
- Where the piece was made
- When the piece was made
- When a new factory owner was introduced
After Rouen and Nevers demonstrated success with soft-paste porcelain, factories were established at Saint-Cloud, Chantilly, Mennecy, Vincennes and Sèvres. Kaolin clay, the missing element in turning soft-paste porcelain into a more durable hard-paste formula, was developed in France around 1770. This meant that the French could manufacture porcelain domestically, lowering the cost of porcelain and opening the market to the French middle class.
Saint-Cloud (circa 1693–1766)
The earliest Saint-Cloud porcelain dates from the 1690s. As with Rouen, the early pieces mirrored the decorative motifs of the of porcelain imported from China. The designers at Saint-Cloud soon developed a more traditionally French style of decoration, still using the blue and white color palette of the late Ming designs, but instead including flora, fauna, scrolls and other motifs seen more frequently in French decorative art. Around 1722 the Saint-Cloud business, which had belonged to the family of Pierre Chicaneau, was transferred through marriage to Henri Trou. During Saint-Cloud’s later period, designers moved towards a polychromatic palette.
Saint-Cloud Porcelain Marks
Early Saint-Cloud marks from around 1696 depicted a sun and were typically painted in blue. A number of marks were used from 1722 onward, but the most common and recognizable was the “St C” with a “T” (signifying “Trou”), which was painted in blue.
Chantilly (circa 1725–1800)
The soft-paste porcelain factory at Chantilly was established with the aim of competing with the highly prized wares of Saint-Cloud. Although in Britain the merchant middle classes were able to finance the establishment of a new porcelain factory, in France the cost was so prohibitive that it mostly required patronage from royalty or aristocracy, and Chantilly was ultimately financed by Louis Henry de Bourbon. Until around 1750, the wares produced at Chantilly were heavily influenced by designs from both China and the Japanese Kakiemon style.
In the early years of the French Revolution, when French royalty was dethroned, the factory was bought by Englishman Christopher Potter. The factory was closed by 1800, leaving the employees of Chantilly out of work. The mayor of Chantilly, Monsieur Pigory, later reopened the factory in a new location.
Chantilly Porcelain Marks
The earlier marks on Chantilly porcelain depicted fanfare trumpets and tended to be painted in blue or red. Later marks on Chantilly wares feature a “P,” but sources disagree on whether this indicates “Potter” or “Pigory.”
The factory at Vincennes was established at the abandoned castle of Vincennes, outside Paris, and was financed by the former director of the French East India Company, Jean-Henri Orry de Fulvy. The factory at Vincennes was a precursor to the famous Sèvres factory, arguably the best known producer of French porcelain.
Vincennes Porcelain Marks
Early Vincennes porcelain was marked by two interlaced “Ls,” occasionally accompanied by another element. These marks were generally used until 1753, though they were occasionally used after this date.
Mennecy porcelain was originally founded by François Barbin in the town of Villeroy. The initial company quickly went into financial ruin, but Barbin was able to reopen the factory in a nearby town called Mennecy. The new location opened in 1750 when it benefited from the patronage of Louis-François-Anne de Neufville, the Duc de Villeroy. The factory was not far from his estate, and at that point became known as Mennecy-Villeroy.
Mennecy Porcelain Marks
Mennecy porcelain is most recognizable for bearing the initials of the Duc de Villeroy, which were painted onto or impressed into the base of the piece.
Sèvres Porcelain (1738–present)
The longest-standing of the early porcelain manufacturers, Sèvres is still in operation today. It was at Sèvres that French hard-paste porcelain was developed, as well as innovative manufacturing techniques that are still in use today. The Sèvres factory was built out of the remains of the Vincennes factory, which was uprooted and subsequently moved to Sèvres.
Sèvres Porcelain Marks
The inclusion of a crown or other ornate elements with the interlaced “Ls” signifies early Sèvres pieces. Later, the “Ls” encased one or two letters, which provides a reference for the year in which the piece was produced.
Small characters that are painted or imprinted on a piece of French porcelain can reveal much about it, including who made it, and when. Whether you’re scouring small antique shops or bidding at auction, be sure to check your porcelain for these marks to uncover a clearer picture of the story behind your object.
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