Sèvres Ewer & Tray, 1854
Published May 27, 2020
As we begin to take the first steps in the process of safely emerging from this period of self-isolation, reuniting with friends, family, and community is an exciting prospect for all. This ewer and tray, intended to display together as a set, were once separated for years before being reunited at the Wadsworth.
Made in France and inspired by Indian and Turkish designs seen on display at an international exhibition in London, this set is the product of globalization in the mid-nineteenth century. The artistic director of the Sèvres porcelain factory, Jules-Pierre-Michel Diéterle was inspired to design this ewer, called buire indienne à incrustations (Indian-style ewer with incrustations), after visiting the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. He was impressed by Indian Moghul art, including inlaid silver wares and enameled and jeweled metalwork. Among the works displayed in the Indian section was a distinctive silver two-handled urn, chosen by Diéterle as the inspiration for the shape of the buire indienne. Diéterle was inventive in creating the decoration of the buire, combining aesthetics of both Indian and Iznik (a town in Turkey that was an important production center of ceramics in the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries) designs. While the overall vegetal patterns are reminiscent of those found on Mughal floor coverings, the palette and specific elements of the design are more Iznik-inspired, notably the long, serrated saz leaves, a common motif on Iznik pottery from the sixteenth century.
Calling the Sèvres version of this ewer a buire, (the verb buire means to drink,) is a misnomer–it is an entirely decorative rather than functional vessel. The crane handles are solid, not working spouts, and the neck is almost sealed so no liquid could be held inside. The body was made in multiple parts, joined together by gilt-bronze mounts. It was slip cast, with the primary polychrome decoration painted with slip into the paste before firing. The pieces then underwent a series of firings between glazing, enameling, and gilding–a labor intensive process involving high levels of craftsmanship.
In a somewhat surprising mingling of styles, the factory paired the buire indienne with an incrusted, Persian-style tray (plateau incrusté ou persan) that had probably been designed at the beginning of 1851. The inspiration for the plateau is much less ambiguous; the design clearly resembles mid-sixteenth-century Iznik tiles with stenciled patterns that decorated mosques and other buildings throughout the Ottoman world. The decoration technique used for this tray was also complicated and even more labor intensive than that of the buire. The design would have been incised on the model, appearing in reverse on the mold, into which white paste was pressed and transferred to the object, appearing in low relief. From this point a worker carved the design and then lay in the colored paste or thick colored slip and smoothed the entire surface–a painstaking process. Work records show that it usually took sixty eight hours to make.
The Sèvres factory made four sets of these models, two in white and two with a pale green background. Three of the sets, perhaps including this one, were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. The white set now at the Wadsworth was given to an unknown recipient on the occasion of the baptism of Louis-Napoléon, the Prince Imperial, in October 1856. When the ewer was purchased for the collection in 2005, the whereabouts of the tray was unknown. After listening to a lecture on the set in London in 2011, a dealer found the missing tray at a small, country auction and sold it to the Wadsworth, resulting in a happy reunion.