These charming early eighteenth-century wine-glass coolers represent some of the most significant examples of Continental porcelain to enter the NGV decorative arts collection in recent years. As examples of Saint-Cloud’s on-glaze enamel decorated wares, they form a particularly important addition to the Gallery’s already distinguished collection of early soft-paste French porcelains. As the eminent French curator Marie-Claude Beaud so eloquently expressed it, ‘The product of a fragile alchemy, in which technique can yield nothing unless guided by a dream, porcelain has always held a special role in the domain of the decorative arts’. (Marie-Claude Beaud, in Bertrand Rondot [ed.], Discovering the Secrets of Soft-Paste Porcelain at The Saint-Cloud Manufactory, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999, p. 9.)
The ceramic manufactory of Saint-Cloud was established in the seventeenth century under private patronage as a faïence (earthenware) manufactory on the banks of the River Seine. It ran for just one hundred years (1666–1766) but, importantly, the factory may lay claim to being the first commercial manufactory of porcelain in Europe. As early as 1693 it was producing soft-paste porcelain works for sale, experiments having begun as early as the 1660s.
The factory was not, however, able to produce hard-paste porcelain, imitating Chinese porcelain, which was left for the Meissen manufactory to discover in 1709. True porcelain, or hard-paste porcelain, contains the essential ingredient of kaolin, a fact unknown to the early manufacturers at Saint-Cloud. Instead, they produced a soft-paste porcelain which contained a glass-like compound, called ‘frit’, that gave the clay a shiny, translucent appearance once fired. For most of the eighteenth century, the French manufactories, including Sèvres, worked exclusively in soft-paste porcelain and produced some of the most exquisite porcelains of the period. The human qualities of experimentation and trial and error are particularly evident in the early eighteenth-century productions, and these delightful wineglass coolers are rare examples of the early success of the Saint-Cloud manufactory. The slight flaws in their firing and decoration only add to their charm and reveal the experimental delicacy of this newly discovered, fragile material.
The glass coolers are decorated with low-firing, transparent enamel colours in a simple palette of iron-red, blue, green, brown and yellow. This palette is particular to Saint Cloud; the delicate shades noticeably different from those used on Chinese, Japanese and Meissen porcelain of the time. The transparency of the enamels was due to their low levels of coloured oxides only able to be applied in flat blocks of colour, making subtlety of shading impossible. The decoration was taken straight from the repertoire of kakiemon motifs found on Japanese porcelains imported into Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth century. However, the combination of patterns, including the banded hedge, two quails and three friends of winter (bamboo, plum and pine) would never have been seen on an original Japanese object.
The glass coolers are based upon silverware forms, revealed in their gadrooning (bands of concave ridges) and sculptural baroque masks, notionally functioning as handles. They would have formed part of a dessert service used for the rinsing and chilling of glasses. Inventories of Madame de Pompadour’s possessions made after her death in 1764 reveal that she owned around forty-two Saint-Cloud wine coolers at her palace of Compiègne.
Amanda Dunsmore, Curator, Decorative Arts and Antiquities, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).