When I am planning literary design adventures, I look for experiences that give me the feeling of transcendence—encounters during which I am conscious of having one foot in the past and one in the future. One of the strongest examples of this I have had to date took place during a trip to the Bernardaud factories in Limoges, France, when I had the opportunity to see raw and finished pieces in the company’s Historic Table Collection. One of the patterns I was most excited to see was the porcelain service designed for Marie-Antoinette when she was queen.
Produced expressly for her by the Royal Sèvres Manufactory, the cornflower pattern was originally delivered to Versailles on January 2, 1782. The images above and below are of newly produced pieces in this collection, each festooned with the flower that was favored by the Queen because the color of its petals matched her eyes. The memoirists of her era note that she was fond of picking them on the grounds at Petit Trianon, making bouquets of the blossoms for her rooms. I read recently that only two of the original pieces from this dinnerware service have survived—one in the collection of artifacts at Versailles and one in the Louvre Museum’s archives.
My Porcelain Bucket List
Though the Bernardaud pieces are newly minted, the fact that we have the opportunity to set our tables just as the Queen’s table was set is historic preservation at its most dynamic. Think of all of the industries that have ceased to create products in the same way they were produced when quality and sumptuousness were of the utmost importance, and you will understand why this continuation of design excellence matters so much to me.
When I flew to France, I knew I would be seeing the Marie-Antoinette service, which I have featured here in the past, but there was a surprise in store for me in Limoges—I found there a handful of pieces in La Laiterie de Rambouillet service that included the bol-sein, which was produced to emulate the shape of Marie-Antoinette’s breasts. I’d known about the piece of French history for decades and had only seen it behind glass in an exclusive boutique. Suddenly, I was holding a colorful version of the graceful composition in my own hands!
During the tour, I learned that each of the historical patterns originally created for the members of the ancien régime were brought into the Bernardaud product line when the company acquired the Ancienne Manufacture Royale in 1986. By offering exact reproductions of original 18th– and 19th-century museum pieces, they are preserving a portfolio of treasures that belongs to France’s extremely rich cultural heritage. The company is also perpetuating the skills of porcelain craftspeople by continuing to produce these time-honored pieces in tandem with avant-garde designs like Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog.
La Laiterie de Rambouillet
After seeing the beautiful offerings in the Rambouillet service, I wanted to learn more about the origin of the collection. I found the perfect book that detailed how the porcelain pieces came to be in the Currey & Company library, which is such a treasure trove of design that is being realized through a collaboration between Brownlee Currey and Clare Jameson of Potterton Books. Titled Garden Pavilions and the 18th Century French Court, the book, by Eleanor P. DeLorme, has an entire chapter devoted to La Laiterie de la Reine at Rambouillet, a project by Louis XVI to entice Marie-Antoinette to one of his favorite hunting lodges.
He bought the estate from his cousin, the Duc de Penthièvre, in 1783, and set about updating the château, which began its life as a fortified manor in 1368, and building a dairy that he knew would delight his wife. The property has deep historical significance attached to it: King Francis I died in the château on March 31, 1547; and during the reign of Louis XIII, it was owned by Charles d’Angennes, the marquis de Rambouillet. In case the name sounds familiar to you, his wife was the noted hostess Madame de Rambouillet whose life and salon inspired The Modern Salonière platform I launched earlier this year.
It would be a century and a half after the Rambouillets called the château home before the King’s brilliant idea would begin to take shape on the grounds surrounding it. “Knowing Marie-Antoinette’s fondness for her Dairy at Versailles, Louis decided secretly to build another for her at Rambouillet, and one that would make the Dairy at Trianon pale by comparison,” DeLorme writes. “The plans were confided to a protégé of the Comte d’Angiviller, the architect J.-J. Thévenin, who was equal to the task of designing a structure that was at once impressive, self-contained, and—by virtue of its thick stone walls—capable of retaining the cool temperatures required to conserve perishable dairy products.”
The King kept the project a secret until June of 1787 when he unveiled it in all its completed glory. “Marie-Antoinette was ceremoniously led into the little round brick building which looked purely utilitarian, but after crossing the foyer, she stepped into a rotunda that might have occurred in the classical world,” DeLorme explains. “It appeared to be of cut stone with friezes carved in bas-relief, but it had in fact been painted in trompe-l’oeil.”
The artistry was the work of Piat-Joseph Sauvage, an accomplished specialist in grisailles, who was chosen as the official painter of the Prince de Condé, and then by Louis XVI and the royal family. DeLorme declares the treatments are so convincing that one must study them carefully to comprehend that Sauvage achieved the effects entirely with paint. Complementing this classicism inside the rotunda is a tableau vivant that terminates the rectangular room. The rocky grotto envelopes a sculpture created by Pierre Julien depicting the nymph Amalthea and her goat. Tendrils of ivy dangle above her and streams of water flow around her to fill a dark pool at her feet.
The smoothness of the walls in this space are interrupted by a high dado over which are placed two wide, shallow panels in bas-relief portraying mythological subjects. The only touch of color is on the doors that lead into the rectangular salon, which have been painted a lovely grey-blue and adorned with gilded crowns of oak leaves. The color combination and the motifs epitomize the sophistication of the Classical Era.
An innovative suite of mahogany furniture for the Dairy was designed by Hubert Robert, whose classical training in Rome put him in the company of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the creator of some of the most famous etchings of the ruins at Pæstum that have ever been realized. Robert was so taken by Piranesi’s drawings of this archeological site on the Gulf of Salerno south of Naples that he was given the nickname Robert des ruines by other young artists studying with him!
Robert chose the ébéniste Georges Jacob, one of the finest cabinetmakers of the late eighteenth century, to build the pieces he had designed. “Jacob was a great innovator of forms, and his furniture was always in perfect accord with the mood of an interior,” DeLorme explains, adding that Jacob chose dark, rich mahogany as his main material because it was highly favored in France at the time due to the fact it tonally resembled bronze.
“One can only imagine the chill pagan beauty of the original composition, embellished with perhaps the finest sculptural ensemble of the period by Julien and his atelier, all in place by the spring of 1787,” DeLorme writes. Her statement “one can only imagine” is telling because she’s referring to the fact that missing furnishings and art mean the complete composition is no longer in place. Both the sculptures and the furniture were keenly important because the purpose of the dairy was to provide courtiers with an experience on par with ones the ancients would have had when enjoying the milk, cheese, butter and cream they produced in their dairies.
Playing at Being Milk Maids
“The banal statement has too often been made that the Queen and her ladies were ‘playing at being milkmaids,’” DeLorme notes, “but to see the preoccupation with dairies in these terms was patently absurd, as the Rambouillet Laiterie imagery bears out.” One look at the classical milieu proves that the design narrative was born from a desire to emulate antiquity, a preoccupation of the highest echelons of society during the era when the Dairy was built.
As a crowning touch, Louis XVI commissioned La Laiterie de la Reine Sèvres service, which was designed by the Queen’s bélvèdere Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, the artistic director of the Sèvres Manufactory at the time. Originally numbering 50 pieces, the designs were inspired by antique vases the King purchased in 1786 from Dominique Vivant-Denon’s collection. Though these vases were Greek, architects, artists and ceramists at the time referred to them as Etruscan.
The original La Laiterie de la Reine collection included vases, bowls, cups and saucers, shallow vessels embellished with cows and calves, and milk pails in faux bois festooned with the heads of rams. The original pieces that have survived are housed in the National Ceramics Museum in Sèvres, France. This suburb of Paris is now solidly on my bucket list!
Here is how DeLorme describes my favorite item in the collection: “Combining a dairy motif with one taken from antiquity were four bols-sein—bowls of translucent, delicate, milky-white porcelain modelled upon the Queen’s breast, resting upon goats’ heads that form a tripodal base, a delicate tribute to the Queen as mother of her people.” A white porcelain version with 24-carat gold gilding (shown below) is available in the US through Les Ateliers Courbet in New York City. This is a remarkable boutique/gallery that I visited while I was in NYC last week. I’ve been a fan of Melanie Courbet’s since she opened the shop several years ago because everything she curates is simply exquisite.
The original La Laiterie de la Reine service was produced by the Sèvres Manufactory just two years before the French Revolution, making it a late embodiment of luxury that set the royals and their courtiers apart before the fall of the ancien régime. Having this example of sumptuousness helps me to visually comprehend how it would have felt to be so richly adorned in formality in every sense of the word, as do paintings produced during that era—manifestations I believe bring the history of design to life.
Take Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Fête at Rambouillet for instance, which depicts a group of formally dressed courtiers who have gathered on decorated barges on the grounds of the château de Rambouillet for a picnic. It was commissioned by the Duc de Penthièvre to record a party he hosted in honor of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette a little over three years before they would own the estate.
Both the Duc and the King left legacies on the property in the form of grottos and follies that serve as exemplars of architectural and design storytelling. Along with La Laiterie de la Reine, the Chaumière des Coquillages is nestled into the estate. The interiors of the latter serve as an exemplar of shell-encrusted artistry built by the Duc for his daughter-in-law, the Princesse de Lamballe. Tours of the estate cost 9 Euros, and I bet you can guess who will be on one at some point in the not too distant future!
The Modern Salonnière and My Porcelain Bucket List © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.