A pair of Meissen Mayblossom vases with gilt bronze mounts, 1740-49.
These vases (catalogue numbers F103-4) were made in Saxony in the 1740s, at the Meissen factory. It was the first European factory to make ‘true’ (hard-paste) porcelain in the first decade of the 18th century. Apart from two small cups in the Augsburg Service, these vases are the only pieces of Meissen in the Wallace Collection. Fittingly enough, it is thought that they were diplomatic gifts to France, so although not French, have a very strong French connection, both stylistically and in terms of provenance.
The vases were mounted in gilt bronze in France to form ewers and bear a mark, a crowned c, which is a tax mark employed on any alloy containing copper between March 1745 and February 1749. Numerous comparable examples with reserves showing scenes after Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) or similar are mounted in gilt bronze, more often than not, bearing French marks. They may have been made at Meissen in order to be mounted, rather than being made as complete objects and subsequently mounted by a marchand- mercier (a decorative arts dealer).
These examples have often been referred to as snowball vases, an exuberant design where the body of a vase is covered by hundreds of tiny cup shaped white flowers (schneeballendekor) in high relief, with balls of blossoms, birds and insects. More properly they belong to a subset of the snowball vase called mayflower vases as the flowers lie flat to the body of the vase. On other vases the flowers have been painted blue and called forget-me-nots!
This type of decoration is thought to have been invented by Johann Joachim Kändler (1706 -1775), a genius of sculpture, who was responsible for Meissen’s amazingly imaginative and flamboyant output from the 1730s onwards. Scenes after Watteau were first used on Meissen porcelain in the 1740s, reflecting the widespread taste in Europe for the ‘French style’. A large stock of French prints from which the 18th-century porcelain painters copied designs are still in the Meissen factory archive today.
Vases of this size and monumentality were not available for purchase from the factory. Rather, they were meant for royalty, or for diplomatic gifts given by or on behalf of royalty. It is looking increasingly likely that these vases and others like them were made specifically to be given as diplomatic gifts to the French, more specifically still around the time when the Dauphin, Louis (1729-65), the eldest son of Louis XV, had been widowed. The Saxon court was seeking to persuade the French that princess Maria-Josepha (1731-1767) should marry him, thus forming an alliance between Saxony and France. These vases are thought to have been given along with their garniture (a missing centrepiece and two smaller ewers) to Jean Paris de Monmartel (1690-1766) who was the extremely influential godfather to Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress. In the event, such lavish porcelain ploys must have worked their magic, for Maria-Josepha did indeed become Dauphine in 1747.
Mia Jackson will discuss these vases on Monday 9 and Monday 30 November at 1pm.
Maureen Cassidy-Geiger (ed), Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts, Yale, 2007.
Peter Hughes, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1996, Volume III, cat.278, pp.1353-61.
© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2009. Text by Mia Jackson.