British majolica guru Nicolaus Boston reflects on an important piece of French art gracing the foyer of Senate House, which houses the School of Advanced Study and the administrative centre of the University of London.  

‘Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.’ I was reminded of this famous quote used by Winston Churchill in his address at the British academy of Art in 1953 when I recently saw a magnificent and monumental Sèvres porcelain vase displayed at Senate House in London.

Wondering why this important piece of French art had not ended up in one of the capital’s major museum, the plaque at its base made me understand its historical significance. According to the inscription, the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts presented this stunning exhibition vase to the University of London (UoL) in June 1908 to celebrate UoL’s relationship with the College of France.

It symbolises Churchill’s call for continued tradition and innovation in art on today’s Europe, and celebrates the tradition of France holding high esteem for Britain. France has historically given Sèvres porcelain to other nations as a gift of their proudest artistic manufactured decorative art and a huge gesture of respect.

Since 1756, Sèvres porcelain has enjoyed world acclaim. Being the leading porcelain factory of the time in Europe Sèvres retained its popularity because the factory worked for the commission and production of royal and diplomatic gifts, as well as for direct purchases by royal families and the aristocracy.

Monarchs and leaders across the Western world looked to France for their important commissions and major purchases and Sèvres was the preeminent choice for porcelain. For instance, Catherine the Great, who ordered a fabulous service from Sèvres in 1776, favoured it.

It was also supported by Marie Antoinette. In 1784, she ordered a sumptuous service decorated with roses, faux pearls and pansies in medallions, on a carmine ground. Although the Queen intended to use it at Versailles, upon its completion Louis XVI gave it to Gustav III as a diplomatic gift commemorating the Swedish king’s visit. Unused to self-sacrifice, the French queen did not wait long for her own replacement service in the same pattern. Also, in 1782 Louis-Philippe de Bourbon, duc de Chartes, ordered an elaborate bleu celeste service for the common-law wife of his friend, Nathaniel Parker Forth, British Special Envoy to France.

In recent history, France presented the US with two Sèvres vases as a token of ‘sisterly gratitude’ for America’s favourable reception of the Viviani-Joffre Mission and ‘timely help’ in World War I on September 24, 1918.

This vase also represents the novelty of the Anglo – Franco porcelain relationship. With the advent of the art nouveau (‘new art’) style at the end of the 19th century, Sèvres pieces took inspiration from organic forms of the natural world.

Depicting that style, the Senate House vase displays the delicate balance of sophisticated use of nature in the form of birds drawn in modern Japanese style, which is a classic example of French innovation in porcelain and can be appreciated as the most important pieces of art nuevo held in Britain today. This French technique highly inspired the British potters who embraced this design concept.

With Brexit looming, a hope to continue Churchill’s legacy towards collaborative art should be shared. Backed by tradition and innovation, many Anglo-Franco partnerships in the field of art should be prioritised to keep a shepherd over this flock of sheep.

Nicolaus Boston is a British majolica expert who has been lecturing, writing about and acting as a curatorial adviser to world’s major museums on 19th century porcelain manufacturers. His forthcoming contribution in this field is his participation as a curatorial adviser to a Majolica Exhibit that is taking place in 2020 organised by the Bard Graduate Centre in New York. He is one of the authors of the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue.