The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Treasure of the Month - July 2004

Cup and saucer Sèvres Soft-Paste Porcelain c.1778-80

Dark-blue (bleu nouveau) ground, painted with a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and with a trophy symbolic of relations between America and France and including an American-Indian head-dress. Gilded by Etienne-Henry Le Guay.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was American Envoy to the Court of France during the American War of Independence. He arrived in 1776 and became much loved while he waited patiently at Versailles, hoping to convince Louis XVI to recognise the American colonies' independence from Great Britain. But the King withheld his support until 1777 and finally received him at Versailles in March 1778. Franklin was a great statesman and scientific innovator, even dining at the Sèvres factory on 28 April 1777 and subsequently discussing the establishment of a technical school in America. He was also witty and unpretentious, beguiling the ladies at Court with his charm and untidy appearance, in stark contrast to the men they usually met at Versailles.

As a royal manufactory, Sèvres had to wait for Louis XVI's recognition of American independence before reproducing Franklin's image in porcelain. So not until 1778 could his portrait be introduced and in that year Sèvres acquired a plaster model, probably after Jean-Baptiste Nini, as the main source. Franklin was either painted as here in grisaille on cups and saucers, or sculpted in relief on small, white, biscuit-porcelain (unglazed) medallions. He was so thrilled with the results that he wrote to his daughter that his face was now 'as well known as that of the moon'.

Three painters were recorded decorating fifteen cups and saucers with Franklin's portrait between 1778 and 1780, making it difficult to identify the artist here though, luckily, the mark of the brilliant gilder Le Guay is on both the cup and the saucer. The quality of his work is typically fine, despite his having lost the use of his left hand many years earlier in a sword fight in 1745 at the Battle of Fontenoy. But he appears to have miss-spelt the inscription round the portrait (BINJAMIN FRANKLIN) until one learns of Franklin's own views on pronunciation. As Jennifer Stern has discovered, he chose to clip his vowels, in a South African manner, so that the inscription becomes a phonetic spelling of how he probably announced himself at Sèvres.

This rare cup and saucer (only four are known and no other has the missspelt name) was acquired by the Third Marquess of Hertford, who kept it in his Green Drawing Room at St. Dunstan's Villa in the Regent's Park, London (the site of the present American Ambassador's residence) until his death in 1842.