[Image: Sevres Exhibition 2014, Music Room. Photo © Jonathan Turner & Harewood House Trust
The 2014 Tour de France will see cyclists pass through the Harewood House estate during the Leeds Grand Départ. The response of this Yorkshire stately home is to promote their French connection by displaying their very impressive collection of French porcelain. The exhibition In Pursuit of the Exquisite: Royal Sèvres from Versailles to Harewood, opened by Lord Harewood David Lascelles and Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning actress Kristin Scott Thomas, runs from the 18th April until 2nd November. Anna Dewsnap, Head of House and Collections says they ‘couldn’t celebrate that year without our finest French collections’.
Harewood, a view from the South. © Harewood House Trust & Kippa Matthews
This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see over 100 Sèvres pieces on display together in Harewood. Sèvres porcelain is a beautiful art form and the epitome of French style and craftsmanship. It is coveted around the globe. Sèvres porcelain was founded by Louis XV of France who wished his nation to be the leader of European porcelain manufacture. His venture became highly successful, its products highly sought after by international royal clientele. The Tour de France will actually pass through the town of Sèvres during its progress through France.
This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Edward ‘Beau’ Viscount Lascelles, the avid collector of Sèvres who amassed the collection in the 17th century. Beau Lascelles, a great patron of the arts was a ‘regency dandy, a man about town’, says Dewsnap, ‘he was young, fashionable and very, very wealthy’. Beau went to France between 1802 and 1803 along with the other British who flocked at the opportunity to buy this famous porcelain which the French were selling, as the Revolution meant it was no longer wise for them to decorate their homes with objects connected to the royals, no matter how beautiful they were.
Dame Rosalind Savill, a Sèvres expert who has spent her career working with Sèvres and is a former director of the Wallace Collection in London, is co-curator of Harewood’s exhibition with Anna Dewsnap. Savill says the pieces in the collection of Sèvres at Harewood are ‘absolutely as spectacular’ as those in the Royal porcelain collection. ‘The quality of the glaze in these pieces is mind-blowing… just sensational, gorgeous’, says Savill, adding that everything on display has a ‘superlative detail and finish’.
The start of the exhibition casts you back in time through the senses. The Yellow Drawing Room has a dreamy variety of fine Sèvres flower vases, planted up with tulips and hyacinths; scenting the room wonderfully whilst showing exactly how they were used. The intention of creating In Pursuit of the Exquisite, I am told, was to show the porcelain as it would have originally been used, in appropriate rooms at Harewood, rather than taking a traditional chronological approach to its curation. This makes the exhibition clear and relevant for the visitor by showing the pieces in context. Savill says it is ‘really fun to see how things aren’t so removed’ from the 21st century when we can see and understand how objects were originally used.
The exhibition boasts a tea set from 1779, believed to have been owned by Marie Antoinette. Savill says, ‘you won’t see anything anywhere in the world like this apart from here’. The blue and gold tea set depicts peasant scenes and documents have been found which prove this belonged to the royal household (see below). There is also an extraordinary cup and saucer from 1759 in a style which the company only produced for Madame de Pompadour until her death. This cup has a unique spiral handle and, like its saucer, is glazed in bright blue with fine gilding surrounding columns of flowers which slightly twist around its surface, mimicking the twisting of the handle.
SèvreTea Service formally owned by Marie Antoinette. © Harewood House Trust
Even more technically impressive are the porcelain flowers.These are incredibly realistic, each manufactured bloom individually exquisite. Louis XVI and Madame de Pompadour were enamoured with these and between the 1740s and 1750s spent the equivalent of £1 million filling their home with them. Madame de Pompadour would often display them in Versailles scented with perfume to cheer up the king. Even if the highly decorative, arguably gaudy vases or tea sets with their busy pictorial scenes and intense gilding are not to your taste, the impressive naturalistic delicacy achieved in these flowers must unquestionably be appreciated. Savill’s interest in Sèvres is not simply in its artistic merit. She comments that the porcelain offers ‘not just a story about great aristocrats’, but also the workers that took such pains to produce such exquisite creations, ‘that’s why I find it so appealing’.
There are also two supporting contemporary art shows of Yesterday and Broken Memory which particularly complement the heritage of the Sèvres pieces and run until the 8th of June. Inspired by a handsome clock with Sèvres decorative panels from the exhibition, artist Dan Scott has produced a film installation. The clock, traced to 1783 with painter and kiln records, was also supposedly from the household of Marie Antoinette. Scott has responded to this with a dream-like sequence of a young Marie Antoinette speaking to the clock about her day, using material from a letter the queen wrote to her mother. Broken Memory, displaying work by Michelle Taylor and Livia Marin, cleverly rework everyday items of china into artworks (see below). Marin’s pieces appear partially melted onto their shelves with their patterns remaining intact, whereas Taylor deconstructs her ceramics while fusing textile segments into them.
© Livia Martin & Harewood House Trust
A few of the pieces of porcelain in the house’s original collection were moved from Harewood, some were even sold to the Louvre, but have been brought back together for the exhibition. Savill explains, ‘they’ve all had an extraordinary history and have come home in a way’. This exhibition offers a rare chance to see such a collection on display in full force, and is certainly not to be missed.
Harewood House – harewood.org
‘Yesterday’ exhibition – harewood.org/whats-on/event/yesterday/
‘Broken Memory’ exhibition – harewood.org/whats-on/event/broken-dreams/
Le Grand Depart – letour.yorkshire.com/the-grand-départ-2014
Filed under: Art & Photography