“In the Best Taste: Sèvres-Style Minton,” Antiques & Fine Art, January/February 2008   Victorians admired 18th-century Sèvres porcelain, but authentic pieces in good condition 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.” To meet the demand, manufacturers made new “antique” porcelain. 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 small number were sought out as works of art in their own right. Among these was the Sèvres-style porcelain produced by Minton, the Staffordshire firm founded in 1793. Many English ceramic firms were influenced by historic French design, but this revival was most closely associated with Minton.  The style had its origins beginning in the 1820s, when Minton’s production was influenced by the Rococo Revival.  The designs here and there evoked 18th-century French porcelain; hence the pair of potpourri vases with covers, from the 1830s, which were sold at auction, in 2005, for $6,000.  The cobalt blue ground and seasonal allegories reflect the renewed appeal of the 18th-century. The cumbersome form, however, suggests that the lessons of the Rococo had not been fully mastered in Stoke-on-Trent. By mid-century, the French influence was predominant, and Minton was producing a range of Sèvres reproductions and Sèvres-inspired wares.  The first big occasion to promote them was at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, in 1851, where the Minton display was, according to the Art Journal, “a point of attraction to visitors.”  One enthusiast was Queen Victoria, who inherited the many Sèvres pieces acquired by her uncle George IV, but who appreciated Minton’s things, which she characterized as “in the best taste.”  At the exhibition preview, she 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.  A three-tiered custard stand in this pattern sold at auction in London last year for a modest $5,700.  “The Louis Quinze is still the prevailing style in porcelain,” wrote the art critic Ralph Nicholson Wornum in an essay in the catalog for the Crystal Palace Exhibition. “And, generally speaking, profusion of ornament is the rule.” At Minton this involved the application of 18th-century decoration to 19th-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 Sèvres-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 Landseer.  Somehow it works. The final bid, in 2004, was for $10,160. Then there were the copies of antique Sèvres, which Minton began producing with impressive accuracy in the early Victorian period.  The practice was commercially successful, though the critics were sometimes ambivalent about redoing what had been done a century before.  The London International Exhibition, in 1862, which was 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 Sèvres models.” 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 Sèvres design, which Minton copied for more than forty years—although “copy” is not, perhaps, the right word. An early pair has the Sèvres form, but the decoration is different. The Sèvres 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 18th-century originals. 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 Sèvres 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 had trained at the Sèvres manufactory and knew the traditional repertoire. There was, in fact, an important commercial reason for the differences between original Sèvres and the Minton copies. Unlike the Sèvres 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. There was also a tendency to choose the Sèvres that looked like “Sèvres.” This meant reproducing the easily identifiable pieces, preferably in pink or turquoise. The vase à tête d’élèphant, which Sèvres first made 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 firsthand the original models. Both Wallace and Rothschild, for example, owned multiple copies, variously decorated with putti, Chinamen, and delicate floral garlands. But none of these motifs was used for the pair of Minton elephant vases that sold in London in 2004. They were decorated instead with a shepherd and shepherdess. Likewise the vaisseau à mat potpourri, another classic model that Minton “improved” by replacing the bird motif with a pastoral scene. The buyers of Sèvres-style wares were not influenced by the theories of design reformers, who advocated stylized motifs. Theorists might condemn “the direct imitation from nature,” but many people liked seeing Landseer’s work transposed to their dinner plates.  Occasionally, though, the experimental ideas were heeded, at least in part, by Minton’s Sèvres designers. Take the wine cooler, circa 1900, that came on the market three years ago. It was inspired by the Sèvres 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 replacement of gilt caryatid handles with scrolled ones, and a more tubular form.  The final bid was $7,800. There was a dose of idealism behind the emulation of the Sèvres masterpieces. It was the resolve to do things right, that set Minton’s production apart from the flood of cheap and fraudulent Sèvres knock-offs. Authentic marks were another distinguishing characteristic. Beginning in the 1850s, all Minton’s Sèvres pieces were fully marked. Minton’s achievements were also scientific. Under the direction of Léon Arnoux (a Sèvres alumnus) the firm experimented with clays and glazes, and the Sèvres-style wares were the subject of ongoing research during the second half of the 19th century. One practical development was the adaptation of the Sèvres 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,” Arnoux declared in 1862. Minton experimented with other historic ceramics, including Chinese crackleware and Italian maiolica. The firm, however, remained closely identified with the Sèvres 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 Sèvres porcelain,” that were, noted the Times admiringly, “remarkable in their fidelity to the original.” The hammer total was a newsworthy £1,998, with many of the 97 lots setting auction  records.  What a difference a century makes. The prices today for Minton Sèvres are low, especially in comparison with prices for majolica and pâte-sur-pâte, and many nice pieces have come on the market, thanks to the sale of the inventory of the Minton Museum in 2002 and 2004. There is an opportunity here for porcelain collectors.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971