The Wallace Collection

Bulb Pot, one of a pair (piédestal ‘à oignon’) 1757-8
Treasure of the Month - April 2009

Bulb Pot, one of a pair (piédestal ‘à oignon’) 1757-8

Sèvres soft-paste porcelain, decorated with green-ground scrolls and a Greek-key pattern, painted with sprays of flowers by François Binet, op.1750-75, and gilded.

The rococo bought the garden indoors, and the Sèvres factory created ingenious designs for either porcelain or real flowers to decorate a room.  This model was introduced in 1756, at the very height of this fashion and also the same year as the royal factory at Vincennes moved to Sèvres and changed its name.  Already a range of flower vases had been designed to hold bouquets of porcelain flowers painted in naturalistic colours and mounted on green-painted metal stems. Sometimes the flowers were laced with their respective perfumes to increase the illusion of blooms being in season throughout the year.  Gradually new models emerged for growing plants, particularly the fan-shaped vase called Vase ‘hollandois’ (there are examples in this and the flanking cases in this room), where the upper part contained earth and the lower part provided a reservoir of water. But the notion of an individual bulb pot was very novel.
Here the sturdy baluster-shaped pot would have been filled with water and the bulb nestled in the circular fitting at the top.  It was probably intended for hyacinths, of the simpler variety than we grow today, with fewer bell-shaped flowers rising up a less-robust stem.  Today’s more elaborate flowers would no doubt have been too heavy even for this rather stumpy porcelain model.  The decoration of green scrolls is arranged to suggest arms of slender green leaves, not unlike hyacinth foliage, embracing a vertical central loop, reflecting the reality of the bud growing into a flower above.
Examples sold in the 1750s usually had a ground colour and were painted with flowers, children, cherubs, landscapes, birds, rustic scenes or trophies.  Prices ranged from 24 livres each when white with flowers to 192 livres for a turquoise-blue ground with children (our vase, maddeningly unidentifiable, would have been about 120 to 140 livres).  In comparison with Binet’s monthly salary this model was, as is so often the case with Sèvres, enormously expensive.  He only earned 24 livres a month when he arrived at the factory aged twenty in 1750, though this rose to 75 livres a month during the time he painted our pot. While he specialized in flower painting, the factory recorded that his skills were mediocre and with little hope of improvement.
The most intriguing version of this shape is a pair of 1760-1 in the Forsyth Wickes Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, where each side of both vases is painted with different decoration: rose ground with landscapes, green with rustic scenes, turquoise blue with flowers and blue with trophies.  Rather than representing a selection of designs for marketing purposes, it is far more tempting to conclude that as the vases were turned daily, to prevent the bulbs leaning over towards the light from a window, the owner took pride in appearing to have yet another pair of Sèvres vases to impress their friends.
Acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, probably in Paris, by 1865.

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2009.
Text by Rosalind Savill

Further Reading

  • Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain, 3 vols, 1988, 2, pp.106-9.