Thursday, 22 November 2012

Curiosity Shop #10

All that Glitters...


Pre-1900, before the sharp edges of Modernism simplified our consciousness, the world was steeped in a tradition of visual opulence. The Baroque and Rococo periods looked back to the classical age for ideal images of beauty and reinterpreted these in the most decorative of ways. They created a world that literally glittered in ostentation.

You only have to visit the Palace Versaille in the Paris sunshine to see a monument to ornamentation at its finest. At Versaille, the 18th century French aesthetic style transcends into otherworldly phenomenon. Just like the copious, gilt mounted furniture and objects that inhabit the interior, the palace itself is highlighted with tips of real gold, which make it shimmer and gleam in a most extraordinary way. Versaille is a prime example where the more extreme and lavish the display of ornamentation, the more power the monarchy seemed to portray. Religious ritual power and political autonomy seemed to shine out of the most elaborate monument to wealth the world had ever seen.

From Versaille's glittering exterior to the furniture within, gilt mounts (called Ormolu) adorned almost everything to create a powerful visual effect or √©clat. As candlelight danced over such an 18th century interior, the gilt mounts and frames glowed with an enchanting golden reflection that lit up an entire room. 

A fabulous example of a golden 18th century interior in London is the Wallace Collection pictured in the first image above and directly below. The Wallace Collection was established between about 1760 and 1880 by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. They amassed an incredible collection of 18th century art and furniture which now exists as a public museum.

As trade between Europe and Asia boomed in the 18th century, porcelain and objects from the East became increasingly sought after. That these objects had travelled from far and distant lands made them all the more desireable.The vogue for Asian objects increased as people found their presence in interiors exotic and fascinating. 

Ormolu mounts were added to porcelain and furniture to satisfy the Rococo taste for gilt and glitz. While the unusual beauty of these Eastern objects was appreciated, their aesthetic was essentially Europeanised to suit French taste.

This pair of of gilt-bronze-mounted Chinese celadon vases aux tritons, with mounts attributed to Pierre Gouthi√®re (1732-1813) sold at the Sotheby'sTreasures, Princely Taste sale in London on 4 July 2012 well above their estimate of £150,000-300,000 for a staggering £577,250.

The combination of faultlessly crafted ormolu mounts and Chinese porcelain designed and painted to perfection makes them an incredibly rare and sought after pair.

Design for a Mounted Chinese Vase, ca. 1750-1785

Porcelain had an almost mythic quality in the 18th century. This was in part due to the secret recipe which the Chinese had hidden from the French for years. How porcelain was actually made and what it comprised had puzzled Europeans for centuries. Before discovering the chemical composition of porcelain there were many theories that proposed it evolved organically - it was even thought it may have been created from shells. Such notions were prevalent because for a long time after porcelain was manufactured in the late 6th century, China held the monopoly on its production. Its secret recipe provoked myth making to ensue. It was not until the 1760s that France discovered the essential component of porcelain, kaolin, which meant that true, hard-paste porcelain could be manufactured.

The recipe for porcelain manufacture was contained in the letters of the Jesuit priest Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles (1664-1741), who resided and worked at the Chinese centre for porcelain manufacture, Jingdezhen. After spying on the process he wrote letters back to France on accounts of Chinese ceramic practices.[1]

[1] These letters, written in in 1712 and 1722, were in turn published in Paris in 1717 and 1722 and were then incorporated in Jean Baptiste Du Halde's Description geographique de l'empire de la Chine, Paris, 1735.

This pair of Chinese porcelain vases with French gilt-bronze mounts, ca. 1740–50 can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The typically Rococo mounts with scrolling fronds and central cartouches hide the fact that these blue-green celadon vases have been cut down and reduced before being mounted. The Chinese character shou, which means long life, is in low relief on their body.

Like the Met example above the watery, translucent glaze of this ewer from the Wallace Collection is contextualised in oceanic imagery as it was set in gilt-bronze mounts that are bulrushes, shells and algae - perhaps an allusion to the myths of porcelains organic origins that perpetuated in the 18th century.

In the 18th century it was popular to display such ewers en garniture. Garniture usually adorned chimney places and was typically produced in odd-numbered sets, as it was believed that this was most pleasing to the eye. Most commonly comprised of three items but sometimes sets of five, types of vessels included clocks, vases, pitchers or ewers, as well as urns.

The Queens Chamber, Versaille

Gilt-mounted porcelain was just one component that made up the Rococo interior. However, it remains one of the most intriguing adornments. The dual components of gilt-mounted porcelain, Eastern ceramics and Western gilt-bronze, make them visually complex and provocative objects. This geographical and material dichotomy enables them to provoke questions of place, belonging and even cultural power within the framework of 18th century decorative arts.  

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