Though only produced for a short time, Chelsea porcelain was coveted by the wealthiest people in 18th-century society, from royalty to elite collectors. The V&A holds a world-leading collection of Chelsea porcelain, revered for its inventiveness and quality, including some unique and outstanding pieces.
Porcelain, a white ceramic material first created in China in the 6th century, is prized for its colour, translucency, extreme fineness and ability to hold boiling water. It is made by mixing a particular white clay (kaolin) and feldspathic rock (petunse) – raw materials found abundantly in China – which are then fired in the kiln to a very high temperature, around 1250°C to 1400°C, to form a strong and glassy white body. The mystery surrounding its manufacture meant that it was especially admired in Europe, where it was first introduced in the 14th century, and imported in large quantities from the 16th century.
As a material associated with luxury, Europeans wanted to imitate porcelain as well as import it, but this did not happen successfully until the 18th century, when alternative ingredients to kaolin and petunse were discovered. From the 1740s, a number of porcelain factories emerged across Britain in cities and towns such as London, Worcester, Derby, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Among these, one London-based producer, the Chelsea porcelain factory, unquestionably dominated the market for high-quality English porcelain, from its beginnings in the 1740s to its decline in the 1760s.
The Chelsea factory drew from a range of artistic influences led by the fashions of time, and was informed by brilliant and talented craftspeople. It was co-founded by the designer, goldsmith and entrepreneur Nicholas Sprimont (1716 – 71), who was born in Liège, in present-day Belgium, into a family of goldsmiths and jewellers. His background as a silversmith who had trained in Paris meant that he had an eye for quality and how best to produce it, as well as an awareness of the latest fashions in luxury goods. Thanks partly to Sprimont's artistic training and entrepreneurial flair, the porcelain produced at Chelsea could compete with the finest ceramics that were imported from China and Japan.
We hear that the China made at Chelsea is arriv'd to such perfection, as to equal if not surpass the finest old Japan.
Sprimont's surviving work in silver clearly shows his French training, expressing the so-called French 'Rococo' style, which is characterised by asymmetrical shapes and natural forms such as rocks and shells. A drawing by Sprimont for a lidded soup tureen in our collection demonstrates his imaginative approach to tableware, with its playful curved body and heavily plumed ostriches acting as the feet.
The similarities between Sprimont's works in silver, and those produced at Chelsea in porcelain, point to Sprimont having a direct hand in creating the products that came out of the factory in its early years. This is particularly clear from pieces such as the salt cellars made up of a shell perched on a rocky base, with an applied crayfish model. This design closely resembles a service with a marine theme that Sprimont produced for Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707 – 51) earlier in the 1740s – the strong natural forms and craggy modelling finding their perfect expression in the new Rococo style.
The Chelsea porcelain factory was also able to copy porcelain figures produced at Meissen in Germany. From around 1710, Meissen was the first factory in Europe to commercially produce porcelain of comparable quality to the Chinese and Japanese exports. In the early 1740s, Sprimont had negotiated access to a large collection of Meissen porcelain. Using this as a reference, Flemish sculptor Joseph Willems (1706 – 66), who was the principle modeller at Chelsea from 1748 to 1766, helped the factory to produce ornamental pieces that could rival Meissen figures in their modelling and decoration, and were just as commercially desirable.
Another highly regarded sculptor who is closely linked to the Chelsea factory is Louis-François Roubiliac (1702 – 62). Like Sprimont, Roubiliac had trained in Paris before he arrived in London in 1730, and was successful as a portrait sculptor, producing likenesses of leading cultural figures such as the musician George Frideric Handel. One of Roubiliac's more unusual commissions was a terracotta sculpture of Trump, the characterful pet pug dog belonging to painter William Hogarth. Trump features prominently in a self-portrait of the artist, which was then reproduced in porcelain by the Chelsea factory, presumably for fans of Hogarth's prints, as well as his companion.
One of the most sculpturally ambitious pieces of porcelain to be produced at Chelsea is the head of a laughing child, which has been suggested to be a portrait of Sophie Roubiliac, by her father, Louis-François. However, no autographed version exists to verify this. It is also thought the head could be a representation of the so-called pair of 'Laughing and Weeping philosophers', Heraclitus and Democritus, who have been depicted in various media including bronze. The catalogue drawn up for the sale of the contents of Roubiliac's studio in 1762 reveals a number of works in plaster that could have been moulds for the bronze and porcelain models; listed were a 'laughing boy', 'a young child' and 'a boy's head'.
In the middle of the 1750s, Chelsea was also producing highly popular tableware that exactingly imitated fruits and animals, in the tradition of trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) ceramics. The fashion for the French dining style (à la Française) where all dishes were placed on the table at once, proliferated across Europe in the 18th century, and tureens and dishes shaped as fruits, animals and vegetables became desirable as the ultimate table decorations. Chelsea were one of very few factories in Britain producing these types of ceramics, and contemporary catalogues show them being sold in huge quantities. The most popular shapes included apples, melons and artichokes, as well as larger sized tureens shaped like hens, rabbits and realistic fish.
The beginning of the Seven Years War in 1756 (a global conflict in which Britain and France led opposing groups of allied countries) marked another turning point in the factory's output. The town of Meissen was occupied by Prussia, so imports of porcelain from there quickly ceased, and the French porcelain factory of Sèvres took over as the leading taste-maker. The Chelsea factory immediately recognised this trend, and adapted by producing highly inventive Rococo porcelain that drew heavily on the key characteristics of Sèvres.
This period of production was known as the 'gold anchor' period, when all products were marked with a small anchor in gold. It saw some of Chelsea's most elaborate vase forms with inventive modelling – particularly on handles – as well as extravagant gilding and rich, detailed enamelling. There is a direct influence from Sèvres in France, particularly the deep-blue and gold vases which had become associated with the French factory. The complicated handles may have also been inspired by French gilt-bronze manufacturing, which was often used to mount existing ceramic objects in an effort to improve their appearance.
Around this time, Sprimont commissioned a painting showing himself, his wife Anne and her sister, Susannah Protin, who were also involved in the business. They are surrounded by a range of innovative ceramic products that were making Chelsea porcelain a huge success. On the table sits a 'pot-pourri' vase, pierced with holes to allow the scent of dried and perfumed flowers to fill a room, which was copied from a shape produced in France. On the floor closest to Sprimont's feet is a bottle-shaped vase painted with a glaze in a distinctive shade of green, referred to by Chelsea as 'pea-green', which quickly became fashionable. It is heavily reminiscent of Chinese ceramics, particularly those glazed in a deep jade green colour that became known as celadon. The vase in the painting closely matches an example in the V&A collection.
The wares depicted in the painting are all at varying stages of their decoration process. The 'pot-pourri' vase is completely white, suggesting it is still in its 'biscuit' form – when the clay has been fired to make it hard but is yet to be glazed and decorated. Comparing the bottle-shaped vase on the floor to the version in the V&A collection shows that it has its initial green glaze, but is awaiting the enamelled decoration of birds and foliage and the final gilding for extra finish. The only completely finished vase shown in the painting is the one which Susannah Protin hands to Sprimont. This one has its glaze, enamelling and gilding and perhaps is symbolic of the successful years that the factory envisaged ahead of them with this new take on Rococo porcelain.
Despite significant commissions, including some from royal patrons, the 1760s saw a slight decline in the quantities of wares produced at Chelsea. Sprimont's health suffered throughout most of the decade, and in 1769 a notice appeared which stated the intention to sell off all stock and equipment from the Chelsea factory. By 1770, the factory was in the hands of another ceramic entrepreneur, William Duesbury (1725 – 86) who had helped establish the porcelain factory in Derby. Duesbury successfully created a London market for Derby's products, benefitting from the existing reputation of Chelsea. He revived the annual auctions that had been so important to Chelsea's sales, and the two factories shared models, moulds, patterns and even workforces, attempting to keep the spirit of Sprimont's Chelsea alive for another decade. However, the taste for Chelsea's Rococo wares had faded and was being replaced by the rise of Neoclassical-style products, produced by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 95). 1784 saw the final public sale of Chelsea porcelain, and then the demolition of the factory buildings in Chelsea.